DENVER—The statement was made on Opening Day.
The Monfort Brothers, Dick and Charlie, managing general partners of the Rockies, announced two-year contract extensions for general manager Dan O’Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle.
The announcement produced a knee-jerk reaction among many members of the media, aghast that a franchise which had enjoyed only one winning season (and that was an 82-80 slate) in nine years, and had not been to the postseason in 11 years, would reward its leadership with job security.
The Monforts, however, were looking at a bigger picture. They were looking at a transition that O’Dowd and Hurdle had led. They were seeing the results of an emphasis that had been placed on scouting and player development, including an expansion into Latin America. Instead of disappointments in the past, they saw hope for the future.
The reward came sooner than they anticipated.
A Rockies team that was a consensus pick to finish in either four or fifth place in the National League West for a 10th consecutive season instead played well all season with an overwhelmingly homegrown squad, then put on the strongest season-ending push in baseball history. Colorado won 14 of its last 15 regular season games, then beat the Padres in a one-game playoff to win the NL wild card, knocked off the Phillies in a Division Series and then swept the Diamondbacks in the NL Championship Series. A week off seemed to dent their momentum, and the Rockies’ dream season ended by getting swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.
That didn’t take any luster off the year, though. And the Rockies did it the old-fashioned way.
“We don’t have any hired guns,” first baseman Todd Helton said.
The Rockies are a homemade success story. And the crowning moment comes with the franchise being selected Organization of the Year by Baseball America.
“This is more fulfilling than any award any of us could have won,” O’Dowd said. “It affirms the efforts of the entire organization. It is recognition of the work everyone in the organization has done, from the business side to the baseball side.
“This is what our organization is about, the sum of the parts, not one individual.”
It’s also notable that the folks who created the organization that won the Organization of the Year are the folks who are being recognized for the work they have done. This isn’t an organization that has gone through upheaval, with a new administration reaping the rewards of work done before they got here.
The folks in Colorado are the ones who have felt every bump in the road on this journey to success. They are the ones who were the targets of the critics. But they ultimately got the chance to see their project through.
“What has happened in the last six, seven months proved that the people we have in place have the capability we knew they did,” Charlie Monfort said. “When we announced the extensions for Dan and Clint, it reached farther than the manager and general manager. The farm system was good. The scouting was good. We knew Clint could bring them together at the big league level. This is gratifying not for ownership, but to know that after the slings and arrows that everyone in our organization took, maybe we did know what we were doing.
“You have to realize that when you get rid of one person in baseball you get rid of the organization. Dan O’Dowd is (scouting director) Bill Schmidt and (vice president baseball operations) Bill Geivett and (farm director) Mark Gustafson. Consistency is what you need. You want people to feel they can do their job and not look over their shoulder after every loss. Consistency is what you need and we’ve had a system in place for eight years. Stability is any business is good.”
Steady As She Goes
O’Dowd is now fifth among general managers in terms of tenure with his current franchise. And the four who are ahead of him? Kevin Towers with the Padres, Billy Beane with the Athletics, Brian Sabean with the Giants and Brian Cashman with the Yankees. The Twins’ Terry Ryan and Braves’ John Schuerholz had been ahead of O’Dowd before they stepped down this offseason, but both of those front offices also feature remarkably little turnover.
With the notable exception of the Yankees, these are teams that have to keep an eye on the bottom line but have found success through stability, which is where the Rockies fit in baseball’s big picture.
“I would like to think (the extensions were) important to the people who work for us,” O’Dowd said. “The people who work for you are the heartbeat of the organization.”
The Organization of the Year goes much deeper than big league success, and that’s why the Rockies fit so well. The Rockies’ success came from within.
Of the 25 players on their World Series roster, 16 originally signed with the Rockies. And in the final games of the World Series, second baseman Kaz Matsui was the only player in the starting lineup who wasn’t homegrown.
