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Monday Rockpile: Rockies Banking on 2012 Bringing Maturity Through Leadership

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So far this offseason, while the Rockies have done anything but sit on their hands, there has been one message ringing loud and clear from the front office: The clubhouse culture needs to change. This tells us a handful of things, both implicitly and explicitly:

Explicitly, the team wants Men accountable for their own job performance. Guys that will take the extra BP, seek the help they need, or just figure out SOMETHING that will get them back on course when they hit the skids.

Implicitly, this team has been trying to build something new that can't really be quantified. Bringing in Michael Cuddyer and trading away Ian Stewart (et al) while happily letting Troy Tulowitzki run his "Camp Tulo" under the eye of Jason Giambi with 2 potential impact prospects in Nolan Arenado and Josh Rutledge - it's painfully clear that this team is looking for leadership.

A lot of the search for leadership needs to start at the top, first. A lot of scrutiny needs to fall on Jim Tracy, as we've only really discussed the players themselves thus far. Now, there are a lot of criticisms I have with Jim Tracy that I could likely list, if given the motivation, but I'm going to save that for an article sometime next season when I'm REALLY upset.

I think I can boil my beef with the current manager down to a very specific game, many years ago.

Thursday, April 13th, the Colorado Rockies won the rubber game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, 5-3. Josh Fogg got the win, and Brian Fuentes the save.

Come the 9th inning, the Rockies were up 4-3. Matt Holliday led off the 9th inning by squirting a pinch-hit groundball straight down the LF line against Arizona closer Brandon Lyon. After a Cory Sullivan punchout, Clint Barmes also doubled into the corner, giving the Rockies an invaluable insurance run before bringing on closer Brian Fuentes.

This makes me wonder why Holliday was PHing in the 9th inning when he should've been starting, as he pretty much won the job in 2005 (with an overall .866 OPS) (actually, this isn't entirely fair, as LF Choo Freeman's 1 hit on the night was a key RBI double).

Well, you see, the night before, in the 4th inning, Matt Holliday cost the Rockies a run. With the bases jacked, the Diamondbacks had just intentionally walked Danny Ardoin to get to pitcher Jeff Francis. Their plan backfired, however, when Francis punched the 2-1 pitch down the LF line for a base hit. Atkins scored easily, and Holliday, running on the pitch, shifted into neutral and just coasted home. 2 runs in, leadoff hitter on, come on, let's drive one more in, right?


You see, Catcher Danny Ardoin wasn't exactly the best baserunner, and when Dbacks LF Luis Gonzalez remembered this, he fired to 3B to catch Ardoin trying to stretch, and limited the damage from the pitcher getting a hit. Shame that it was a Heads-Up play against us, but at least 2 runs scored, right?


Holliday, who had clearly dropped out of gear, had not crossed home plate by the time the out at 3B was made, as he clearly thought that Ardoin had stopped at 2B and Gonzalez had just tossed it in to the cutoff man. As he crossed the plate after the out was made, only Atkins' run counted.

So Clint Hurdle benched him. It was abrupt, it wasn't a hush hush thing we found out about 2 weeks later (Etkin reported the reasoning for the benching the next day, April 14th), and it clearly served a purpose.

See, a lot of people this season commented on how the Rockies just looked lifeless out there. No fire, no spark. Poor fundamentals, and just a general lack of effort. Now, say what you will about Hurdle - hell, say whatever you want, it was time for him to go in 2009 and it was absolutely right for him to go. But I'll tell you this: you never hear the above complaints about hustle and life from a Clint Hurdle baseball team.

(I actually can't help but wonder if it wasn't really that Clint Hurdle was a bad manager, but after a World Series appearance, suddenly he felt the burden of different expectations. Maybe if the Rockies had played tight, competent baseball for the past 4 years like the 2007 team had, the Rockies might have brought home their first division title in 2009 and not made complete fools of their fanbase for the past 2 seasons.)

So past complaints about the manager aside, the team also needs leadership within its own ranks, and has for awhile, at least among the North-American-born players.

I say this with all respect to Todd Helton; the guy has been a class act and real shining star among Denver athletes, but you just never hear much said about this potential aspect of his personality. I mean, when you Google "Todd Helton Leader", you end up with mostly things like "League Leader" and "Leader Boards" - which is still pretty boss, but not what we're looking for. But you might remember 2007, when the Rockies beat Arizona in game 162 on a bizarre comebacker to closer Manny Corpas that he made an off-balance sidearmed throw to 1B to record the final out en route to a play-in game for the NL Wild Card. While Helton was in the midst of the screaming moshpit near the mound, there was one voice yelling "We haven't won anything yet! We still have one game to go!" and that was Troy Tulowitzki's.

It seems a bit easy to slap Tulowitzki with the "leader" tag, seeing how he just got saddled with the 10th largest contract in MLB history and will be here until he actually turns into Cal Ripken Jr., but if you haven't seen it yet, Tulowitzki WANTS this team. And the organization wants him.

We talk a lot about how having Jason Giambi on an NL roster makes no sense, and how he's just the chummy buddy for the whole team and all that. It's totally valid. But maybe Giambi wasn't brought in for the whole team. Maybe he was brought in for Tulo, to help mentor him on his route to SuperStardom (hey, laugh, but you might remember that 2nd year MLB players have to go through a seminar on "how to behave now that you're a public figure and are getting paid a whole bunch of money" - I imagine there's a certain grace required in becoming an idol like Tulo is becoming).

Perhaps the Rockies want more out of this Zillion Dollar Contract than just excellent production and borderline HoF numbers (in the event that there's more available) - they want somebody who is really going to go down as Mr. Rockies. Again, with all due respect to Helton, maybe Tulowitzki's infatuation with Derek Jeter extends to wanting to be The Captain and to create an organizational culture that breeds players who really want to Win rather than just not get fired.

Helton always led by example. He never screams at umps, he never makes offseason headlines, and he's batted .323 over the course of his career. He grinded through every at bat, he'd hit the ball to both fields regardless of power, and there was never a play he wouldn't dive for at 1B (well... maybe not so much recently. Healthy Helton = Productive Helton). The guy played the prime of his career on rosters with mistakes, never-gonna-be's, and Jeromy Burnitz (hey, he was good that one season) and you never heard him complain.

Tulowitzki is leading through all of those methods as well, but while he is already the best player around, he's actively and intentionally working to make those around him better as well. Tulo might not throw the organization under the bus for poor play, but he certainly makes it known that it isn't acceptable.

It would seem the team has found their leader, and now they just want guys who will get in line behind him.