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

Around 1:30 a.m. on a December morning in 2004, a white Escalade cruised down Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, stopped briefly to pick up a female passenger, then continued west. When a police patrolman noticed the Cadillac speeding a few moments later, he pulled the car over along 14th Avenue. The officer strode to the window and noticed that the driver's belt was unbuckled. The driver said he was "just getting comfortable," but the passenger quickly admitted that he had just paid her $40 for oral sex. Although the driver, Denny Neagle, hadn't taken the mound since July 2003, the solicitation would be his last pitch as a member of the Rockies.

Neagle had come to Colorado with great fanfare in 2000, when, within a few December days, the Rockies brass triumphantly announced the unlikely signings of Neagle and another high-profile lefty, Mike Hampton. Mired in a string of three straight seasons during which the club finished no higher than fourth in its division, the natives were growing impatient, attending games in dwindling numbers and intensifying their derision. It didn't help that this period featured frequent wholesale roster shakeups; outside of stalwarts such as Helton or outfielder Larry Walker, very few players lasted more than a season or two before the front office blew things up again.

Fresh off a mildly encouraging 82-80 season, the owners thought they had turned a corner. Teams often open their wallets to get one or two guys they think can put them over the top, and the Rockies outbid multiple organizations for the two pitchers, landing Hampton for eight years and $121 million, and Neagle for five years and $51 million. The lengths and dollar amounts of these contracts—and, particularly, the team that offered them—stunned the baseball world and momentarily reinvigorated Rockies fans.

But in the Coors Field front office, buyer's remorse set in almost immediately. The Monforts now say they signed Neagle once it looked like Hampton was going elsewhere, and when he came back they decided to grab both pitchers. At the time, the team spun the double deal as a gutsy coup. "We knew we couldn't afford both of them," Charlie says today. "Little did we know we couldn't afford either one." As the owners were celebrating the deals, team president Keli McGregor was notably subdued. "We were all high-fiving and stuff, but Keli wasn't," Charlie says. "I asked him what was wrong, and he said, 'How are we going to afford these guys?'"

The Monforts figured the attendance bump they'd get from fans' response to their obvious commitment to winning would help pay for the huge contracts. For part of 2001 things did look up. Hampton started 9-2 and made the All-Star team before injuries and Denver's altitude caught up to him, and he finished 14-13 with a 5.41 earned run average. Neagle recorded two dismal seasons before tearing an elbow ligament during his third, and was booked for drunk driving in 2003. The Rockies bought out his contract following the solicitation charge. Hampton struggled to a 21-28 record over two seasons before the team traded him to Atlanta, paying a chunk of his remaining deal just to get him out of town. No pitcher since Hampton has signed with anyone for longer than seven years, and the Monforts are now seemingly wise with hindsight. "Our attendance went up a little after we signed those guys, but why wouldn't you ask, 'Can we afford them?'" Charlie says. "That's how our business model has changed."

The Hampton and Neagle miscues snowballed into awful baseball and a precipitous drop in fan interest. Since 2003 the Rockies have never finished better than ninth in attendance out of 16 National League teams. Even last year's excitement couldn't prevent them from having the fifth-worst crowd totals in the NL. As longtime cattlemen, the Monforts know media criticism, but they've learned painfully how deep a sports town's passions can run. "In the beef business, it wasn't like we weren't used to being criticized, just not every day or after every loss," Dick told me. "But we're pretty thick-skinned. You realize everyone wants a winner, so you deal with it."

After co-owner Jerry McMorris, a trucking company executive and the Rockies' primary representative to Major League Baseball, retired and Charlie became team chairman before the 2003 season, he and Dick instituted a major shift in baseball philosophy. The fallout from the free-agent misadventures exposed the Rockies' economic limitations, so they rebooted the entire operation. The local excitement over landing the team, plus the new stadium, plus getting the All-Star Game in 1998 meant, "We had five years to not worry about the competitiveness of the team," Dick says. "We didn't do budgets until March or April. We'd sign all these guys and then do the budget after that, which was crazy."

The brothers say the record-breaking attendance of the early years misled them into thinking they could spend freely. It's now obvious that the Rockies will always be a midmarket team, one that, unlike the Red Sox, Yankees, or Dodgers, can't "outspend their mistakes," as Charlie says. Once this became clear, the Monforts foresaw a painful rebuilding process that mandated investments in scouting and developing players the Denver fans wouldn't see for years. The bottom line had gotten so thin that in 2004, needing a cash infusion, the Rockies sold $200 million worth of broadcasting rights and a $20 million stake in the team to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Sports Net.

"We had to stop midstream, take a farm system that was in the bottom 20 percent, start all over, and lose a lot of money doing it," Dick says today. In 2002, the brothers told people it would take five years to be competitive again. The fans, of course, didn't want to hear it; attendance plummeted in 2005, 2006, and well into 2007, when voices all over Denver were practically begging for a change, not realizing how many pieces of the puzzle were in place. But no one—neither the fans, the media, nor the Rockies themselves—could have predicted how, over the last few weeks of an otherwise forgettable season, the team the Monforts had assembled would go on one of the longest late-season winning streaks in major-league history and reach its first World Series.

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