“It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime and ending with the hard facts of autumn.”
That line from the opening narration of the first episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball always hits home this time of year, but as the Rockies crashed out of the playoffs on a frigid afternoon at Coors Field it felt especially appropriate.
Sunday’s weather was a reminder that winter is around the corner and that baseball’s hours on the stage this season are numbered. Against this bleak backdrop, these Rockies made their exit after but a cameo in the postseason. And it wasn’t just the Rockies, it was these Rockies.
Charlie Blackmon. DJ LeMahieu. Nolan Arenado. Trevor Story. Carlos González. Matt Holliday.
The vast majority of the best position players to debut for the franchise in the last 20 years were in the starting lineup on Sunday — each of them a fan favorite whose name could have been found on the backs of hundreds of those in attendance if you had checked under their winter jackets. They are batting champions, Gold Glove winners, MVP candidates, and many-time All-Stars.
And they were utterly helpless.
They strained with all their might at the plate, trying in vain to produce something that would give life to a shivering crowd so desperate for a chance to stand up and roar. There were brief flashes — some hard contact here, a long at-bat there — but in the end it all added up to nothing.
There were no outward displays of rage on Sunday like Chris Iannetta, arguably the best catcher in franchise history, had on Thursday when he broke his bat across his knee. Instead, there was disbelief and resignation. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
During the stretch run, it was easy to forget that CarGo went unsigned until late in spring training, and that Holliday was only signed in August. For a few weeks at the end of the season, it seemed like things were as they should be. The Rockies were winning, and they were doing it with their guys. The ones who had given so much to the franchise and who deserved this success the most.
The potential post-season departures of González, Holliday, LeMahieu, and possibly even Arenado were forgotten as the team surged into first place in the final week of the season. The Rockies were finally going to win the National League West, and all of these franchise greats were going to be a part of it. It wasn’t difficult to picture this dream lineup, backed by a young rotation led by hometown Kyle Freeland, going all the way to the World Series.
Sports, unfortunately, are not scripted. The West slipped through their fingers at the eleventh hour, and this would-be murderer’s row of an offense produced almost nothing in the postseason.
These men — in particular Arenado, González, and Holliday — carry a label stronger than “star”, or even “legend” in Colorado. They are Heroes. They have done seemingly superhuman things that have defined entire seasons and brought joy to millions of people. That all of them could be in the starting lineup for the first home playoff game in nearly a decade seemed too good to be true. To see them so lost and despondent as the game wore on was intensely painful.
Seeing them repeatedly fail to produce at the plate, one could practically hear “are these your kings?” above the stunned silence, with Erik Kratz playing the role of Erik Killmonger. Unlike in the movies, there would be no improbable comeback from the Rockies.
It’s difficult to process that this anti-climax could really have been the last game in a Rockies uniform for so many of the franchise’s best players. If this is the end of the line in purple for DJ, Carlos, Matt, or even Nolan, try to forget the way they went quietly into the night on a bitter autumn afternoon. That’s not the way heroes go out.
Instead, remember them as you saw them a week earlier; when an equally gloomy morning gave way to an afternoon of brilliant sunshine as summertime staged one last rally and the Rockies scored 12 runs to force a one-game tiebreaker with the Dodgers. Remember the standing ovations, the chants and the feeling that everything was still possible, because, in that moment, it was.
★ ★ ★
One of baseball’s most magical powers is its ability to remind us at any given moment of the summers of our youth. It is a time machine that we can take back to an age where summer meant freedom, water balloon fights, trampolines, water slides, little league games, imitating your favorite player’s batting stance, and going to the ballpark with your parents. When summer was really summer, and when your favorite baseball players seemed like supermen instead of fallible people who fail more often than they succeed.
Even as you grow up and become jaded by contracts, lineup construction and your “real life” responsibilities, a great catch or home run by someone you idolized as a kid has the power to take you right back to when you were 4 feet tall and had to literally look up at them when they signed a baseball for you. These men may be the only people on earth who have the power to give you that feeling of summer back.
If you are a Rockies fan between the ages of 10 and 25, the odds are that one of the players likely making their final appearance with the team on Sunday was a childhood hero of yours — the star of your fondest memories. Be thankful that, this magical summer, they added a few more moments to the reserve you keep safe in your heart for days like Sunday, when everything is cold, grey and hopeless.
Be thankful too that there will be another summer of baseball next year. Plenty of your old favorites will be back, along with new favorites you haven’t even met yet. There will be incredible excitement, unbearable tension, absolute misery and incomprehensible joy. That’s baseball, and it isn’t going anywhere.
But this summer of 91 victories, first place after 162 games, endless walk-off heroics and Kyle Freeland shutting down the Cubs on three days rest . . . this summer of 3 million fans, 44 road wins and 500-foot home runs . . . this summer of Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, Carlos González and Matt Holliday sharing the same dugout, is over.
May it keep you warm this winter.