Game 1: Wed., Rockies at Red Sox, 6:35 p.m.
By Troy E. Renck
The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 10/24/2007 09:54:01 AM MDT
BOSTON — Before they faced the Green Monster, they shared green chili burritos. Before they faced the Boston Red Sox, they learned how to clean socks in cramped laundromats. Before they walked onto the sport's ultimate stage, they ran up phone bills from remote minor-league outposts.
The Rockies are in the World Series, probably getting ready to take batting practice at Fenway Park before Game 1 as you read this. Aside from "Who the heck are these guys?" The most common question is: How did they get here?
Statistics provide a healthy slice of the explanation. The Rockies won 90 games. They won 21 of their last 22 overall, including consecutive playoff sweeps last matched by the 1976 Cincinnati Reds. Their playoff ERA (2.08) requires a microscope to read. They have an NL MVP candidate (left fielder Matt Holliday), a rookie of the year front- runner (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) and everybody's sentimental favorite (veteran first baseman Todd Helton).
To understand how the Rockies reached this spot, and found themselves on Yawkey Way in October, you must get closer. You must walk into their clubhouse. Of the 25 players who will comprise the Rockies' World Series roster, 15 were raised on the farm. They aren't just homegrown, they have grown up before each other's eyes.
The Rockies are that unique pro sports franchise that has discovered success through friendship and unmistakable camaraderie.
"Anytime you spend so much time together and get to know each other's families, there's going to be a stronger bond," explained Holliday, the first of the minor-leaguers to break out during the 2004 season. "We have been together for years and it's been great because all of the new guys have fit in well, too. I don't think you necessarily have to have this to win, but it makes it easier and a lot more fun."
The Rockies finished last in the National League West last season. They were close then, too, right? So what happened? Their bond grew tighter through failure, when they failed to meet expectations in the second half of 2006. And they became better players.
"We were mad we hadn't done well," right fielder Brad Hawpe said. "We knew we should be a good team."
Linear growth isn't common at the major-league level, but it made sense to this group. They arrived in spring training with inflated confidence, their optimism akin to a college team with a strong senior class.
"I think through their education and their experience, they have really embraced each other's talents. They know that everybody out there has something to bring. They have earned their place, they have talent and they can help this club win," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "I think that is the other unique characteristic. They are committed to doing whatever is asked of them to help the team win."
It doesn't hurt that they like each other. On Sunday night, before the biggest road trip of their lives, nearly a dozen Rockies attended the Broncos-Steelers game at Invesco Field. During the season, the players had weekly barbecues or bowling nights. Ryan Spilborghs served as a tour guide for a field trip along the Freedom Trail when the team was in Boston in June.
"We're not just teammates. We are friends," Holliday said. "These are people we genuinely care about."
The bond was formed, for many of them, during late- night bus rides through small towns, eating greasy potato chips, beef jerky and the convenience-store delicacy: the burrito. They shared hotel rooms, commiserated over position changes and dissected their swings over swigs of soda.
"It was a close group, where guys were pulling for each other," recalled former Rockies pitcher Jason Jennings, who paid Holliday $100 a month to sleep on an air mattress in his Asheville, N.C., apartment. "You are probably never tighter with guys than you are in college. That was what it was like, even when we were in the big leagues. The music was playing, guys were always talking."
Ripping is more like it. This team's affection can be seen in its endless ragging. Nobody is immune. The players razz Tulowitzki over his encyclopedic knowledge of his own hits - there is a running counter above his locker, dating to his days in Little League. They presented a faux Purple Heart to Jason Hirsh after he pitched with a broken leg, and stage Stupid Human Trick contests, with Josh Fogg the most recent target when, in two swings, he couldn't hit a ball into the seats at Arizona's Chase Field.
Rockies reliever LaTroy Hawkins credits Helton for making the vibe work. His comfort level has grown with the young players. He has become more accessible, the barbs now a two-way street.
"Now if you say something, it's not, 'I just made fun of Todd Helton. I am going to be excommunicated,"' outfielder Cory Sullivan said. "Or be designated for assignment."
In 2004, when most of the players came up, like Garrett Atkins, Jeff Francis, Hawpe and Holliday, this dynamic didn't exist. The clubhouse was littered with mercenary veterans who knew they were leaving or were threatened by the kids. When a few players replaced Francis' nameplate with "Franchise," Hurdle ordered it removed.
"They do things now that maybe they would wonder how I was going to react. Or what other people were going to think. Now they know it's all good," Hurdle said. "I trust them, they trust me."
In many ways, the Rockies' 1-9 June road trip typified how the team got here. All momentum from sweeping the Yankees had vanished, the season was on tilt. But rather than splinter or point fingers, the Rockies' bond grew stronger.
"It's hard to comprehend what has happened this last month to get here. It's all gone by so fast. I can't wait to watch it all on video after this is over," Hawpe said. "I am not surprised that we made it this far. I thought we were really good all year, one of the better teams. And we always believed in each other."
Hello, my name is ...
It might not be a bad idea for the Rockies to wear name tags for the 103rd World Series, given their anonymity. Red Sox fans barely know the team name, let alone the players' names. And let's not forget how many of those pulling for the Rockies are late to the bandwagon. Here is national baseball writer Troy E. Renck's Zagat guide to the most prominent Rockies:
LF Matt Holliday
You might remember him from: The all-star's 475-foot home run during the 2007 Home Run Derby. The M-V-P! chants that accompany his at-bats. And The Slide, the Rockies' version of The Drive, as he dribbled his chin near home plate to beat the Padres in the wild-card tiebreaker.
1B Todd Helton
You might remember him from: Something besides this season. He easily is the team's most recognizable figure, even without his "Red Neck" shirt on.
3B Garrett Atkins
You might remember him from: His grand slam off tonight's Red Sox starter, Josh Beckett, during the Rockies' June visit to Fenway Park. And his 231 RBIs the past two seasons.
RF Brad Hawpe
You might remember him from: A 2000 national championship at LSU. His June home run off Boston's Curt Schilling that prompted the veteran pitcher to write on his blog: "I've given up more than my share of home runs, but not that many come as total shocks to me as this one was. It wasn't even in the deepest recesses of my subconscious right there."
CF Willy Taveras
You might remember him from: The sprinting, diving, brilliant catch on Arizona's Tony Clark during Game 2 of the NLCS.
2B Kazuo Matsui
You might remember him from: His playoff grand slam against the Phillies. If you are a Mets fan, don't jog your memory.
SS Troy Tulowitzki
You might remember him from: His unassisted triple play against the Braves on April 29 at Coors Field. And his 24 home runs, an NL record for a rookie shortstop.
C Yorvit Torrealba
You might remember him from: His decisive home run during Game 3 of the NLCS. And the yellow "Live Strong" bracelet he wears on his left wrist as a tribute to a family member who survived cancer.
DH Ryan Spilborghs
You might remember him from: "The Sweet Escape" batter clip at Coors Field - Woo-Hoo! Yee-Hoo!
LHP Jeff Francis
You might remember him from: Tying the Rockies' season record with 17 wins. Or his idolization of former Rockie Larry Walker.
RHP Manny Corpas
You might remember him from: His five postseason saves, and his endless phone calls back to Panama. His dad will be at Coors Field this weekend, perhaps shaving a grand off his next cellphone bill.