3. Colorado Rockies
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As usual, precarious pitching will be saved by hitting, which may be even better
By Josh Elliott
"I say hello, and this guy starts in, saying he's John Smith, a columnist with the Denver Post," says Hampton (who then explains that the caller didn't actually use the name John Smith but rather an unprintable moniker). "He's calling to see what my chances are of signing with Colorado. For a second, I'm thinking, What the...? until it hits me. So I say, 'Neagle?'"
Sure enough, on the other end Denny Neagle, the newest Rockie and baseball's preeminent court jester, let fly a maniacal laugh. The two pitchers had met only a handful of times, but Neagle, who had signed a five-year, $51.5 million deal with Colorado the day before, made his first pitch as a Rockie directly to Hampton. As Neagle recalls, "I just said, 'Look, I would love to be your teammate, and I think that if you come here, we can get to the World Series.' I think he appreciated the call, and he told me that things were close. Later, when I heard he signed, I was -- we all were -- shocked, but in a good way."
When Hampton signed a then record eight-year, $121 million contract four days after the phone call, Colorado's playoff expectations shot a mile high, and with good reason. Offense has never been a problem in Denver, but Coors Field has undone Rockies pitchers for almost a decade (see Kile, Darryl). The signing of Hampton, coupled with Neagle's arrival, gives Colorado its best starting rotation in the team's nine-year history and reason to think it can challenge for the division crown. "When those two signed, it made me want to be here," says veteran outfielder Ron Gant, who signed on Dec. 10, a day after Hampton. "They don't care where they have to pitch. They have no fear. To get one of those guys is great, but to get both?"
Hampton was in a similar position with the Mets a year ago, expected to be a difference maker after going 22-4 and leading the Astros to the playoffs in 1999. But he initially blinked in the face of those expectations; at April's end he had a 2-4 record, a 6.48 ERA and, he admits, little control of himself on the mound. But he rebounded with a 4-0 mark in May, helped lead New York to the postseason and was named the League Championship Series MVP. As the pitched battle for his services bled into December, he narrowed the field to St. Louis and Colorado. His final meeting with the Rockies, combined with wife Kautia's newfound love for the Denver area, sealed the deal. If any pitcher has the repertoire to succeed in Coors Field, it's Hampton, 28, whose diving cut fastball and power sinker should keep the ball on the ground and out of the thin Colorado air. "People make a big deal of pitching here," says Hampton, "but I wouldn't have come here if I didn't think I'd succeed."
Fellow lefty Neagle brings a different pitching style but a similar history of success. Neagle, who has an 89-47 record over the last six years, is a control pitcher who mixes a superior changeup with a nibbling fastball. It's of little concern to him that he's also a fly ball pitcher in a homer-friendly ballpark. "I like hearing that you can't pitch effectively here," he says. "That fires me up. Changing from the Blake Street Bombers to a team focused on speed, defense and pitching is the way to go. Mike's the key, and I think we'll take the pressure off each other."
One afternoon in early March first baseman Todd Helton looked on as Neagle tortured a reporter with his deafeningly realistic rendition of a locomotive's whistle. Meanwhile, Hampton sat quietly in the trainer's room, lost in thought. "With those guys," Helton said, motioning to Colorado's generous new helpings of levity and fire, "things are different here. In the past we acted surprised when we won. We won't anymore."
Issue date: March 26, 2001