DENVER—The Colorado Rockies will eventually find a new president. They won’t, however, replace Keli McGregor.
The loss will be felt by the lives he has touched, and then some. McGregor had an ability to make things better in life. So his unexpected death this week at age 48 has understandably left the Rockies shaken.
McGregor’s fame originally came on athletic fields. He was a two-time all-American tight end at Colorado State before playing in the NFL. More importantly, as original Rockies managing general partner Jerry McMorris put it, “He was an all-American in life.”
McMorris’ relationship with McGregor began 30 years ago. McGregor was an athletic specimen, recruited to Colorado State by Leon Fuller to play football. His roommate was Mike McMorris, a fragile youngster who had cystic fibrosis. They became like brothers and lived together throughout college.
“Many nights, when Mike had a setback, Keli would be up, taking care of him until we could get there,” McMorris said.
Mike had a fascination with athletics, even though he couldn’t participate, and McGregor found a way for him to be a part of things. He spoke with Bruce about making Mike McMorris the team manager, and McMorris could not have been prouder to have the opportunity.
At the time, Jerry McMorris owned a trucking company but had no involvement in sports. The Rockies were not even a figment of the imagination.
“It was just a sign of Keli and his way of caring for people,” McMorris said. “He was doing what he could without any concern except helping Mike enjoy his time. As a parent, you never forget those things.”
Mike died 16 years ago, at the age of 32. His memory lives on, in no small part by McGregor’s eager assistance with Jerry and Mary McMorris in their fund-raising efforts to find a cure for cystic fibrosis.
“No question about it,” McMorris said, “he was a special man.”
McGregor was Colorado, tried and true. Though he was born in Iowa, he was raised in the Denver area, and his father was the longtime football coach at Arvada West High in suburban Denver. After high school he attended Colorado State, where he grew from a 6-foot-1, 180-pound freshman into a 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end who became a fourth-round choice in the 1985 NFL draft.
McGregor’s professional life began with the Denver Broncos, and it also took him to Indianapolis and Seattle. After his playing days ended, coaching took him to Gainesville, where he was on the Florida staff for two years while he earned his master’s degree in education with an emphasis on athletic administration.
From there he went to Arkansas in 1990, where he was the associate athletic director and Frank Broyles’ hand-chosen replacement. He was so integral there that when Arkansas won the NCAA basketball championship, coach Nolan Richardson, in the midst of the locker room celebration, took time to call McGregor, and had each player get on the phone to thank him for what he did to help the program.
Eventually McMorris brought him home to Colorado, to work for the Rockies when they joined the National League in 1993. McGregor started as senior director of operations, with the idea that he would eventually ascend to run the franchise, which he did.
McGregor was the calming influence in the Rockies organization. He helped provide the stability that allowed the Rockies to undertake a long-term rebuilding plan in the early 2000s, which has resulted in the franchise using a homegrown nucleus to advance to the playoffs twice in the last three years.
McGregor helped Dick and Charlie Monfort, who are now the owners of the Rockies, deal with the frustrations that came from the long-term approach, and he kept general manager Dan O’Dowd from the emotional highs and lows that baseball brings from day to day.
McGregor’s abilities did not go unnoticed. He was a frequent target of other franchises, including last summer when Rogers Communications, which owns the Blue Jays, wooed him to oversee its sports operations. That included not only the Jays and the Rogers Centre, but also efforts to bring the NFL Buffalo Bills to Toronto.
“He was a young man who walked into the room with an older group of
owners, and commanded respect,” said commissioner Bud Selig, who ordered a moment of silence at all major league games on Tuesday. “He brought a new thought
process into the group and did it in a way that it was accepted and
welcomed. He was a consensus builder.
“He will be sorely missed.”
In fact, some thought McGregor would have been a strong candidate to replace Selig if the commissioner does retire, as he has announced, after the 2012 season.
That’s all by the boards now. The next issue is what the Rockies will do next? Nobody knows, and for now, nobody really cares.
There was not a succession plan in place because nobody expected McGregor to go anywhere. Not at the age of 48 and not in his physical condition. He ran five miles every day. He worked out regularly. He was careful with his diet.
But on Tuesday morning, after a Monday evening marketing event for the Rockies in Salt Lake City, McGregor was gone.
When he didn’t show up in the hotel lobby to go to the airport for a flight back to Denver, McGregor’s chief adjutant, Greg Feasal, executive vice president of business operations, called hotel security. They entered McGregor’s room and found him face down on the floor.
“Stunned,” said Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, who grew up in the Rockies organization as a player while McGregor grew up as a member of the management team. “You look at him, you talk to him, you never expect something like this, not with him.
“He was a force in life, not just in athletics.”