That was a heck of an Opening Day. While much attention, rightfully so, has been focused on Kyle Freeland and his great Rockies and Coors Field Major League debut, it was also the opportunity for Denver fans to see Bud Black for the first time. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look back, see where the now expanded history of Rockies’ managers stands, and see how the Rockies did in their first home games for past Colorado Rockies managers.
In their inaugural season, the Rockies introduced Don Baylor to 80,227 Denver baseball fans with a bang. Eric Young the Elder led off the first Major League Baseball game in Denver with a home run off of the Montreal Expos’ starter Ken Bottenfield. The Rockies eventually won 11-4. Young finished that game 4-for-4. Behind the pitching of Opening Day starter Bryn Smith, the Rockies held an 11-0 lead until the eighth inning, but perhaps as a sign of things to come, gave up four runs in the ninth. The Rockies had lost the first two games of Baylor’s managerial career, so that day also marked his first managerial win. This game also marked the Denver debuts of Dale Murphy and a young shortstop by the name of Vinny Castilla. Future Rockies second baseman Mike Lansing was also in the game, batting leadoff for the Expos.
People weren’t sure if the Rockies would be competitive. As former General Manager Bob Gebhard told the Denver Post, “I heard a lot of predictions that we’d lose 100 games.” “It made a challenge for us to play hard every day. Baseball was surprised when we drew more than 4 million fans. There aren’t a lot of things we’d want to do differently.” As for Baylor, he finished his Rockies tenure with a record of 363-384. He gave the Rockies their first winning season and playoff appearance in 1995 and would be named the NL Mananger of the Year.
On October 5th, 1998, he Rockies brought on the highly respected Jim Leyland to replace Don Baylor. Leyland had just managed the Flordia Marlins, the Rockies sister expansion club, to a World Series win and had gained prestige from managing the early 90s Pittsburgh Pirates while on a shoestring budget. He was looking forward to an enthusiastic fan base and an ownership prepared to go after big name free agents. He signed a three year, $6 million contract, which at the time was considered a high salary for a manager.
But his Coors Field debut ended up defying those lofty expectations. Leading 5-2 going into the 8th inning thanks to a solid start from Pedro Astacio, the bullpen blew the lead in the eighth inning, sending the game into extra innings. But a three run home run by Jim Leyritz off of Dave Veres put the Rockies out of their misery. To date, he is the only Rockies manager to lose his home debut.
Leyland never got the Mike Piazza or Kevin Brown he was hoping for and finished the year with a record of 72-90. He then abruptly quit on the Rockies and on baseball. There were suggestions that by the end of 1999, the players had given up on him. As he told MLB.com in 2011, "I loved Denver," Leyland said. "I was treated good. I just didn't feel I could manage a pitching staff there, and I stunk. I was treated tremendously by the organization, the people . . . and the fact that I was out [of baseball for] six years pretty much tells you that. I was kind of burned out."
Buddy Bell was hired for the vacancy in the Rockies managerial role and his first game at Coors went quite well. The team won thanks to six solid innings from new acquisition Rolando Arrojo, though there was yet another bullpen hiccup, as the Reds scored three runs in the ninth inning off of David Lee before Rockies closer Stan Belinda got a strikeout for the one out save. Every Rockies position player except for Neifi Perez reached base in that game.
The Rockies finished 2000 with their first winning season in three years, going 82-80. After that sign of progress, the Rockies went on a spending spree, signing Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. However, a .451 record in 2001 and a subsequent 6-16 start to the 2002 season, which was the worst start in club history, wasn’t the kind of team they thought they were buying, leading to Buddy Bell’s ouster. Bell finished his Rockies tenure at 161-185, for a .465 winning percentage.
Clint Hurdle, the team’s hitting coach, was promoted to replace Bell. At the time, General Manager Dan O’Dowd said, “Quite honestly, we need to start playing the game with more joy and more confidence than we've played already this year.” “Clint brings passion, he brings enthusiasm, he brings a charisma I think this ballclub needs.”
