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

Click here to view a slideshow of the 2007 season from photojournalist Joshua Duplechian.

In what should have been the greatest moment of their professional lives, Charlie and Dick Monfort climbed onto a makeshift stage in the middle of Coors Field. Well after 10 p.m. on a sleety, bone-chilling October night, the owners of Colorado's perpetually mediocre baseball team were primed for some long-awaited vindication.

Along with 50,213 delirious, shivering fans, the brothers had just watched their beloved Rockies win their 21st game in 22 tries, an unprecedented late-season streak that turned the team from forgettable also-rans into National League champions. It was a stunning turn of events. At the start of the season, the Monforts had flatly stated their underwhelming goal for 2007: a .500 finish. The flaccid proclamation—combined with the two-year contract extensions the Monforts announced on opening day for the Rockies' underperforming manager and general manager—further enraged locals already fed up with years of watching their incompetent owners whittle away the Rockies' allure with bad personnel moves and ill-spent signings. The Denver Post's Mark Kiszla had called for fans to boycott the team and protest at the beginning of each home stand until the Monforts sold their interests "to ownership that can afford more than dreams of mediocrity."

It wasn't until mid-September that the baseball gods, the most capricious of sports deities, deigned to right the Rockies' ship. Suddenly the team couldn't lose. One wild month later, halfway through what had been dubbed "Rocktober," the Coors' infield churned, a sea of black and purple celebration. In the middle of it all were the Monforts, bear-hugging and high-fiving players, coaches, and colleagues with the gleeful satisfaction that their earnest but snail-paced rebuilding plan had finally borne fruit. Surely the fans and media who had ridden them for the past decade would have their epiphany: So that's what those idiots were up to. All the bad blood, the anger, the blame—that would be wiped away with the 2007 National League pennant.

Amid the commotion, a league official handed over the traditional multi-columned, wood and gold trophy. The crowd, thrilled by the month-long run of good fortune and great baseball, roared when it passed to series MVP Matt Holliday, to long-suffering team leader Todd Helton, even to the once-maligned manager Clint Hurdle. But when the elusive prize landed in the hands of the Monforts—the owners who had finally brought Denver its first winner in years and its most exciting baseball team ever—the cheers dampened as scattered but unmistakable boos floated down from the stands.

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."

On March 26, 1991, several helicopters borrowed from local TV stations lifted from the tarmac at Stapleton Airport and roared toward downtown Denver, the Front Range looming so brilliantly in the sunshine that it seemed like passengers could reach out the window and touch snow-capped Pikes Peak. Inside the choppers, an elite group that included members of Major League Baseball's expansion committee and their hosts, the Denver Baseball Commission (DBC), began its tour of the Mile-High City. A bat-shaped key to the city in hand, the expansion committee was careful not to betray the skepticism that would have revealed this as little more than a courtesy visit. Baseball was keen to break into the Florida market, and in Miami and Tampa it had two cities much further along in the process; Miami had a strong ownership group, and Tampa already had a new stadium. Denver's bid, essentially, was toast.

The helicopters buzzed over East High School, where students had gathered on the playground in the shape of a baseball. Over the future site of Coors Field, they saw a group playing softball on an oversized diamond marked off with white paint. The choppers finally landed at Mile High Stadium, where the new team would play for two years while Coors was being built. It wasn't the baseball-only stadium the league had begun to insist upon for new teams, but contemplating full houses of 80,000 fans made some of the committee members begin to rethink Denver's bid.

The group had lunch at Governor Roy Romer's mansion and then moved onto the business meeting. At the "cash register" building at 17th and Lincoln—now the Wells Fargo Center—the group emerged from the buses to see about 3,500 baseball fans crowded inside the building's huge atrium, and the baseball officials weren't thrilled about the welcome. "We had 'miraculously, spontaneously' discovered a few thousand people there waiting for us," says Tom Clark, now the executive vice president for the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (MDEDC) and part of the group that wrote the application for the expansion franchise. "[League official] Katie Feeney walked around the corner of the bus, saw the crowd, and gave me a look that could've freeze-dried coffee." Inside, the crowd broke into a rousing rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" that left some of the visitors visibly misty eyed. In a bathroom before the business meeting, Paul Jacobs, a tour organizer and now a partner at the Jacobs Chase law firm, encountered New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon. "He poked a finger into my chest and said, 'We told you not to do that,'" he says. "Before I could think of how to respond, he broke into a smile and said, 'That was the smartest thing anyone's done in this process.'"

The DBC's tour de force apparently did the trick, and Denver was awarded one of the two expansion teams (Miami got the other) in July 1991. The city's decades-long thirst for major-league baseball, combined with the fact that the team played its home games in a football stadium, helped the Rockies shatter attendance records during their first two years: The team drew almost 4.5 million fans in 1993 and almost 3.3 million in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Don Hinchey, part of the original baseball commission and now vice president of communications for Greenwood Village-based sports and entertainment marketing firm The Bonham Group, says the DBC had caused some scoffing among the expansion committee by projecting attendance in the low two millions during the Rockies' first few seasons. "They asked how we thought we could do that when established baseball towns like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh couldn't do it," he says. "We were wrong," he adds, but instead of overestimating, the DBC had massively underestimated Denver's appetite for baseball.

Though it was about 30,000 seats smaller than Mile High, Coors Field still packed in record crowds for most of the next five years, catalyzing the transformation of the surrounding LoDo neighborhood from a virtual skid row to a downtown destination filled with trendy restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. The team thrilled the locals with a playoff appearance in 1995, the quickest an expansion team had ever made the postseason. It would be the franchise's last shining moment for many years. By the end of the decade, the locals began to realize that Rockies baseball, while entertaining, wouldn't win many games. It took a few more years, and a couple of egregious miscalculations, for the Monforts to figure out the same thing.

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.

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].