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Thursday, March 15, 2007
Finley showing Rockies he still can play

By Jerry Crasnick

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Steve Finley's upper right arm bears a small tattoo of an infinity symbol -- an adornment he shares with his wife, Amy, as a sign of mutual commitment. The Finleys have stayed together through 15 years of marriage and five children, so something must be working.

Although Finley doesn't plan to play baseball for eternity, it's not beyond the realm of possibility. A few more summers in uniform, and he'll be creeping into Julio Franco territory.

Steve Finley
Finley has batted .272 over 18 seasons, and his 2,531 hits rank fourth among active players.
Last year, Finley and Reggie Sanders joined Willie Mays, Andre Dawson, and Barry and Bobby Bonds in the 300-homer, 300-stolen base club. Finley has five Gold Glove Awards and two All-Star Game appearances in his portfolio, and he rode in a World Series parade with Arizona in 2001. If you total his annual compensation from his debut season with Baltimore in 1989 to the present, the figure approaches $70 million.

So why is Finley in Colorado's camp this spring on a minor league contract competing for a spot on the Opening Day roster? Because he can't get the game out of his system.

And if a guy sticks around long enough, you never know when he might become the answer to a trivia question.

At 42, Finley is in line to surpass Jeff Fassero as the oldest player in Rockies history. But a more novel distinction also awaits: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he could become the first player ever to appear for every major league club in a five-team division.

Actually, it's a dual distinction in Rockies camp. Reliever Matt Herges, who also signed a minor league contract, has played for the other four NL West clubs (including an eight-inning cameo with Arizona in 2005) and is hoping the Rockies make it five.

Finley, to be honest, was hoping for more. If the Cubs had traded Jacque Jones and shifted Alfonso Soriano to right, they were thinking about bringing him in for a year to baby-sit the center-field position until Felix Pie was ready to play full time. Finley still regards himself as a 500 at-bat guy, even if lots of scouts and talent evaluators disagree.

At Colorado's camp in Tucson, Finley is trying to show he has something left in the tank. The Rockies want him to set a positive example for their young players, pass along his baseball knowledge, play a competent center field, provide some thump, take the load off Willy Taveras and go full bore even if it's only for 300 at-bats.

Finley made a strong early impression in camp, hitting .375 in his first eight Cactus League games and looking awfully spry for a baseball geriatric. Even when he has absolutely nothing left to give, it will be hard to tell -- because he has the body of a 25-year-old and the energy to match.

"Playing against him, I always respected him and thought he was a great player," said Rockies right fielder Brad Hawpe. "Playing with him the last week or two, I realize I didn't give him enough respect. When you look at the guy's approach, his attitude and his work ethic, it's unbelievable."

If Finley had taken a whirlwind tour of, say, the American League Central division, he might be an authority on the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, the Magnificent Mile, Gates Bar-B-Q, the Mall of America and the Henry Ford Museum.

Instead, he's an expert on the San Diego Zoo, Rodeo Drive, Fisherman's Wharf, Scottsdale's golfing scene and the quirks of playing ball at 5,280 feet.

So what's it like to spend 12 years roaming the same division? Here are Steve Finley's bests and worsts, favorites and least favorites from his professional adventure -- otherwise known as "Around the National League West in Roughly 4,380 Days."

Favorite NL West park: A dead heat between Los Angeles and Arizona
Finley loves Dodger Stadium (.280) and Bank One Ballpark (.298), even though he has higher career batting averages in Coors Field (.314) and -- get this -- the universally maligned Candlestick Park (.330).

Although Finley hit enough triples at San Francisco's AT&T Park last year that the vast expanse in right center field is now known as "Finley's Alley," he batted only .226 overall.

Toughest outfield to play: Coors Field, in the pre-humidor days
The "old" Coors was a challenge primarily for its unpredictability. Finley remembers charging balls with the expectation of fielding them on one hop, only to watch them take off and strafe his ankles. Balls he expected to catch at eye level sailed over his head. For years, he joked that outfielders in Colorado were little more than glorified "ball retrievers."

