- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
- 0 Shares
Walt Weiss established an impeccable reputation in his 14 years as a big league shortstop. But it hasn't completely saved him from being the latest curiosity to be rolled out by the Colorado Rockies, a franchise that has aggressively compiled its share of flakeouts and oddball moments in its 20-year history. Did you happen to catch Project 5,183 last season? How about the humidor conspiracy theories to go with that grassy, boulder-strewn knoll beyond the outfield fence? Coors Field is the high-altitude stadium where power hitters go to feast and pitchers are dragged out to cry and die.
So the word that the Rockies had to pry Weiss away from his only previous managing gig sounded like an accomplishment -- until the addendum that he was finishing a one-year managing stay at his sons' high school team in suburban Denver, and Weiss admittedly had no intention of leaving there. But the Rockies, for whom he played for four seasons, extended a surprise offer to take over their 98-loss team in October, and then lavished him with -- wait -- just a one-year contract? That's it?
This, too, goes right into the Rockies' overstuffed filing cabinet drawer marked "Weird."
There aren't many managers who arrive at Opening Day with a perfect record and still find themselves on the hot seat. But that could be Weiss's fate later this year. An organizational vote of so-so confidence is not the same kiss of death as a vote of no confidence. But it is a novel message for a franchise to send to its clubhouse and its suffering fans after other organizational hijinks drove previous manager Jim Tracy to walk away from $1.4 million contract in disgust, and a local radio host held a mocking "Road to 100" losses countdown last season.
Who rings in a new era by saying "This is our guy!"* (We think)?
The Colorado Rockies do. This is the same franchise that decided in July that fans would not be allowed to wear bags over their heads at the stadium -- and not because of some crunchy granola, tree-hugger paper versus plastic debate, but because: "As a security measure, post-9/11, any clothing which conceals a guest's face is prohibited, including but not limited to, costumes and masks," explained Jay Alves, the Rockies' vice president of communications and public relations.
"That would include bags over a guest's head."
Nobody bought the homeland security angle. It led to complaints and comebacks like this post on a fan message board:
Choose a comment:
1. The terrorists have won but not the Rockies.
2. When paper bags are outlawed only outlaws will have paper bags.
Weiss' credentials are not the looming problem here.
Baseball people who know him well -- everyone from his former Oakland A's manager Tony La Russa to Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto to Rockies veteran Todd Helton, have given him unqualified raves. They've predicted that the same traits and temperament that made Weiss a winning player and respected clubhouse leader will surface now that he's a manager. They say he's smart, committed, outwardly even-keeled and excellent at communicating. They predict he'll be good at helping players divine ways to succeed and squelch outside distractions. He'll inspire effort and loyalty, two traits Weiss has said he valued about his Atlanta manager, Bobby Cox.
At his introductory news conference, Weiss said: "My convictions on how we play this game are extremely strong. I need to communicate that to the players, and that's what I will try to do. There is a right way and a wrong way to play this game. We will do it the right way."
Whether the Rockies management can be trusted to make intelligent decisions is the thing mucking up this season's hopes.
Two decades into their existence, the Rockies still stand accused of having little idea how to construct a team to play in Denver's mile-high altitude and away from it. The Rockies have had a winning road record just once in franchise history, and that was the 2009 wild-card team that went 41-40 away from home, took off on a 22-5 streak after Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle during the season, but fell to earth against the Phillies in the playoffs.
Coors Field's thin air has been blamed for everything from the way pitches tumble through the air (or not) to the way balls fly out of the park.
And the conspiracy theories that the Rockies used non-humidor-stored balls to boost their offense were already thriving among opponents by the time Giants star Tim Lincecum was caught on camera in September 2010 muttering "Juiced ball" -- there, someone said it! -- after serving up a home run. Giants general manager Brian Sabean griped to Major League Baseball, and MLB officials ordered that starting immediately, an umpire would enter the humidor near the Rockies clubhouse and carry out the game-used ready balls himself. Then the balls must remain in the umpire's view during games. Before that, a batboy retrieved them and there was no supervision.
All of that has happened. And still the Rockies outdid themselves last season. Last season still ranks as their piece de odd existence.
Some experiments were tried that left the Rockies' front office accused of trying to re-invent baseball. And they aren't easily forgotten. Even Weiss said on the day he was hired, "There's no reinventing the wheel."
General manager Dan O'Dowd came up with his infamous Project 5,183, which was named for how many feet above sea level Denver sits, after injuries diminished the pitching staff and every-day lineup (All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki missed 115 games). Tracy -- the NL manager of the year just three seasons earlier -- was now ordered to use a four-man pitching rotation that limited each starter to 75 pitches no matter how well he happened to be performing, and three "piggyback" relievers (also O'Dowd's term) were designated to pitch each day after that. The theory was the pitchers would better protected from injury and burnout. And they'd be schooled to make every pitch count.
It was unique. But was it smart? Merely desperate?
Again, the in-house party line was wishy-washy: Both!
Tracy, still trying to be a good solider, told Yahoo! Sports the first week in August: "When you are in a situation like we're in, it's nuts to be afraid to change and try something different. What do we have to lose?"
Project 5,183 was abandoned after two months of lousy results. It supposedly won't return this year. As it turned out, Tracy seemed more dead set against the Rockies' insistence on continuing another novel arrangement into this season: Senior vice president of major league operations Bill Geivett moved into the clubhouse in August to an office perhaps 50 feet from the manager's office at Coors Field, for the stated purpose of evaluating the players and coaching staff.
Geivett is still there.
Critics have screamed that Big Brother is watching.
Weiss says he is fine with that, too.
But -- like his one-year contract -- why?
Various explanations have been floated. There are Weiss's own contentions that he couldn't care less about the length of the deal and actually forgot to ask what the terms were when he took the job. He says he still lives by the same law of the baseball jungle that he always faced as a player: If you don't do well, they'll go get somebody else.
There's been speculation that perhaps Weiss accepted the gig as a favor to the organization, and especially his besieged pal, O'Dowd, for whom he worked as a special assistant from 2002-08 after retiring as a player in 2000.
The Rockies could, if they wanted to, harp on the fact that Geivett works under same year-to-year arrangement. They could mention that owner Dick Monfort insisted at Weiss's introductory news conference, "This is Walt's job as long as he wants." But the statement might rank as more than an air kiss if Monfort actually put it in writing.
So far, nobody is romanticizing Weiss' short-term guarantee the way they have Walter Alston's tenure with the Dodgers when he worked on a series of 23 one-year contracts back in the day.
This Walt is here to stay. Or not. He could be destined for great things. Or he's saddled with a so-so chance to succeed because the organization he's embedded in is flawed.
The Rockies have now flip-flopped again and adopted the official stance that playing in altitude is actually -- hold onto your paper bags -- a tremendous thing. That's right. This, though there are stacks of empirical evidence to the contrary.
"We firmly believe we have one of the best home field advantages in all of baseball," Rockies spokesman Nick Piburn wrote in an email this week.
But Piburn added that Geivett, O'Dowd and Weiss all declined an ESPN.com request to jump on the telephone to talk about it.
At least the Rockies are off to an encouraging start. They flew home for Friday's home opener feeling good about winning two out of three in their season-opening series in Milwaukee. After Weiss's first managerial win Tuesday, his players did a very nice thing. They presented him with a 2002 bottle of Dom Perignon.
That was, as they say in the champagne business, a very good year.
At the end of this season, perhaps Weiss can say the same about 2013.