When Hampton took the Rockies' money as a free agent, most baseball observers thought his style of pitching—he threw almost 2.5 ground balls for every fly ball and had that feistiness—would be relatively unaffected by the altitude of Denver. "It was easy to question the length of the contract and the money," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd says. "But no one questioned whether he was the right type of pitcher."
On Opening Day 2001 at Coors Field, Hampton debuted with 8? shutout innings. When he woke up the next morning, however, he began to understand the enormity of what he was trying to do. Though he had thrown only 98 pitches the day before, "I felt like I had been hit by a truck when I got up," Hampton says. "When I got to the park, I asked the strength trainer [Brad Andress], 'What's going on?' "
Andress explained that the reduced oxygen level at altitude taxed the body more than at sea level. Hampton also began to understand that because pitches don't break as sharply at altitude, he had to strain more to impart the precise snap and follow-through in finishing a pitch. (In two years with the Rockies, Hampton would win only six of the 26 starts he made following a Coors Field start; he lost half of them.)
By mid-June, Hampton was 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA, but like a virus whose symptoms were not yet in evidence, Coors Field was wearing him down. "You'd make a great pitch on the outside corner, knee-high, and the guy would hit a double off the wall," Hampton says. "So you'd go, Oh, man, let me make the next one a little better."
Every pitch was nitroglycerine, every rally a riot. Because Hampton had been so successful—he won 22 games in 1999 and won 15 and led the Mets to the World Series in 2000—he could not stomach the idea of lowering his standards. "People would say I had to swallow my pride, that six innings and four runs was good enough," Hampton says. "I couldn't do that. I never wanted to do anything but put up zeroes for as long as I could. If there were guys on second and third, most pitchers would give up the run to get an out. I tried to throw a shutout every time. You're beat if you accept an ERA in the high fives. You're trying to be among the elite."
In the quicksand he flailed. The more he tried to make his ball sink, the less it did, and the less it sank, the less he threw it. At his best in Houston and New York, 85% of his fastballs were sinkers, 15% four-seamers. In Colorado those proportions were reversed. With the Rockies his ratio of grounders to fly balls fell by almost 30%. Hampton threw his sinker so infrequently that one day he was shocked to look down and see that he was gripping the ball with two fingers and his thumb on the seams; he had always thrown it with his fingers and thumb inside the horseshoe of the seams. He had literally lost the feel for the pitch. Hampton became a grunt, a maximum-effort pitcher who would hit 95 mph on the radar gun, a robust number that assured the team he was healthy but confused those who knew him best.
Brad Ausmus, his former catcher in Houston, told him last season, "Mike, you're changing so many things, you don't even look like the same person out there."
What confounded the Rockies was that Hampton would often look sharp during his bullpen sessions between starts. But nobody kept score in the bullpen. He was so bad last season that his father, Mike Sr., greeted him in his home after one game by saying, "Son, you ready to quit?"
"Quit," Hampton snapped, "ain't in my vocabulary. I'll never quit."
The Rockies did quit, at least on the idea that a star pitcher can come to Colorado and accept that his ERA will be blown to bits. "I don't think we'll ever chase that type of free agent again," O'Dowd says. "We have to develop our own or get the free agent who is a one-year guy with a lot to prove. I have to say I'm more encouraged by having the rookie of the year, Jason Jennings, a guy who we developed, than I am discouraged about Mike's failures."