The Rockies returned from the road trip that ended Bell’s tenure with a new manager and, perhaps, something to prove. They won their first game at Coors Field for Clint Hurdle while getting on base seventeen times, though with only two extra base hits. John Thomson threw seven and a third innings of one run ball, striking out eight, and the bullpen kept the barn door closed.
This was also the first year of the humidor, but it wasn’t all that useful for the first Rockies homestand of the year under Buddy Bell. The Rockies gave up 58 games in their first ten games at Coors Field under Bell. In Hurdle’s first homestand, where the Rockies won all six games, the Rockies gave up only 11 runs with two team shutouts, one from Neagle and one from Hampton. That kind of success didn’t stick around as the Rockies finished 2002 with a 69-73 record under Hurdle. He had two winning seasons over the six full seasons he managed, including the Rockies lone trip to the World Series.
After sputtering to a 18-28 start in 2009, the Rockies replaced Hurdle mid-homestand. They gave the job to Jim Tracy, who had just been hired the previous offseason as the bench coach.
In another Coors Field pitcher’s duel, Jason Marquis shut out the Padres for eight innings to defeat Chris Young and company to give Tracy his first win as Rockies manager. The Rockies only managed four hits all game, all singles, but coaxed seven walks to fuel their run tally. Attendance for this game was only 23,239, which is pretty low for a Friday night game over Memorial Day weekend. Baseball was pretty bleak in Denver.
"We know we messed up, we basically got Hurdle fired, and we have to turn this thing around," shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. Tracy turned around those 2009 Rockies, going 74-42 to lead the team to their third playoff berth. The next season, 2010, was also a successful one, as the Rockies finished that year with a .512 winning percentage, giving the team back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1996-1997. Then the bottom fell out as the Rockies went 73-89 in 2011 and a mere 64-98 in 2012. Previously told he could manage the Rockies as long as he wanted to, he decided to resign with an overall record of 294-308 (.488) and has not returned to Major League baseball since. On November 8th, 2012, Walt Weiss was summoned to fill the void.
Here we have another fine pitching performance for a new Rockies manager. Jeff Francis allowed just one run over seven innings and after two innings of one-run ball from Adam Ottavino and Rafael Betancourt, the latter got the save. Coincidentally, it came against ex-Rockies and then-Padre Jason Marquis, who helped Jim Tracy’s debut go so well. An Everth Cabrera error led to three unearned runs and were the difference in the game. You know it’s a weird game when Michael Cuddyer hits a triple.
Rebounding from the poor 2012 Rockies showing under Tracy, Weiss’s 2013 Rockies fared better, going 74-88 for a 10 win improvement. Unfortunately, that was also the high water point of his time as manager. Weiss didn’t exactly have it easy, juggling the desires of three different general managers for a team that wasn’t quite sure if it was rebuilding. But as the Rockies start transitioning towards a better team, they felt they needed a different voice.
Bud Black’s Coors Field debut yesterday surpassed expectations. He trusted a hometown rookie with an Opening Day start, which gives us all kinds of neat warm fuzzy feelings. He stacked the lineup with right handed hitters against Hyun-Jin Ryu. Though it was a tight game, Black managed to get exceptional results from a depleted bullpen. Bud Black joined past Rockies managers who received good, winning efforts for their first home performance. Maybe it’s the Denver weather in April, but the Rockies have generally given good pitching performances for those home openers.
In other words, new Rockies managers have had pretty soft landings in their introductions to Coors Field. Yet, as good (or in Leyland’s case), as bad as that first game is, managing the Rockies for any length of time led two of those managers, Leyland and Tracy, to quit baseball. As much as the season may grind on the players, it also seems to grind on the managers. Hopefully Black will keep not only his wits, but his dry wit around for when the balls start flying out of Coors in the summertime.