Rockies' Walt Weiss learning on the fly

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area as an Oakland Athletics fan, so it’s only natural that he remembers Walt Weiss as a tough-minded, sure-handed fixture on the Mark McGwire-Jose Canseco teams of the early 1990s. Tulowitzki, an elementary schooler at the time, admired Weiss both athletically and aesthetically.

“Defensively, you wanted the ball hit to him," Tulowitzki said. “He always seemed to make the plays. And he was one of the few guys I remember wearing [flip-up sunglasses] and eye black. That’s something I continue to this day. It always stood out to me as a kid."

It’s a little tougher for Weiss to maintain that aura of cool from the manager's seat rather than the shortstop position, but he's approaching his new career path with his head up and his eyes wide open.

Is the future so bright, he’s gotta wear shades? Only time and NL West competition will tell.

A year after the Chicago White Sox hired Robin Ventura and St. Louis tabbed Mike Matheny despite their lack of managerial experience, the Rockies continued the trend by bringing back a familiar face. Weiss was a core, respected member of the Colorado Blake Street Bombers teams that clubbed their way to a playoff appearance in 1995 and recorded three straight winning seasons. Now he’s returning to the fold in hopes of restoring some pride on the 20th anniversary of the franchise’s inception.

To the former teammates who know him best, Weiss was a bold and inspired choice. They see him as a sincere and genuine person with the requisite even temperament, communications skills and baseball knowledge to make a terrific manager. Weiss will have to put those qualities to good use to remedy the pitching-deprived mess that helped spell doom for his predecessor, Jim Tracy.

The circumstances of his hiring merely add to the intrigue. Weiss worked as a special adviser and instructor for the Rockies from 2002 to '08, but his coaching experience consists of one year running the show at Regis Jesuit High School in the Denver suburb of Aurora. In November, the Rockies hired Weiss to a one-year contract. It was a consensual agreement, because Weiss wants to see how he takes to the job while the Rockies are determining if he’s cut out for managing. But Don Mattingly has one year left on his deal with the Dodgers, and a lot of people are calling him a lame duck. Weiss’ arrangement is a rarity, to say the least.

There’s also the little matter of elbow room. Last summer, the Rockies moved Bill Geivett, the team’s senior vice president of major league operations, to an office adjacent to the clubhouse. Owner Dick Monfort reportedly backed the idea as a way of getting to the root of the team’s problems, but it’s a little Big Brother-ish for a lot of baseball insiders.

Let’s put it this way: Can you imagine Jim Leyland welcoming Dave Dombrowski to his office to rehash whether he made the right move lifting Max Scherzer for a reliever in the bottom of the seventh?

If Weiss is the slightest bit uptight about his job security or his freedom to make tough calls, he’s doing a great job concealing it. While other people might tiptoe around his situation, he addresses it without a trace of defensiveness.

“As far as the one-year deal, it never came up in our interview," Weiss said. “It was never a factor. Maybe this sounds cheesy, but I couldn't care less what the terms of the contract were. It was an opportunity to manage a club that I played for and worked for, in a place where I live and have good relationships. The terms of the contract were about a 15-second conversation."

Weiss sees Geivett as a resource more than a threat to his autonomy. Geivett was an All-America third baseman at UC Santa Barbara, a minor leaguer in the Angels system, and a college coach, scout and farm director. He’s an authority on a lot of players on the Colorado roster because he’s been around them since they were minor leaguers. Weiss is hoping to draw on those experiences and speed up his learning curve in the process.

"[Our approach] is different, so it’s become a story," Weiss said. “People see what we’re doing as unconventional, but Geivo has given me great insight on our team and the individual players. He’s been with most of these guys on the player development side and he has relationships with them. It’s not like putting a typical front-office guy down into the clubhouse. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue."

Weiss is soliciting a lot of opinions this spring while learning his talent and putting his imprint on the team. Bench coach Tom Runnells will help him adjust to the speed of the game in the dugout, and several members of the old gang are around to contribute input. Dante Bichette is back in the fold as Colorado hitting coach, and Eric Young is in camp as a special instructor. Vinny Castilla, the old Blake Street Bombers third baseman, has been a special assistant with the organization since 2007.

The pitchers have a new mentor, too. Geivett and general manager Dan O'Dowd were in the Dominican Republic recently and crossed paths with Pedro Astacio, one of the most successful pitchers in franchise history. Astacio accepted their invitation to Arizona and is at Salt River Fields dispensing insights to Jhoulys Chacin, Juan Nicasio and the other kids who’ll help determine how much the Rockies improve upon their 64-98 record of a year ago.

“I told him, 'Just walk around the camp and spread some love and some wisdom,'" Weiss said.

When Weiss isn’t busy delegating, he’ll rely on the instincts that helped him win a Rookie of the Year award in Oakland and amass 1,207 hits over 14 big league seasons. Former teammates remember Weiss lugging around a glove so beaten-up and ugly that he referred to it as the “Creature," and playing the game like a dirt dog even while approaching it from a cerebral perspective.

"He was the only player I saw who would sit there on the bench all nine innings at a spring training game," said Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. "Everybody goes and works out and does their extra hitting or whatever once their day is over. Walt would sit there for all nine innings and watch."

That wasn’t the only image that lingered with Helton. In August 1997, Helton joined the Rockies as a hotshot prospect two years removed from being drafted in the first round out of Tennessee. Helton was doing an interview at his locker when the conversation turned to his thoughts on replacing Andres Galarraga, a popular player since the franchise’s inception.

“The reporter was kind of baiting me into saying something stupid, and of course I was about to," Helton said. "Then Walt came by and told him, 'You’re not going to go there. You’re not going to get the kid in trouble.' That’s something that stuck with me."

The Rockies of the mid-1990s were a close-knit group, and Weiss was at the center of it all. Former Rockies pitcher Jerry Dipoto, now the Los Angeles Angels’ general manager, remembers how Weiss, closer Darren Holmes and the other relief pitchers would congregate in the equipment room in the back of the bullpen and hold impromptu wrestling matches amid the spare outfield padding and the Diamond Dry. Weiss was a martial arts devotee with a black belt in taekwondo, but he participated for the camaraderie rather than a desire to crush a few spleens.

Even in those fun-loving, early Coors Field days, Weiss’ accountability, attentiveness to detail and professionalism convinced Dipoto that he had managing in his future.

"Walt was the kind of guy who could do whatever he wanted to do," Dipoto said. “He has to be on the short list of the best teammates I ever had. He was a complete teammate, and it was for every one of the 25 guys. There were very few players who could span the room and have easy interaction with all 25. Walt was one of those people."

The eye black, flip-ups and the Creature are no more, but the competitive streak remains. Walt Weiss has only one mandate now, and that's to make winning fashionable again in Colorado.