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Loose ball

Smiles abound at relaxed Rockies camp

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Posted: Thursday February 22, 2001 11:06 AM
Updated: Thursday February 22, 2001 12:01 PM


Throughout spring training, will feature regular dispatches from Sports Illustrated staffers assigned to scout camps in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues.

By Stephen Cannella, Sports Illustrated

TEAM: Colorado Rockies

SITE: Tucson, Ariz.

WEATHER: Sunny, cloudless, low 70s

PLAYER I SAW WHOM I REALLY LIKED: Juan Pierre. The 23-year-old speedster hit .310 in 51 games as a rookie last year and has all but been handed the Rockies' starting center field job, but there he was after the team's first full-squad workout, getting in extra work and grinding like a nobody just hoping to stick in major league camp. Pierre is in Larry Walker's hitting group and he spent most of the day at the star veteran's side; Walker said after the workout that he'd already begun occasionally whispering pearls of wisdom into Pierre's ear. While most of his teammates showered, ate or recovered from their fitness-test shuttle run, Pierre headed to a side field with coaches Dave Collins and Dallas Williams to work on his bunting. Oh yeah, he also sat down for a TV interview and took time to sign a bunch of autographs. Is Pierre ready to play every day for a full season? Time will tell, but one day into camp he showed that lack of eagerness and effort won't be his downfall.


Wednesday was the Rockies' first full-squad workout, and it would be hard to find a more optimistic and ebullient team as spring training begins in earnest. The giddiness that followed GM Dan O'Dowd's offseason splurge on starters Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle has obviously carried over: The Rockies giggled their way through their first practice. Strength coach Brad Andress had players in stitches as they ran through a pre-workout stretching session: He loudly rode rookie pitcher Tim Christman for losing his temper on the golf course the day before, asked baby-faced catcher Ben Petrick to provide a daily Team Beat gossip report (today's dish: the Backstreet Boys are playing in Phoenix March 12) and tried to force pitcher Tsao Chin-Hui to sing the Japanese national anthem. Tsao politely declined, saying he could only do it in front of a flag. (Any doubt that Rockies clubhouse attendants spent the rest of Wednesday scouring Tucson for a Japanese flag?)

There were smiles between the lines as well. Hampton, who tweaked a calf muscle his first day in camp and spent the last week doing very little, threw for 20 minutes off a bullpen mound. He was a bit erratic, especially with his breaking pitches, but what was important was that his leg looked fine. Newcomer Ron Gant, whom the Rockies desperately need to provide power in a lineup of line-drive hitters, launched several rockets during BP and came close to taking out a few cars that had foolishly been parked just beyond the outfield fence of Field 1. At one point Gant sent a shot out to straightaway left field -- hitting flat-footed. A good omen at the start of spring training.

The rest of the day was devoted to various first-official-day housecleaning activities: physicals, meetings, etc. Outside the Rockies' clubhouse a representative from the Rawlings company set up shop with a vanful of gloves; players drifted over to try on new models and place orders for the season. And after practice Andress presided over the dreaded shuttle run, in which every player had to finish a half-mile in an allotted time (times varied by position). Everyone on the team passed, but not without causalities: Several players spent multiple minutes gasping for air on the outfield grass, and in the clubhouse the word "hyperventilate" could be heard emanating from conversations around the room.

As Neagle sauntered out of the clubhouse a teammate shouted to him, "Hey Denny, stay in touch with yourself." The notoriously goofy Neagle laughed and responded, "I always do." We don't know what it meant, but that doesn't matter: On the first official day of camp, the smile is what's important.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Stephen Cannella will check in periodically with reports from his tour of spring camps.

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