Easiest outfield to play: AT&T Park
The Giants' new park is easier than you'd expect because balls hit down the right field line frequently drift toward the right center field gap. Finley, as a center fielder, liked to wave the right fielder several steps toward him, then shade toward left center.

"You can tick off a lot of left-handed hitters there," Finley said. "As big as it is out there, you can actually make the park smaller."

Favorite NL West teammates: Luis Gonzalez and Mark Sweeney
Finley played with Gonzalez in Houston and Arizona. He and Sweeney played for San Diego's World Series team in 1998 and reunited with the Giants last year.

"If you don't like those guys, there's something wrong with you," Finley said.

Funniest teammates: Omar Vizquel and Carlos Baerga
"I loved Omar Vizquel," Finley said. "He tells some really long jokes and he has his own way of telling them, but he can make every joke very funny. He would always come up with jokes on the loudspeaker on the bus."

Worst traffic: Los Angeles
Upon joining the Dodgers, Finley immediately ruled out living in several areas because he didn't want to spend an hour stewing on the freeway on his way to the park. "At least in Phoenix, you can get off the main highways and take side streets to where you want to go," Finley said. "In L.A., you can't. You're stuck."

Best food: San Francisco
If Finley hadn't worked out like a demon during his season in San Francisco, he might have ended up looking like David Wells.

"There's such an eclectic mix of restaurants in that city," he said. "It's a mini-New York. Sushi. Steak. Italian. Whatever you want, you can find a small cubbyhole somewhere to find really, really good food. You name it, it's fantastic."

"People actually enjoy it when it rains in San Diego because we never get it. It's a nice change of pace. When you live in Southern California, everybody says, 'It's so expensive there.' I tell them, 'It's just a very expensive weather tax.'"
-- Steve Finley

Best weather: San Diego
Finley and his family live in San Diego, so he can understand how the Padres try to sell the climate when they attempt to sign players to the famed "San Diego discount."

"People actually enjoy it when it rains in San Diego because we never get it," Finley said. "It's a nice change of pace. When you live in Southern California, everybody says, 'It's so expensive there.' I tell them, 'It's just a very expensive weather tax.'"

Weirdest NL West memory: The September whiteout in Denver
This one actually occurred when Finley was playing for Houston and the Astros visited Colorado during the Rockies' inaugural season in 1993. Finley and Gonzalez checked into their hotel about midnight, then went to the Hooters downstairs to have some wings and a beer while enjoying the 70-degree weather outside.

The next morning, Finley recalls, his phone rang at 8:30. It was his buddy Gonzalez, telling him to look out the window.

"We got eight inches of snow," Finley said. "I remember going to the ballpark and it was 30 degrees and thinking, 'What are we doing here?' The next day, it was 70 and sunny again, and all the snow had melted."

The Rockies and Astros played a doubleheader, and Houston got swept. On the positive side, Finley went 4-for-10 with a triple and a home run.

Favorite team: The world champion 2001 Diamondbacks
Finley, Gonzalez, Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Tony Womack, Damian Miller, Randy Johnson and Brian Anderson were among the players who helped Buck Showalter's Diamondbacks win 100 games in 1999.

Two years later, with Bob Brenly in the dugout and Curt Schilling in the rotation, the D-Backs won 92 games, beat St. Louis and Atlanta in the playoffs, and outlasted the Yankees in a memorable World Series.

"You looked around the room and thought, 'You know what, it's going to happen this year,'" Finley said. "We were together the whole year and there weren't any injuries, and the camaraderie was as good as any team I've ever been around. Nobody cared about who was the hero. It was a true team in every sense of the word."

Best individual memory: The Wayne Franklin encounter
Finley's grand slam off San Francisco's Wayne Franklin capped a seven-run ninth inning to clinch the NL West title for the Dodgers on the final weekend of the 2004 season. Strangely enough, Finley had envisioned hitting a walk-off homer to win the division title two weeks earlier.

"I wanted that moment so bad," he said. "I was on deck, and I told myself, 'You hardly get any opportunities in your career like this, so enjoy this moment.' On the replay, you'll see that I don't even look at the pitcher or the catcher. I walked to the plate looking at the crowd all around. I knew I was going to get the job done. There was no doubt in my mind."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.