The greater emphasis on personal character post-Neagle was at first seen as a religious-based movement—a 2006 USA Today article described the organization as following a "Christian-based code of conduct"—but O'Dowd says that decisions about players have never been based on the nature of their faith. "Do we like players with character? Yes. With strong moral values? Yes," he says. "It is not required that a player be deeply religious to have those qualities."
The approach is less about religion than about an intelligent design. The effort to pay a little more to lock up promising players before they can break the bank in free agency makes good financial sense, and the ability to retain budding stars is especially appreciated by Colorado fans, who have seen some of the market's most prominent athletes, like Carmelo Anthony of the Nuggets, the Broncos' Jay Cutler and the Rockies' Matt Holliday, leave town in the last three years.
Tulowitzki is already filling some of the void left by those departures, and Gonzalez isn't far behind. With his smooth lefthanded swing and the way he glides effortlessly in the outfield, the gifted CarGo—his slow start (a .228 average and one home run through Sunday) notwithstanding—is one of those players who make even their peers marvel. "One of the best things about my job is I get to watch him for free," says Tulowitzki.
Gonzalez developed his graceful style on the diamonds of Maracaibo, Venezuela, where his older brother Euro Jr. introduced him to the sport by taking him to a Venezuelan Winter League game when Carlos was eight. "I saw Bobby Abreu play, and I went home and started trying to make my stance like his," Gonzalez says, referring to the veteran outfielder now with the Angels. "After that all I wanted to do was play baseball." He and Euro would take tree branches, carve them into makeshift bats and use rolled-up socks for balls until Carlos's talent earned him a spot on youth traveling teams.
Signed at 16 by the Diamondbacks, he spent four years in the minors as a highly valued prospect until he was dealt in 2007 to Oakland with a package of players for pitcher Dan Haren. Despite showing flashes of his prodigious talent in Oakland, Gonzalez lasted only 11 months there before the A's traded him to Colorado with pitchers Huston Street and Greg Smith for Holliday.
"It feels like it took a long time," Gonzalez says, "and then it came all at once." The Rockies sent him to Triple A Colorado Springs when they first acquired him, and after they brought him up, he scuffled along, batting around .200 for a long stretch. But once he got settled in Colorado, stardom did come in a rush. He hit .284 in 89 games in 2009 before tearing through the league last year with a .336 average, 34 homers, 117 RBIs and 26 stolen bases. The key to his breakout? "Being comfortable," he says. "Getting traded twice was hard; it kind of shakes you up. Once I knew I was going to be here for good, that they really wanted me here, everything fell into place."
The one quality that Gonzalez hasn't yet developed is patience at the plate, where he shows off that sweet swing a little too often. "When he got here, his strike zone was from the bill of his cap to the top of his spikes," says manager Jim Tracy. "He still needs to be more selective, but he's getting better." According to Fangraphs.com, 37% of Gonzalez's swings last season were at pitches outside the strike zone. Only 14 hitters chased bad balls more often. So far this season he has reduced that number to 30.9%.
"I am trying to be patient and make the pitchers throw strikes, but at the same time I don't want to lose my aggressiveness," Gonzalez says. "It takes time. You have to learn from your mistakes, and in time you figure it out." That's as true for a franchise as it is for a ballplayer. In fact, the Rockies' trio of O's are the perfect symbols of their franchise—young, learning, on the cusp of something special. You get the feeling it won't be long now. They're just about to figure it out.
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