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February 14 was a landmark date for general manager Bob Gebhard, and not just because that was the day the Rockies pitchers and catchers reported to camp. "I smoked for 31 years, and by the end I was up to at least three packs a day," says Gebhard. "It was time to quit, and I figured Valentine's Day was a good day to start."
Gebhard could be forgiven if he felt the urge to light up a celebratory smoke this spring. The off-season, highlighted by the signing of free-agent righthander Darryl Kile and an expansion-draft-day trade that delivered second baseman Mike Lansing from the Expos, was the busiest and most productive in Colorado's six-year history. Their expansion cousins in Florida may have won the World Series in 1997, but it is the Rockies, not the stripped-down Marlins, who have a real chance to be around at the end of this season.
They should be, because the problems that plague other teamsunstable or tight-fisted ownership, dire need of a new stadium, a shaky fan baseare nonexistent in Denver. The Rockies have led the majors in attendance in every season of their existence, have 35,000 season-ticket holders, are among baseball's top five clubs in merchandising revenue and will benefit this season from a new $150 million local television deal. "Denver has everything you could want as a player," says Kile, a 19-game winner in Houston last year. "Great city, great ballpark, great fans and ownership that's willing to do whatever it takes to put a contender on the field."
Colorado's .486 winning percentage over its first five seasons is the highest ever for an expansion team. This spring the Rockies have had to fill holes left by the departure of two veterans who helped establish the franchise: first baseman Andres Galarraga (replaced by rookie slugger Todd Helton) and shortstop Walt Weiss (replaced by Neifi Perez, whom manager Don Baylor compares to Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio).
"We should be a team that can perennially contend because we have a good farm system that is contributing now and, with the fan support we have, we can play the free-agent market," says Jerry McMorris, the Rockies' trucking-magnate owner. "Put that together with a great place to live and a sellout every night, and we've got our own set of lures to help bring players in here."
Persuading offensive stars to settle down in Denver has never been difficult, but before Kile's arrival a frontline pitcher volunteered to work in the homer-happy atmosphere of Coors Field about as often as Oprah sits down to a steak dinner. Signing Kile was a big step toward reversing that trend, which is why the Rockies were willing to overpay for him. "We knew we might have to, but he was the guy we wanted," says Gebhard. "It tells our pitchers and other pitchers out there that if you have good stuff and believe in yourself, you can pitch in Coors Field."
If that lesson can be learned by a crop of young, talented and homegrown pitchers, the Rockieswho have never had a starter finish the season with an ERA lower than 4.00may not have to dip back into the free-agent pool to shore up their staff anytime soon. Possible starters Jamey Wright, 23, John Thomson, 24, and Roger Bailey, 27, are three of the gems of the deep farm system that has also pumped out Perez and Helton.
Patience in developing talent and a willingness to spend money to keep it have been the signature of almost every successful pro franchise. Colorado is on the verge of joining that elite group. "I've always told our ownership that as a new franchise, we want to try to develop like the 49ers," says Baylor. "An organization that is in it for the long haulas a player, that's where you want to be."
It's an approach that could test Gebhard's willpower. Some October very soon, he could be forced to take a long pull on a victory cigar.
by Stephen Cannella
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