Etkin's Memories from 25 Years of Covering the Rockies
Jack Etkin and I teamed up covering the expansion Rockies for the Rocky Mountain News. With the Rockies celebrating their 25th anniversary this season, Etkin took time to recall moments he observed in those 25 years. Most of his memories were printed in the Rockies September program. Here is his recollection. Hope you enjoy it, Tracy Ringolsby.
A steamer trunk and a crashing chair come to mind when I think back on covering the Colorado Rockies since their 1993 inception. So does the word ‘malevolent’ and four words of defensive insight from Larry Walker after he retired.
The stirring, improbable wins and the agonizing, tough-to-stomach losses _ there have been plenty of both for the Rockies. But what come flooding back to me are snippets of conversation and a montage of scenes, all frozen in time.
The Rockies played their first game at Shea Stadium on April 5, 1993. They didn’t do much and lost 3-0 to the New York Mets. Dwight Gooden, two days shy of his 29th birthday and his best days behind him, threw a four-hitter. What I remember most is the lump in my throat during the pre-game introductions when manager Don Baylor and his players lined up along the third baseline.
The Rockies played in their only World Series in 2007 and were swept in four games by the Boston Red Sox. The Series started at Fenway Park, where I had covered many regular and postseason games. This was different. I was sitting in the first row of the press box, right in the center. Before Josh Beckett threw the first pitch of Game 1, before the Red Sox roughed up Jeff Francis and savaged Franklin Morales on their way to a 13-1 romp, I remember staring directly down to the field from this perch and then making a panoramic gaze out to the stands, taking in the Green Monster, the triangle in center field and just relishing the late October scene in this shrine with some disbelief. The Rockies were finally in the World Series. Better yet, they had ridden an improbable wave, and 21 wins in 22 games had carried them to … Fenway Park.
I joined the Rocky Mountain News in January 1993 to cover the Rockies with Tracy Ringolsby. We had worked together for a few years in the mid-1980s at the Kansas City Star and meshed well before he went on to the Dallas Morning News. I worked at the Star for nearly 15 years. By 1992, I had gotten a little stale and was ready for something new. An expansion baseball team certainly qualified, not that location was unimportant. If it meant teaming with Tracy to cover a new team in, say, Houston, I would have declined. But Denver was appealing.
So was the idea of watching something from the very beginning. The Kansas City Royals came into existence in 1969. George Brett began his Hall of Fame career with the Royals in 1974. I saw a lot of the Royals and plenty of Brett. But I wasn’t there at the start in either case. This was going to be different. There was going to be a present-at-the-creation experience, which doesn’t happen often, least of all in a game with as much history as baseball.
The News was going to hire a second baseball writer to work with Tracy. There was a young reporter at the paper, a very good writer, who was on the city desk but was interested in covering baseball. The publisher told Tracy that the romance of baseball appealed to this individual. Tracy said he had been married twice and, well, romance wears out quickly. He wanted someone who had written about baseball, understood the game, knew how to work a clubhouse, and above all, could handle the challenging grind of a long season.
When I interviewed at the News, the last person I spoke to was the publisher. He asked, “Can you write baseball like Roger Angell?” I had admired his elegant baseball writing in The New Yorker for years and had gotten to know Roger. I typically saw Roger in the postseason. So I was surprised to see him at Yankee Stadium one summer when both the New York Yankees and Royals were going nowhere.
“Roger, what am I missing?” I said, certain that his presence in the Yankee Stadium press box signified something big, something I was unaware of, something that would cause some professional discomfort.
‘I’m here to get a little more time with ‘Quiz,’ ” Roger said, referring to Royals closer Dan Quisenberry, whom Roger was in the process of profiling.
I thought of all this when the News’ publisher brought up Roger. I diplomatically praised Roger and his work and explained that Roger had the luxury of time. He would attend the World Series (which was earlier then because there were no Division Series, just the League Championship Series before the World Series) gather his material and produce a long piece that ran in the magazine in mid-November, at the earliest. Same thing in spring training where Roger would roam about and write something exquisite that would run in the magazine in May. I told the publisher Roger was working with rather different deadlines than a newspaper, but if given some time, I could write very readable feature stories in addition to the daily game coverage. The Rocky devoted acres of space to baseball. And so it began.
Brad Ausmus was one of the catchers at the Rockies first spring training in 1993. They chose him from the Yankees in the expansion draft. He was almost 24, had yet to play in the Majors and was destined to begin the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs. He stayed in camp a long time, as catchers do because they’re needed to catch bullpen sessions from a flotilla of pitchers. But Ausmus was finally sent down, and when interviewing him on that roster move, he said, “There’s nothing malevolent about it.”
