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It’s time the Rockies and baseball at altitude be taken seriously

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The Rockies are a fun team, but they aren’t only a fun team

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When this year’s edition of the Baseball Prospectus Annual downloaded to my iPhone, I excitedly turned to the Colorado Rockies section and settled in to see what Robert O’Connell, this year’s essayist, had to say.

I was disappointed and frustrated. I expected more insight into a Rockies baseball team—a team that made the 2017 NL Wild Card game after a tumultuous season and amidst a distinct moment in the club’s history. What I got instead was a contemplation of Rockies’ frivolity.

The first focus is on #Coors, a stadium that is, O’Connell says, “more famous than any player who has played in it.” If that’s true, and it may be, it’s both a shame and a potential reason why Larry Walker’s bid to get into the Hall of Fame has been frustrated. I’ve come to see statements like this as intellectual laziness. It’s an easy narrative about the Moutain Time Zone’s lone baseball team that gives people a reason to not pay attention.

In addition to #Coors, for O’Connell, Rockies baseball is about having a good time, and not much more. References to “fun” litter the essay.

When O’Connell describes the Rockies’ 2017 playoff as “goofily thrilling,” the reader gets a sense of how he sees this team. They’re a lark. Or there’s this: “They played baseball not only expertly but righteously, according to my almost certainly outdated understanding of mountain-bum vernacular. They were good enough to secure wins and fun enough to redeem losses. They built MVP cases and team identity in equal measure.”

For O’Connell, Rockies baseball is mostly premised on having a good time. He writes, “A heretofore distracted baseball universe finally saw what fun stuff was going on in Colorado and smiled on it.” His approach suggests the Rockies are a lackadaisical squad, less concerned about winning than other, more serious, baseball teams. Of course, baseball should be fun, but reducing a team to its entertainment value is, at best, condescending.

To be fair, O’Connell gets how good Nolan Arenado is: “He treats everything hit his way like it’s a dare, leaping after liners, dropping his hand to snatch up even hard-hit groundballs.” Okay, that’s some righteous description.

Charlie Blackmon fares less well. While O’Connell acknowledges Blackmon’s skill, his praise is unfortunately undercut by focusing on Chuck Nazty’s look: “His face stays set, behind the island-stranded beard and roadie mullet, and his legs stay balanced.” To emphasize the point, Blackmon is also described as “shaggy-maned and sweet-swinging.” Of his fielding, O'Connell writes, “[H]e makes it look like the pleasantest sort of work.”

In other words, it’s fun. Just fun.

Just to be clear, last season, Blackmon won the NL batting title and broke the record for RBIs by a lead-off hitter. He’s a gifted athlete who works incredibly hard at what he does, so focusing on his retro-80s look is to overplay the fun and downplay the seriousness with which Blackmon approaches the game.

“A cast of oddballs” join Arenado and Blackmon, according to O’Connell. There’s DJ LeMahieu, who “fields grounders by loping over and crumpling on top of them like a dropped bedsheet,” and Jon Gray with “a mean slider and a ghostly stare.” O’Connell acknowledges that Ian Desmond and Trevor Story had disappointing years, which, he mostly attributes to Coors: “the too-big swing, the outsized power-number ambition.”

O’Connell argues that the 2018 Rockies won’t be able to compete with the Dodgers, a reasonable position. If it’s possible to agree on anything, it’s that the NL West will be very competitive. He predicts the Rockies will compete again and “spend another year tracking and refining their young starting pitchers, building their knowledge about how to survive in baseball’s toughest pitching park.”

But, ultimately, for O’Connell, the message is all about fun: “Arenado and Blackmon alone make the Rockies a plenty good time—which means they’re right where they’re supposed to be.” Because baseball at Coors is just that—a good time.

So, Baseball Prospectus, next year, please let the author of the Rockies essay be someone who knows the team, and wants to know the team, rather than “an envious Plains Stater [who] gets[s] an aspirational sunburn and altitude headache just seeing it on TV.” The problem isn’t where O’Connell lives. The the fact that he sees himself as so distant from the Rockies and consciously makes that the center of the essay is.

We know the base element of baseball is its fun entertainment value, but Rockies fans and players also take baseball as seriously as fans and teams from other cities. It would be nice if the essayist did, too.