When holes developed during the season, the Rockies brought up homegrown players instead of shopping for veterans.
When the team decided veteran lefthanded backups Steve Finley and John Mabry weren’t doing the job in May, the Rockies recalled outfielders Ryan Spilborghs and Cory Sullivan from the minors as reinforcements. When the rotation was hit by injuries, the Rockies called up Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales.
What’s more, the players wanted it that way.
“We believe in what we can do, in what we have in our organization,” said outfielder Brad Hawpe, whose time in the organization tracks O’Dowd’s tenure. Hawpe was an 11th-round pick in the 2000 draft out of Louisiana State, while O’Dowd was hired in September 2000.
They’ve both been part of the long-term challenge to not only build from within, but to create a confidence that the team can win with its own talent.
Since 2000 the Rockies have emphasized scouting and player development, and in particular have made major strides in Latin America. In the pre-O’Dowd era the organization would spend less than $100,000 a year in Latin America, but in the past year alone Colorado has invested $1.9 million in signing bonuses, not to mention the expenses of their staff and complex.
Rolando Fernandez, who oversees the Latin program, has started to bring in position players, but his first splash came with a group of strong arms, including closer Manny Corpas, and starters Jimenez and Morales. That gave Schmidt flexibility in the draft to focus on impact position players, like shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
Still, though, the Rockies don’t feel like they’ve reached a final destination. They have attained success with a homegrown nucleus, but they want more. And while the farm system has produced plenty of big leaguers, there are still more to be harvested.
“You can’t be surprised that the Rockies are a good team,” said Dick Egan, a 47-year veteran of pro ball and currently a special assistant to the general manager in Detroit. “The Rockies’ kids didn’t crumble. The Rockies’ guys reached the big leagues and just kept getting better. And the biggest thing is they are going to get better.”
The organization thinks one of the reasons for that is an emphasis on makeup along with ability.
“When you go into our clubhouse, there is evidence of old-school values, which is a tribute to the scouting and player-development programs,” Hurdle said. “We knew when we started this it was going to take patience, and patience takes courage. A lot of people were upset with it, but I think (the pennant) is a tangible sign that we are headed in the right direction.”
So Tulowitzki not only established himself as an elite shortstop in his rookie season, but also as a clubhouse leader.
“The key is having the right people in place,” O’Dowd said. “With Bill Schmidt, Bill Geivett, Jeff Bridich and Marc Gustafson, we have strong leadership in scouting and player development. With people like that, the commitment we had from ownership, there’s no way it won’t work. You are going to go down at times on the way up. The hill is high, but you have to keep going, and you can’t do that unless your owners are committed and you have the right people making the right decisions.”
It’s easy to remember the bottom of the hill, when a spending spree for pitching put the organization in a huge hole. It was December 2000, right after O’Dowd was hired, and the Rockies went on a spending spree. They gave Mike Hampton a seven-year, $121 million deal, the biggest ever signed by a pitcher, and shelled out $55 million for five years to Denny Neagle.
But one of the worst times in franchise history provided the spark for what became the best. The Rockies haven’t gone after a highly touted free agent since.
“I said when we (traded Hampton) that it was the turning point for our organization,” Charlie Monfort said. “We realized we had to do things within our market and we had to do things right. We aren’t a small-market team. We are mid-market and we have to do some things different than teams in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles.
“We have to scout and develop talent. We can never back off in those areas. We aren’t going to find quick fixes. We have to have a long-term plan.”
Learning that lesson, O’Dowd said, made things easier because “we identified the club we are, the club we are trying to build, and the club we want to maintain. First and foremost we have to focus on scouting and development as the basis for our organization. We want to look to give our players an opportunity when we think that they are ready . . . It was painful at times, but it was the best thing that happened to us. Hampton and Neagle taught us a lot of what we have to be as an organization.”
The lesson has been learned. And the initial grade has been turned in. The Rockies are the Organization of the Year.