I told him it was the first time I had heard a player utter that word. In years to come, I reminded him of that exchange, and he remembered. Too bad the Rockies packaged Ausmus in a trade to the San Diego Padres just before the non-waiver trade deadline that July. He was 41 when he caught his 1,938th and final game in the big leagues in 2010 and would have solidfied the Rockies’ catching corps for a decade had he not been dealt.
The Rockies were on their way to drawing a Major League record 4.48 million at Mile High Stadium in their inaugural season. Ownership wanted to accelerate the Rockies’ departure from their expansion moorings and quickly tranform them into a contender. Two Rockies scouts went to watch Padres pitcher Greg Harris. A very competent professional, they reported, but advised against trading for him, because he relied on a curveball, a red-flag pitch at altitude where the break would be diminished. General manager Bob Gebhard made the deal, anyway, sending Ausmus and two others to the Padres.
Harris went 1-8 with a 6.65 ERA in 13 starts for the Rockies in 1993 and 3-12 with a 6.65 ERA in 29 games (19 starts) for them in 1994. Needless to say, the post-game interviews with Harris were rarely upbeat. In fact, they were absolutely painful, because Harris was so cooperative, so willing to dissect his starts and recount what went wrong in agonizing detail. He wanted so badly to do well with the Rockies. It wasn’t meant to be. It was impossible not to feel sorry for him.
There was some of that same feeling in 2004 with pitcher Shawn Chacon, who grew up in Greeley. He made the National League All-Star team in 2003 but was unable to play in the game because of shoulder inflammation that ultimately limited him that season to 23 starts and 137 innings.
The Rockies decided to make Chacon their closer in 2004. They had Hall of Fame closer and Colorado Springs native Goose Gossage work with Chacon in spring training. Of course, simulating tense situations in the ninth inning in the regular season was impossible to do in Cactus League games. It was a nice idea, though.
Chacon replaced Jose Jimenez, whose 41 saves in 2002 remain a club record, matched by Greg Holland in 2017. Jimenez led the team in saves each of his four seasons with the Rockies from 2000-2003. Blown saves come with the territory for a closer, and part of being a professional is speaking to the media afterward. Jimenez was never at his locker in those situations. Chacon always was.
He saved 35 games in 2004 but was 1-9 with a 7.11 ERA in 66 games. He blew nine saves, typically in excruciating fashion. A memorable one occurred June 20 on a Sunday afternoon at Coors Field against the Baltimore Orioles. Chacon took the mound in the ninth with a 2-0 lead. He loaded the bases on three walks, the third coming with two outs and bringing up leadoff hitter Brian Roberts. He had one home run at that point in the season when he pulled a fateful fly ball down the right-field line that...just...kept...going and carried into the stands for a grand slam, giving the Orioles a 4-2 win.
Chacon finished what turned out to be a 33-pitch inning with a mere 14 strikes. He was his usual cooperative, professional self after the game, which isn’t to say a frustrated, disappointed Chacon couldn’t bristle at questions. But miscast as a closer that season, Chacon, who went back to starting the next year, withstood the glare of the spotlight and stood in stark contrast to the recently departed Jimenez.
If blown saves are sudden anguish, a first Major League hit is sudden joy, particularly for a player not destined for a long stay. Utility player Chris Sexton fell into that category. He made his Major League debut at Wrigley Field on May 3, 1999, taking over for Dante Bichette in left field in the bottom of the ninth and not batting. Two days later, Rockies manager Jim Leyland started Sexton, a 27-year-old rookie, in center field and batted him first. It was an unusual game. The Rockies became the third team in the 1900s to score in every inning, tallying no more than two runs in any frame and beating the Chicago Cubs 13-6. Sexton singled off Cubs lefty Terry Mulholland in the fourth for both his first career hit and RBI. He hit a two-run homer in the seventh off lefty Dan Serafini. Both pitchers were first-round draft picks.
After the game, the likeable Sexton found a bottle of champagne at his locker. The clubhouse attendant had asked Leyland if such a gift would be alright. Leyland was a catcher who played seven seasons in the minors. He topped out at the Double-A level but spent most of his time in A ball. He had a keen appreciation for how hard the game is, how skilled the best players are and developed a fondness for those fringy, end-of-the-roster types like Gary Varsho and John Wehner, whom he managed in Pittsburgh.
But Varsho played 571 games over eight seasons, and Wehner, 461 games over 11 seasons. They were spare parts with long shelf lives. Sexton played 35 games for the Rockies in 1999 and 35 for the Cincinnati Reds the following year. That was it for him in the big leagues. That home run in Wrigley Field was the only one Sexton hit in 159 at-bats in the Majors. Leyland couldn’t have predicted that. But he likely knew Sexton wasn’t going to last as long as Varsho and Wehner. That day at Wrigley instantly became a lasting memory for Sexton. The champagne was a nice touch.
