“This franchise is one of the most successful not just in baseball, but in all of sports. They put 45,000-50,000 people in there (Coors Field) every night. They have a chance to win, and now we’ll find out if we can. I feel like we’ve got a chance.”
Those were the words of an optimistic Jim Leyland after he signed a record $6 million three-year deal to serve as the second manager in Colorado Rockies history in 1998. He ended up lasting just the 1999 season in Colorado, but following the recent announcement that he is headed to the Hall of Fame, it’s worthwhile to take a look back on the oft-forgotten season of his managerial career.
Leyland will go down as one of the best managers in MLB history. After several successful stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins, including a World Series title in 1997, Leyland left the Marlins after a disastrous 1998 season where the Marlins cut payroll and continued to pull the rug out from under Leyland. Wanting more stability and a team committed to winning and building a sustained roster, he found himself drawn to the Rocky Mountains.
He already had a good relationship with general manager Bob Gebhard and the Rockies front office and felt confident the team would make right on their promise to pursue premium free agents.
“That (the payroll) was a huge factor,” Leyland said to reporters. ”I loved both places I’ve been. But, from a career standpoint, it is the most stable situation I’ve had, without a doubt. The only question is if we can get good enough. They need more chemistry there. But it’s not a situation where everybody is up in the air every year.”
The foundation was set from a position player standpoint. The Rockies had budding star Todd Helton, and three of the Blake Street Bombers, including 1997 MVP Larry Walker. They also had an improving Neifi Perez and a slew of other players to contribute at the plate and benefit from the early days of Coors Field. As always it was going to come down to whether pitching could hold up over the season.
“I’ve always said it’s the toughest place in the majors to manage,” he said at the introductory press conference. ”We’ve got to do a psych job on some of those promising arms they’ve got there.”
Aside from Leyland, the Rockies had a relatively meager offseason. They made a myriad of signings of veterans, with left-handed pitcher Brian Bohanon’s three-year $9 million deal being the main move for starting pitching. Additionally, the team signed Darryl Hamilton to replace Ellis Burks in center field and brought in Henry Blanco and Kirt Manwaring to do the catching. Not exactly the promises the team had made to Leyland with both Mike Piazza and Kevin Brown on the market.
Still, Leyland rallied his troops and prepared them for what was viewed as an important season for the Rockies. The shine from their beginnings under Don Baylor were wearing off. They had a beautiful new ballpark and made the playoffs in 1995, but things had stagnated and the team was coming off a year in which they lost 85 games and finished fourth in the division. Needing the seasoned voice of a champion, the Rockies felt Leyland could right the ship and send the Rockies in uncharted waters.
The Rockies went 9-10 in the first month of the season. On April 15, the Rockies beat the San Diego Padres 6-4 to earn Leyland’s 1000th career win as a manager. In the first month of the season, the foreboding monster facing Leyland that was as Coors Field was already taking a toll on the new manager.
Following an 11-10 victory over the Montreal Expos on April 19, Leyland told Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post, “I’ve been through the wringer. I’m going to look like Don Knotts and Telly Savalas all rolled into one by the time this (bleeping) season is over with, if this keeps going the way it is. But you know what? I like it, too. It’s (bleeping) exciting. I mean, in this ballpark, you never know.’’
Admittingly, Leyland knew he was still figuring things out as he adjusted to managing full-time at Coors Field, but the home town fans and critics weren’t as patient. The Rockies believed he could add 15 more wins to their record, but the fanbase wasn’t so sure.
“This is a place, where if you’re the home-team manager, you might as well get used to getting your (butt) booed,’’ he said at the time. “‘And I understand that.’’
Unfortunately, the Rockies didn’t give fans many chances to cheer for the rest of the season. They never had a winning record in a month, with a 13-13 month of June being the closest. Sure, the team had one of the best offenses in baseball, leading in AVG, SLG, and home runs, but it was the pitching that was their demise.
In the starting rotation, only 24-year-old Jamey Wright had an ERA under four. Pedro Astacio made 34 starts and won 17 of them with a 5.04 ERA. The rest of the rotation made plenty of starts and ate innings, but the entire staff was just not good enough in 1999. Their team ERA of 6.03 ranks as the eight-highest in MLB history dating back to 1871. The 6.19 ERA for the starting rotation is the sixth-highest in MLB history. Bohanon, the Rockies main acquisition, had 6.20 ERA in 197 innings.
The Rockies were forced to be sellers at the trade deadline and through August. They also forced Gebhard to resign as general manager in mid-August. By September 8, with the team sitting at a 62-78 record, Leyland made the official announcement that he would be resigning as manager after the season and likely retiring. The reason? Pitching.
“Colorado was a bad decision for me,” he said years later. “I was a pitcher’s manager, and I just couldn’t do it in that ballpark.”
In 2017, he told Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post, “I was always a pitcher’s manager, and I just felt, at the end of the day, after being there a year, that I couldn’t run a pitching staff the way I needed to run it,” Leyland said. “I tried, and tried and tried, but I just wasn’t a good fit.”
It was a year that Leyland always regretted, as he described to Saunders how much he loved the people of Colorado and the owner and how he wished he “could have done a better job.”
“I never said anything about the ballpark, but I wasn’t a 9-8 manager, I wasn’t a 12-9 or an 11-10 manager,’’ Leyland told ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian in 2000. “It was like slow-pitch softball. I’d look at the frustration on our pitcher’s faces, and it frustrated me so much. I thought, ‘I can’t go through this again.’ ‘’
A man of honor, Leyland gave up the $4.5 million still owed to him from his contract saying, “I wasn’t doing a good service for the organization,’’ he said. “I’ve never been treated better than I was by management in Colorado. I couldn’t take the money. I’m sure I disappointed Bob Gebhard. I know I disappointed Jerry McMorris. I still feel bad about that. But I just felt that, for me, it was time to go home and be with the kids.’’
And that was the end. Leyland retired after a disappointing 72-90 season, believing he would never manage again. He focused on his kids, while working as a scout with the St. Louis Cardinals. Teams would occasionally call and Leyland eventually felt that itch to manage again. He interviewed with the Phillies in 2004 but didn’t get the job before the Detroit Tigers came calling in 2005 to begin a long and fruitful relationship until he retired in 2013.
Finally, the call to Hall came in 2023. Leyland’s time in Colorado was brief and quirky. What began as an optimistic union devolved into disappointment, frustration, and separation. It’s a lesson in the fact that pedigree can only do so much when it comes to coaches and players when they are not given the right tools to accomplish the task. Leyland just didn’t have the pitching despite a great offense. Dan O’Dowd was then brought in as the general manager, hired Buddy Bell, and began a teardown and restructuring of the roster philosophy that is still being felt today.
At the end of the day, Leyland is rightfully deserving of being enshrined in Cooperstown and now has the incredible possibility of not only joining Larry Walker in the Hall of Fame, but being inducted alongside Todd Helton.
Thomas Harding recaps some of the news on Monday about the Rockies' plans this offseason, particularly when it comes to pitching. It’s frustrating to see them continually dismiss acquiring free agent pitching because of their mistake in 2001 with Mike Hampton, but it’s a matter of trying to find good pitching while not giving up too much in terms of prospects or money.
In case you missed it, the 2nd annual draft lottery occurred on Tuesday and while the Rockies had top odds for the number one overall pick, they retained their slot and will pick third in the 2024 draft. Both the Athletics and Royals dropped out of the top three while the Cleveland Guardians, and their 2% odds, ended up with the number one pick.
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