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

Despite the excitement from last year's Rocktober exploits, the Monforts still are struggling to win the locals' trust. On a typically bright Colorado day last fall, fans who logged onto the Rockies' website to buy World Series tickets were greeted repeatedly with error messages and were unable to even attempt to make a purchase. The team first blamed the online-only snafu on a hacker and claimed to have referred the issue to the FBI, which as of this January said it had received no such request. (An investigation has since been launched.) "A law was broken that day," Charlie wrote in an e-mail, "the FBI continues to investigate, and it is the hope of us and our partner Paciolan"—the Internet company that ran the sale—"that someday the person(s) responsible for the attack will be held accountable." Still, the damage had been done: The ill-advised decision to sell the team's World Series tickets online—a buffoonish miscalculation—had turned them, their team, and Denver into a national punch line.

This off-season also challenged the organization's so-called commitment to character when the Mitchell report on steroids implicated former Rockies clubhouse manager Dan "Chico" McGinn and 12 current or former players—including Neagle, current Rockies reliever Matt Herges, and first base coach Glenallen Hill. (Herges and Hill have apologized for their actions.) And the organization angered fans by demanding that those buying opening-day tickets—now sold out—also buy tickets to one of the two subsequent games, a strategy that had fans along the Front Range crying "bush league."

Despite the missteps, the Rockies have kept the core of the team intact. The Monforts surprised many when they signed rookie shortstop and fan favorite Troy Tulowitzki to a six-year, $31 million contract extension, the largest deal ever given to a first-year player. A few months later, they gave a four-year deal to second-year closer Manny Corpas, the longest contract ever for a reliever with so little major-league experience. (The team also signed 2007 MVP runner-up Matt Holliday to an unexpected two-year, $23 million extension and outfielder Brad Hawpe to a three-year extension.) Each deal means the team won't face the expensive, often contentious arbitration process, enabling it to buy time while seeing how its young talent develops.

The Tulowitzki and Corpas contracts, of course, are not free from risk: If either player flames out, the Rockies will have committed way more money than they would have spent on them as early-career players. If they mature as expected—Corpas was a lights-out closer late last season, and at 23 Tulowitzki already is regarded as a can't-miss All-Star and a team leader on and off the field—they'll have undeniable steals. Make no mistake, though: The lessons-learned Monforts only sign deals once they're extremely confident they're making the right choice. "With Troy we bought a couple extra years by doing the deal when he was young," Dick says. Talking about Holliday, Dick sounds like he's hoping for a hometown discount—last year's MVP runner-up hails from Oklahoma and might prefer to steer clear of the coasts when he becomes a free agent in 2009. "Now we have two years to see how he progresses"—before deciding how big a deal to offer him—"and we're convinced [Matt] wants to stay here long-term," Dick says.

As for 2008, some analysts worry that the Rockies are banking too heavily on a pitching staff that's too young in a few spots and too old in others—among all the starting-rotation candidates in spring training, only ace Jeff Francis pitched extensively in 2007. If Tulowitzki suffers through the notorious sophomore slump or the team returns to its pre-streak yo-yoing ways, the critics will rise again. Baseball America's Callis isn't sure what to expect in 2008, saying a Rockies division title is as likely as a fourth-place finish in the brutal NL West, which this year should feature a burgeoning border-war rivalry with the similarly youthful Arizona Diamondbacks. The Monforts agree, acknowledging the unexplainable flukiness of the team's late-season run. (A professor at Texas Tech University has calculated the streak's probability as 1-in-107,000.) "We knew last September 1st that we were better than a .500 team, and we also know that we're probably not as good as 21 out of 22," Dick says. "They haven't gotten around to calling us great yet, but it doesn't mean that if they do, they won't be calling us a bunch of idiots again a day later."

For now, the brothers deserve credit for assembling a strong core of young players, solid veterans, and a highly regarded farm system with promising talent in reserve. Season-ticket sales are up almost 20 percent over last year, and local anticipation for 2008 couldn't be higher, something no one could have projected a year ago. "I don't think anyone was convinced their grow-from-within strategy would be a success at first," MDEDC's Tom Clark says. "The city probably was going to give them maybe just last year to show results, but if they'd kept losing season-ticket holders, [city officials] might have tried to run them out of town. The brothers got lucky because the community supported them when they had marginal teams, but they've learned how to be pretty good baseball people."

When the best—and some would argue, the worst—baseball people in the world gathered last winter at the owners' meeting in Phoenix, the Monforts' peers received them unlike they had when the Greeley boys were steering just another 75-win team. "Even though we haven't changed our philosophy for five years, they asked a lot more questions about how we did it," Charlie says. "And quite frankly, they start coming after your [front office] people a lot more."

The next few seasons will prove how prescient the Monforts' philosophy is, and baseball being baseball, the most unpredictable of sports, it could all flop, causing fans with short-term goals and long-term memories to turn on the brothers again. But for a moment last winter, the idiots from Colorado were two of the smartest guys in the room.

Luc Hatlestad is a senior editor at 5280. E-mail him at [email protected].

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