The Rockies were sure they were going to be toasting to the career of third baseman Ian Stewart, whom they drafted 10th overall in 2003 out of a high school in southern California. Walt Weiss and Marcel Lachemann, then assistants to general manager Dan O’Dowd and both hard graders, saw Stewart as the second coming of Eric Chavez. Namely a third baseman capable of regularly hitting 30 homers with 100 RBI and playing Gold Glove caliber defense. Weiss went with Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt to see Stewart before the 2003 draft. Weiss watched Stewart drive a ball with backspin off the top of the fence in right center on his first at-bat and told Schmidt that swing was enough, and he didn’t need to see more, even if Stewart hit pop-ups in his remaining at-bats.
Stewart never panned out. His ultimate value to the Rockies? In December 2011, he was in the four-player trade with the Cubs that brought second baseman DJ LeMahieu to the Rockies.
Growing up in Orange County, Los Angeles Angels country, Stewart’s favorite player was Seattle Mariners center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. He was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career and playing for Cincinnati in 2008 when Stewart went there for the first time in late July, days before the Reds traded Griffey to the Chicago White Sox, as it turned out.
I had interviewed Griffey before. He was always amiable and cooperative and always preferred talking about his kids than himself. So I did something before the first game of that Rockies-Reds series at Great American Ballpark that I had never done before and never did again. I went over to the Reds clubhouse to see Griffey. He was at his locker, sitting on the large steamer trunk that was next to it. I had remembered the same trunk next to his locker at spring training in Sarasota, Fla., a few years earlier when I interviewed him there.
Griffey was then 38. Stewart was 23. I told Griffey that he was Stewart’s favorite player when Stewart was growing up. I told Griffey that Stewart was a really nice person. And I said if Griffey could get a signed ball or bat to him, it would mean a lot to Stewart.
Griffey listened, smiled and said, ‘Should I big league him?”
“Only for a second,” I said, and we both laughed.
In the sixth inning of the first game of the series that evening, Griffey lined a ball toward the right field corner. Rockies right fielder Brad Hawpe didn’t field the ball cleanly, and Griffey ended up with a triple, meaning Stewart was a few feet from his idol. The next day I went to see Griffey. He told me he had met Stewart behind the batting cage a day earlier and given him a signed bat. He also said after hitting the triple, Griffey could see Stewart trying to inch toward him as Griffey stood on third base but too shy to get too close, let alone say anything.
Griffey sailed into the Hall of Fame in 2016, the first year he was eligible, receiving all but three votes from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Dale Murphy langushed on the BBWAA ballot for 15 years, the last in 2013. He is a footnote in Rockies history, finishing his illustrious career with them in their inaugural 1993 season. They signed Murphy right after leaving spring training in Tucson while finishing exhibition games in Minnesota, where they traveled enroute to New York and the first game in franchise history. Murphy had 398 home runs on his resume. He was in irreversible descent, but the Rockies thought Murphy could occasionally play the outfield, provide right-handed power off the bench and aided by altitude, hit two more home runs and reach 400. It didn’t happen.
He was hitting .143 (6-for-42) in 26 games with one home run and seven RBI. He had gone 2-for-25 when the Rockies decided to part ways with Murphy and bring up outfielder Chris Jones from Triple-A Colorado Springs. Jones, 27, had played for the Reds in 1991 and Houston Astros in 1992 and after that season signed a minor league contract with the Rockies.
Given the choice between getting released or retiring, Murphy, 37, opted for retirement. The Rockies were in Houston and hastily called a press conference on May 27 in one of the meeting rooms at the team hotel where Murphy stood and spoke with the beat writers, who were also standing. Nothing had been set up, including chairs. Murphy’s departure lacked any ceremony.
Tracy and I were staying at a hotel right across the street. It was a Thursday, so Tracy was finishing his Sunday notes column. I dashed to Murphy’s farewell.
This was before cell phones and the internet. So when Murphy’s session was over, I went to a pay phone in a small room off the hotel lobby to call the paper and let them know what had happened and a story would be coming. There were six pay phones in that small room, three on each side. As I called the paper, I saw Murphy on a phone diagonally across from me.
“Where’s Tracy?” Murphy said.
“He’s coming to pick me up,” I said.
“I’d like to say goodbye to him,” Murphy said.
I finished talking to the paper and went out the front door. Tracy came by. I told him he had to come inside, because someone wanted to see him. He said we had to get to the Astrodome and had no time to waste. I insisted. We went through the lobby to the small room with pay phones. Murphy was finishing his call.
Tracy and I never really got to know Murphy, since he was not in spring training. We had little chance to write anything positive about him, since Murphy was used sparingly and didn’t perform well. Nonetheless, at a time when the end had come for Murphy, a time when his world had to be spinning to some degree, he wanted to be sure he didn’t leave without saying good-bye to Tracy. It was mind-boggling to me and still is.
