One Colorado professional sports team is in crisis. They aren’t winning and don’t seem like they know how to configure a winning blueprint.
That last sentence could apply to the Denver Broncos or the Colorado Rockies. The first sentence only applies to the Broncos. Losing doesn’t send the Rockies into crisis because winning simply isn’t a priority.
Ownership and Identity
As the seventh straight losing season comes to a close, the Denver Broncos, plagued by a lack of identity and problematic hiring, team-building, and play-calling choices, have fired their coach and are trying to make changes to right the ship for a once proud organization that has won three Super Bowls. After Pat Bowlen bought the team in 1984, he transformed Denver into a winning organization, earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in part by becoming the only owner to win 300 games in 30 years. His motto? “I want to be No. 1 in everything.”
The Rockies? They have zero championships or division championships in 30 years with five playoff appearances and one National League pennant. Their identity has shifted from a team that broke MLB’s record for the fastest expansion team to make the playoffs (third season) led by the Blake Street Bombers to a pitching-centered team under Bud Black that went to the playoffs twice (2017 and 2018). As the Monforts went from part-time owners to majority owners, they have relied on a beautiful stadium and wonderful Colorado weather to do most of the work of selling tickets instead of building a culture of winning that can use high altitude as an advantage instead of a hindrance (admittedly, a hard problem to solve).
After firing their head coach earlier this week, Broncos CEO Greg Penner apologized to fans for the embarrassing state of the franchise and product on the field. He was already making changes and figuring out new ways to change more.
After their fourth straight losing season, Rockies owner Dick Monfort wrote in a letter that “It has now been four years since our last postseason appearance, and this is not acceptable.” He admitted there were no excuses, said the organization’s prospects are looking strong for the future, and reminded fans that Coors Field is beautiful. On the surface, they’re the right things to say, but it winning is still not prioritized. The offseason so far has been filled with small moves and inaction that will result in a similar product on the field in 2023 that doesn’t project many more wins. The plan is for contention in 2024 or 2025, but the pitching staff and offensive production remain giant question marks.
Toward the end of the letter, Monfort ended with a big head-scratcher: “We all want the same thing. That is why we are more dedicated than ever to bringing you a Rockies Championship.”
Not a World Series Championship. Not a team that contends year in and year out in the NL West. A Rockies Championship. What exactly is a Rockies Championship? Is it a self-identified label describing a team that sells a lot of tickets and has enough intrigue on the field to keep the loyal fan base believing they could win on any given day? Could be.
In reality, a win won’t come on most of those days, but that doesn’t matter because the Rockies have never been the kind of team that is invested in the realities of what it takes to win in a challenging mile-high, mid-market environment. Winning isn’t the Rockies identity.
In a recent interview on MLB Network at the Winter Meetings, Bill Schmidt talked about his competitive nature. Athletes and people involved in sports should be competitive, which makes it all the more confounding how a front office can be so resistant to prioritizing winning and making whatever changes necessary to make that happen.
But that’s just who the Rockies are. They aren’t the only team in MLB like this and they aren’t the only team in professional sports.
A Soccer Analogy
In 2021, sports journalist and author Simon Kuper, who writes about sports “from an anthropologic perspective,” wrote a book called “The Barcelona Complex” about FC Barcelona that came out right around the time Lionel Messi had to leave the team. Around the same time, Kuper went on the Takeline podcast and talked with host Jason Concepcion. Concepcion asked him about how leagues like La Liga or The Premier League could even the playing field for smaller market teams in less favorable situations to be completive with the well-funded, big market teams. His response has stuck with me. Kuper said,
“Can we get small towns winning championships? I don’t think we need to. I think football has an ecosystem where every club has its function. So, the function of Manchester United or Real Madrid is to play for the big prizes, to win titles. And the function of Hartlepool is maybe got promotion a division and their fans are happy. Function of Newcastle is maybe you win, you know, you win a cup or you beat Manchester United at home. And, you know, Newcastle, they typically have 50,000 people in the stadium. They haven’t won the league, I think, for 75 years. So those fans are not stupid ... Those fans know we’re never going to win the league, in my lifetime we’re never going to win the league. But I’m not coming for that reason. So every club at every level of football has its function. They don’t actually have to win stuff.”
Sure, soccer is different than baseball. But couldn’t we substitute Yankees, Cardinals, and Dodgers, as well as some other high-spending or winning contenders like the Mets, Astros, Giants, and Braves as the Real Madrids and Manchester Uniteds and put in teams who have never won a World Series like the Rockies, Mariners, Rangers, Brewers, Rays, and Padres, or low-spenders like the Pirates and A’s, as the Newcastles? With the caveat that the Rays still win a lot and the Padres are spending money to win a lot, but it hasn’t worked out yet. With their high attendance, the Rockies arguably fit the profile best.
Every club has its function. The Rockies brought baseball to Colorado. Coors Field, Rocktober, Todd Helton, and wonderful memories all exist because the Rockies do. I am glad the Rockies came to be.
Winning just may not be their function.
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Considering 2022 wasn’t full of Rockies highlights, it’s cool to see one on David Adler’s list of the 11 best plays. Colorado made the list with C.J. Cron’s homer on Sept. 9 that left his bat at 110 mph and landed 504 feet later, making it the longest homer of the 2022 season. It really was a thing of beauty and worth watching a few times. With the shot, Cron because only the third player in the Statcast era to notch a 500-foot homer. Cron hit two in the top 11 in distance (also No. 7 at 486 feet) in MLB in 2022, sandwiching Ryan McMahon’s 495-foot blast, which came in at No. 4.
Former Colorado Rockie turned sports writer Mark Knudson has an optimistic prediction for Ezequiel Tovar in 2023: He’ll be the National League Rookie of the Year. Knudson has some interesting comparisons to Troy Tulowitzki, as well as some fun rationale as to why Tovar could win.
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