Just when Shawn Chacon was relaxing at home in December, feeling good about a breakout season in which he became only the second Rockies pitcher to make the All-Star team, manager Clint Hurdle telephoned him to tell him that the club wanted to convert him into a closer. Chacon didn't know what to think.
"Surprised," Chacon says. 'Very surprised."
A few of his teammates, however, said they knew exactly what to think.
"Two or three called me up and said, 'Man, they're trying to take money out of your pocket,' " Chacon says.
Good starting pitchers generally do earn more glue than closers because they throw more innings and are harder to find. Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said he even ran some salary simulations to show Chacon, 26, the difference. And if it wasn't about the money, why in the oxygen-depleted world of Colorado—where no qualifier in the franchise's 11-year history has had an ERA better than 4.00 and only eight have come in under 5.00—would the Rockies turn a young starter with four quality pitches into a specialist?
"I know it might not make sense for 29 other franchises," O'Dowd says, "but we operate under a different set of parameters."
In Denver, where baseballs and leads vanish into thin air, O'Dowd says he believes that Chacon has more value as a closer because "he can impact the game more. Most of our games are decided in the fifth. sixth and seventh innings and by how and when you use your [setup] relievers. And you can't do that with any confidence without a closer you know you can count on."
Actually, Rockies starters earned the fifth-most decisions in the league last year—even though their rotation threw fewer innings than all but two teams. Baseball at altitude, however, always has made the architecture of a winning team more vexing than anywhere else. The Rockies must constantly switch from a PS brand of baseball to the real stuff once they hit the road, and their alltime record reveals the duality: They're a .555 team at home and a .393 club on the road. Overall they've never won more than 83 games in a season and have suffered a dip in attendance seven straight years.
Coors Field is the Lourdes of baseball for hitters, having been the font of miraculous revivals for players such as Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Ellis Burks and Jay Payton. Leftfielder Jeromy Burnitz (.299 OBP last year), shortstop Royce Clayton (.301 OBP) and—back for a second shot of elixir—third baseman Vinny Castilla (.310 OBP) are this year's supplicants.
Pitching in Denver has been like ordering the Rock?' Mountain oysters at Coors Field: It's not for the fainthearted, and you're better off not dwelling on the ingredients. Busts Billy Swift, Greg Harris, Bret Saberhagen, Darryl Kile, Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle have scared the Rockies from spending big money on pitchers. "We're never going down that road again," O'Dowd says.