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Mile-High Pressure
Stephen Cannella
February 21, 2000
Colorado's Jeff Cirillo is already driven, but he might feel even more heat as the key to the Rockies' transformation
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February 21, 2000

Mile-high Pressure

Colorado's Jeff Cirillo is already driven, but he might feel even more heat as the key to the Rockies' transformation

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Breakfast, we learned as schoolchildren, is the most important meal of the day, and Jeff Cirillo takes the maxim seriously. It's shortly before the Colorado Rockies' new third baseman, acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers on Dec. 13, is due to report to spring training in Tucson on Feb. 23, and he and his wife, Nancy, and their sons, two-year-old Cole and three-month-old Carson, are spending the morning in a rustic-looking cafe near their off-season home in Redmond, Wash. Jeff and Nancy are discussing their upcoming hunt for a house to rent in Denver. "Hopefully we can get a place like we had in Milwaukee," Jeff says between forkfuls of French toast and sausage. "We had a two-block walk to a great breakfast spot. Almost every morning we would get up, put Cole in the stroller, stretch our legs and get something to eat. It was a very, very good setup."

It was so good that Cirillo tried to re-create it when the Brewers were on the road. Instead of sleeping in, ordering room service and then heading to the ballpark, as so many players do, Cirillo would bounce out of bed early, ride an exercise bike in the hotel workout room and then convene one or two teammates for the morning meal. "For four years it was always me and [second baseman] Mark Loretta, and last season we added [leftfielder] Geoff Jenkins; it was the poor man's version of Michael Jordan's Breakfast Club," says Cirillo, referring to the morning weightlifting sessions His Airness used to host for teammates at his house. "I hate sitting around. I like to get my day started."

Even if Cirillo finds a quaint breakfast nook in Colorado and a Rockies breakfast bunch on the road, there won't be much else that resembles his days with the Brewers. As the centerpiece of a four-team, nine-player trade that delivered him and Tampa Bay Devil Rays righthander Rolando Arrojo to Denver and sent Rockies third baseman Vinny Castilla to the Devil Rays, Cirillo crossed baseball's economic spectrum overnight. After six years with small-payroll Milwaukee, Cirillo, 30, joins a team with a state-of-the-art stadium, rabid fans and a free-spending owner who expects his team to stay in the pennant race long past Aug. 1.

It's a sudden shove into the spotlight for the six-year veteran. Last season, despite leading National League third basemen in hitting (.326), finishing third best in the league in hits (198) and playing his usual stellar defense, Cirillo continued to fly under most fans' radar. Now, however, he is the poster boy for Colorado general manager Dan O'Dowd's retooling of the Rockies, who finished last in the National League West in '99 with a 72-90 record. O'Dowd has taken what looked like a slo-pitch softball team and rebuilt it around defense, speed and timely hitting.

Since taking over in September, in fact, O'Dowd has gutted the Rockies' roster, trading such fan favorites as Castilla and outfielder Dante Bichette and importing 17 new faces. "We identified the type of player we wanted to add to our lineup: someone whose on-base-and slugging-percentage sum was elite for the position he played [ Cirillo's figure, .862, was better than Castilla's by 53 points] and someone who's consistently a tough out," says O'Dowd, who has certainly noted Cirillo's .375 average in 48 career at bats at Coors Field. "Jeff never gives away any at bats, and that breeds a certain type of hitting on the club in general."

However, O'Dowd didn't do Cirillo any favors by immediately giving him Castilla's cleanup spot. Never mind that Cirillo, who spent most of his career with the Brewers hitting second, reached his career highs in 1999 with a mere 15 home runs and 88 RBIs—well below Castilla's average of more than 38 homers and 112 RBIs over the past five years. O'Dowd produced the printout of a computer projection showing that Cirillo would have batted .353, bashed 25 homers and driven in 115 runs in Coors Field's hit-happy atmosphere. "When he came out with those numbers, I thought, Hey, that's cool. I could do that," Cirillo says. "But since then every interview I've done focuses on that, and it makes you nuts. You start thinking, If I hit .310, am I failing? During the season if I think about how many RBIs I have, I'll go a week without driving in a run."

Even without O'Dowd's proclamations, Cirillo would likely feel his stomach churning. When he made the big leagues in 1994, three years after being drafted by the Brewers in the 11th round, he quickly developed a reputation as one of the game's most intense players. Often, after going 3 for 4, he would seethe over that one unsuccessful at bat. "Is he a perfectionist to a fault?" asks Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner, who guided the Brewers for eight seasons before being fired last August. "If you're a psychiatrist and talking in terms of overall mental health, then, yeah, he is. But in terms of having people on a club who will drive to succeed, he's the guy you want."

Never did Cirillo's molars grind more than during the 1997 season, the year that, on paper, should have been his most enjoyable. After hitting .325 in his breakout '96 season, he started the following year by driving in 52 runs before the All-Star break. That June he received a four-year, $12.65 million contract extension, and he was named to the All-Star team. Still, after most games he would stay up until 3 a.m., surfing the Internet or playing hearts on his computer and ruminating on what he had done wrong on the field. "I was miserable," he says. He finished with a .288 average. It was the only full season after his rookie year in which he has failed to hit .320 or above.

Cirillo says he has since learned to take it easy, a change he attributes to the arrival of Cole and Carson. "Being a parent has relaxed me," he says. "It's a welcome distraction from baseball."

The trade to Colorado, Cirillo hopes, will eliminate something else that ate him up in Milwaukee: the gnawing feeling that the Brewers would never have the resources to compete for a playoff spot. He was further bothered by his relationship with the Brewers' new general manager, Dean Taylor. Cirillo says that even as trade rumors swirled, Taylor didn't tell him anything about his future with the club. Cirillo spent the first part of the off-season trying to get a handle on his situation through the Internet, reading out-of-town papers to find out if and where he might be going. At one point, frustrated by his inability to communicate with Taylor, he even called Brewers owner Wendy Selig-Prieb. "She assured me I wasn't going anywhere," Cirillo says. "A few days later I was traded."

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