Feature

Falling Into Place

After fielding a lousy product for years, Charlie and Dick Monfort found themselves at the helm of a pennant-winning baseball team last October, after the Rockies went on their improbable tear. Was it dumb luck or part of the plan?
By
April 2008

Four months after that bittersweet October night at Coors Field, it's a blustery February day and the Monforts are holding court for several business associates in a conference room of their downtown Eaton office. The building's interior is remodeled but maintains its Old West feel, with paneled walls and a railed balcony that overlooks the main entrance. The brothers, their personal accountants, and colleagues from the family cattle business all have offices here. Above Dick Monfort's door hangs a green and gold street sign that reads "Brett Favre Pass," a gift from the legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback, who is a partner with Dick in a small steak house chain.

I'm making small talk with the Rockies' press representative in the lobby, waiting to speak with the Monfort brothers, when Dick emerges from the conference room. With laserlike focus, he speaks directly to his employee without acknowledging me, even though we're within chest-bumping distance, wordlessly conveying that it's not my turn yet. Moments after he heads back into the conference room, the meeting breaks up and he returns, this time giving me a firm, stolid handshake. Charlie Monfort, the salesman, strides over to offer his genial greetings. Ever the cheerleader, he's wearing jeans, boots, and a striped oxford shirt with the Rockies logo stitched on the left chest, an easygoing contrast to Dick's business-casual slacks, loafers, and powder-blue shirt.

Until last fall, the Monforts, in sports parlance, couldn't hold other Denver pro team owners' jockstraps. Apart from a wild-card playoff appearance in 1995, the Rockies never came close to winning anything until last season's tear. Meanwhile, Stan Kroenke has kept the Avs successful and turned the Nuggets into a consistent draw in a town where basketball will likely always place third, at best, in the sports pecking order. Pat Bowlen rode John Elway's coattails to five Super Bowls and still enjoys his hometown fans' goodwill despite the Broncos' recent disappointments.

Tall, barrel-chested, and grim-faced, Dick, 53, the Rockies' vice chairman since 1997, speaks frankly about the business end of baseball and seems to delight in turning the "idiot" label back on critics. Associates marvel at his frugal, sharp mind for corporate finances, honed over years of helping run his family's meatpacking business. "Dick crunches the numbers and can do all of it off the top of his head, which can be a little intimidating," says Kay Norton, president of the University of Northern Colorado, who worked with Dick as an attorney for the family business in the 1980s and '90s, and more recently at UNC, where Dick is chairman of the board of trustees.

Charlie, 48, the Rockies' chairman and CEO, is even more visible and appears to revel in the spotlight. Loose-limbed and upbeat, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and a voice as gravelly as his brother's, he was the president of his fraternity at the University of Utah, where he quickly abandoned a prelaw track for something more fitting: marketing. "Charlie's more charismatic than Dick," Norton says. "He's never met a stranger."

Charlie often sits in the stands at Coors, rather than in a luxury box, and unapologetically proselytizes for the Rockies; the national media excoriated him last winter for insisting his team was better than the Boston Red Sox despite getting swept in the World Series. A reformed partier—"Goodtime Charlie" received 18 months' probation for a drunk-driving offense in 1999—he is also a staunch conservative who has donated money to politicians such as Marilyn Musgrave, Scott McInnis, and Larry Craig.

Norton jokes that Charlie and Dick comprise the two halves of their father Kenny's personality: Charlie the back-slapping man about town, Dick the no-nonsense taskmaster. The boys were raised in Greeley and Eaton, and their children and two sisters still reside in the area. The multimillionaire brothers don't even keep a pied-à-terre in Denver; they drive to games and occasionally stay in a hotel room Dick gets through a reciprocal deal with a property he owns in Southern California. "They're uniformly unassuming and don't put on airs," Norton says. "What you see is what you get."

The pair's down-home simplicity hasn't placated critics who fret that the brothers are a couple Mister Magoos stumbling through each season. General manager Dan O'Dowd—dubbed "O'Dud" by the local press before last year—has said his subpar record would have caused most other clubs to fire him long ago. Before he received his two-year extension, Hurdle was on the short list of managers with fragile tenures. That the Monforts have supported them through lean years is no surprise to colleagues. "There's a family tradition of not thinking all change will be positive," Norton says. "In return for the loyalty they get from their employees, they trust and don't micromanage."

While their employees may remain devoted to the Monforts, the Rockies fans have not, as last fall's moment of muted glory clearly demonstrated. But serious baseball observers—even ones disinclined to give the Monforts the benefit of the doubt—can't deny that they have done some things right. The Rockies' rebuilt minor-league system—which has produced such budding stars as Troy Tulowitzki, Garrett Atkins, and Matt Holliday—is perhaps the organization's most impressive accomplishment, the clearest indication of how the brothers have tweaked their baseball philosophy over the years. The 2007 Rockies featured 15 players on the 25-man World Series roster that the team had drafted and developed, including several from its now respected Latin American system. "I can't remember another World Series team that was so homegrown," says Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America. "They've kept a lot of stability in that organization. Even when they were losing, they stayed patient." In 2003, Baseball America ranked the Rockies' farm system 25th-best in the league (out of 30 teams). By 2007 it was second-best, before slipping to seventh this year, which Callis calls even more impressive because of all the talent the team has promoted.

The Monforts don't worry much about outside plaudits—or criticism. Dick recalls the NLCS trophy presentation ceremony with the kind of plainspoken honesty that comes from people who have spent most of their lives within an eight-mile radius. "We noticed the cheers were far different for us than for the team, Clint, and Dan," he says. "Many of our fans do not trust us or really know us, and we understand that we have to earn their trust over time. What they should trust is that our goal is the same as theirs, to have a competitive team that can challenge for the postseason each and every year. However, unlike the fans, we will always choose the long term over the short term."

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