Meanwhile, Jones played 548 games in parts of nine seasons in the Majors with eight teams. The only time he had 200 at-bats in a season was in 1993 with the Rockies (209). He was a decent outfielder who ran well. He could play all three positions and played a lot of center field that year with the Rockies, always with hustle and energy. In late June of that 1993 season, the Rockies were at San Francisco. Willie Mays came into the visitors clubhouse at Candlestick Park to visit with Baylor. Mays sought out Jones and told Jones he liked the way Jones played. For an outfielder, this was the baseball equivalent of a papal blessing. Needless to say, Jones was happily stunned. Better yet, he said he couldn’t wait to call his father. Jones was from upstate New York, and said Willie Mays, who began his Giants career when they were in New York, was his father’s favorite player.
The visitors clubhouse at Candlestick Park was large. Rockies pitcher Jamey Wright made his Major League debut there on July 3, 1996. Marvin Freeman had originally been scheduled to start that day. But the Rockies wanted Wright to make his debut against the Giants, who that year were below .500 and an easier draw than the first-place Dodgers in Los Angeles, where the Rockies were going from San Francisco.
There was a large chest-high counter in the center of the Candlestick Park clubhouse. I was standing there talking with Rockies third base coach Gene Glynn when we heard a banging noise from a corner of the clubhouse and turned toward the racket. Having just received the news that his start was going to be pushed back to Los Angeles, an unhappy Freeman picked up a chair and threw it in his locker. Rather than rise to the challenge at Dodger Stadium, Freeman folded. In his start on July 4, he lasted two innings. He gave up seven hits, including two two-run home runs, and eight runs in the second, and the Dodgers blasted the Rockies 9-4.
The Giants had moved to AT&T Park in 2000 when Rockies pitcher Rolando Arrojo exhibited an even more blatant example of me-first petulance than Freeman. Arrojo and infielder Aaron Ledesma had been acquired from Tampa Bay in December 1999 in a deal that sent Vinny Castilla to the Rays. Arrojo was 1-2 with a 7.02 ERA when he made his fourth start of the season at San Francisco. He gave up five runs (four earned) in five innings and lost 6-0. At one point, third baseman Jeff Cirillo walked to the mound to encourage Arrojo, slow him down and let him figuratively exhale. Cirillo was simply being a good teammate, or attempting to be one. He walked onto the mound, and Arrojo reached out and shoved Cirillo in the chest. He quickly walked away. Mound visits are ho-hum pauses. This one was surreal and undoubtedly hastened Arrojo’s departure from the Rockies. In the waning days before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, they sent Arrojo and disappointing second baseman Mike Lansing to Boston in a seven-player deal with the Red Sox.
I worked for the Rocky Mountain News until the paper ceased publishing in February 2009, all the while covering the Rockies. I still do but for a website. It’s not the same. When the News and Denver Post were competing, you wanted to uncover every bit of Rockes news, however small, and get it in the paper. Tracy and I never cared who had the byline, so long as the story was in the paper. You felt good when you had something the Post did not. Conversely, there was a sinking feeling when the Post reported something that you missed. It was spirited competition, and those who benefited most were the readers.
If you wrote a poor game story, there was always another crack at it the next day. In that way, writing about baseball bore some similarity to playing it. Except the game is infinitely harder, and the players have no ‘delete’ button they can press on their keyboard to erase a mistake. Larry Walker made few of those and is the best all-around Rockies player I have covered. I say that with apologies to Todd Helton and to Nolan Arenado. Walker ran better and hit for a higher average.
He also had a classic pose in the on-deck circle, not swinging and loosening up but standing with his right foot crossed over his left and his right hand resting on the handle of his bat, which was upside down and next to his right leg. He looked relaxed, patient and ready to do damage once he stepped in the batters’ box, ushered there by Ozzy Osbourne’s manic “Crazy Train.”
At Coors Field, Walker, winner of seven Gold Gloves, five with the Rockies, perfected the deke move in right field. He would not move on a fly ball, leading the batter to believe the ball was headed into the right field stands. Then Walker, having gauged the flight of the ball, would quickly turn and play the ball off the out-of-town scoreboard, holding the surprised batter to a single or throwing him out at second base.
Walker finished his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. He has a home in West Palm Beach, Fla., not far from Jupiter, Fla., where the Cardinals train and served as a part-time coach in spring training.
I found him on a back field one spring, loading baseballs into a machine that shot fly balls to the outfielders. Since it was a back field, there was a chain link fence and no wall. Regardless, I jokingly asked, “Walk, when do you teach them the deke move?” Walker immediately answered, “You can’t teach that.”
I realized this was the definition of genius.