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Clint Barmes spent part of his off-season playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he found the fans to be warm and welcoming, considerably more fluent in English than he was in Spanish and, thankfully, largely unaware of the bizarre turn of events that derailed what was shaping up as a Rookie of the Year season. Stateside fans are more likely to remind the shortstop of the broken left collarbone he suffered when he fell while carrying a package of deer meat up a flight of stairs on June 5. He hit .329 with eight homers in 54 games before the injury, but after missing 78 games he returned on Sept. 2 and looked like a different player, hitting .216 with two homers over the last month.
An amiable Hoosier from Vincennes, Ind., Barmes, 27, handles the teasing about his freak injury good-naturedly. He realizes that the incident would have attracted less attention if he hadn't originally told the team and the media that he had fallen while carrying groceries, an attempt to cover up the fact that he had been riding all-terrain vehicles and scouting deer with teammates Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe. He fudged the facts to try to keep from implicating his teammates in what could have been construed as a reckless activity. "I brought some of it on myself by handling it the wrong way," says Barmes, who tripped while transferring the package of meat from one arm to the other. "I still get some fans yelling things. I can't say I enjoy having it brought up, but I can laugh about it a little bit."
Barmes is far less concerned with the deer jokes than with his struggles after he returned from the injury. Colorado's chances of improving significantly on last year's 67--95 record and climbing out of the NL West basement hinge on whether the real Barmes is closer to the one who hit a walk-off home run against San Diego's Trevor Hoffman on Opening Day and was leading the majors in batting in mid-May or the one who finished the year looking lost at the plate. "The development of young players like Clint is key for us," says manager Clint Hurdle.
The September nosedive was at least partly a result of Barmes's desire to immediately atone for his long absence. "I was trying so hard to pick up right where I left off," he says. "My timing was off after missing three months, and instead of realizing that and being patient, I tried so hard to get it all back right away that it just made things worse."
The Rockies thought that a stint in winter ball would help Barmes make up for lost time, and they were encouraged by how willingly he accepted their suggestion. "His intangibles, things like work ethic and willingness to sacrifice for the team, have always been off the chart," says general manager Dan O'Dowd. Barmes's numbers in winter ball weren't stellar (.233, one homer, eight RBIs in 25 games), but he got valuable at bats against major-league-caliber pitching and had a chance to work on his defense on infields that aren't as finely manicured as the ones in the National League. "If you can field down there, you can field anywhere," he says.
Barmes's 2005 season was essentially the reverse of the team's; the Rockies buried themselves by losing 35 of their first 50 games but recovered to go 30--28 after Aug. 1, the second-best stretch run in the division. Barmes is one of several young players, including starting outfielders Hawpe, Matt Holliday and Cory Sullivan, who the Colorado brass believes are ready to turn a taste of major league success into something more permanent. "We played better in the second half last year, and we should build off that," says Holliday, 26, who had 19 home runs and 87 RBIs in his second full season. "We have a lot of second-year players. In your first year you go out wondering if you really belong, but in your second year you come back knowing you can play at this level."
It's not quite that simple for Barmes, who knows how easily success can turn to failure. "It's like having a whole career wrapped into one year," he says. "I've been up pretty high, and I've gone about as low as you can go. I think it's made me a better player. All I can do is try to climb back up there again."
But this time he'll watch his step.
Todd Helton's .337 career batting average would rank 17th alltime, but he is 440 at bats shy of qualifying for the list (minimum: 5,000). The only hitter in the top 20 who is not in the Hall of Fame is Tony Gwynn, a lock for 2007.