O'Dowd admits to failure with Rockies

When was the last time you heard anything about the Colorado Rockies? Anything at all?

It wasn't all that many years ago when the Rockies were one of baseball's best stories, an expansion team that drew almost 4½ million fans its first year, reached the playoffs its second season and was a continual contender the next several years with a lineup loaded with great hitters. And now? The Rockies have had one winning season in the past seven, haven't finished higher than fourth since 1997, have seen attendance drop and have all but disappeared from the league.

At least people make fun of the Brewers. Not the Rockies. No one even thinks of them long enough to make them the butt of their jokes.

It's so bad that Rockies CEO Charlie Monfort told the Denver Post that his team took the fans for granted, squandered its resources and is back "right in the old toilet." He admitted that ownership was arrogant and that it panicked, while general manager Dan O'Dowd said that his leadership was "ego-based, ego-driven and all about me."

These are frank admissions you almost never hear out of New York or Boston.

Thus, the Rockies are changing course again, turning to a path they should have followed in the first place. Rather than handing out disastrous contracts to free-agent pitchers who flopped in the mile-high atmosphere (Denny Neagle, Mike Hampton, Darryl Kile, etc.), they have finally decided to take their lumps and build the old-fashioned way – from within the organization.

"It's what we should have done years ago," O'Dowd said. "We just weren't ready as an organization to do that because we were trying to hold onto things that we were going to lose anyway. We weren't willing to pay the price. We're willing to pay the price now.

"What I feel like in my job is I'm not living a lie anymore. In your heart, when you're doing something and you know you should be doing something else, you feel like you're living a lie. When you know you're not doing what needs to be done."

The rebuilding will take time, but the key question is whether the Rockies can have consistent, long-term success while playing at high altitude. Or whether they'll have to keep their baseballs in a humidifier, a freezer and then replace the hard rubber core with cement and coat the whole thing with elephant hide and peanut butter.

"It's a problem," said Bob Gebhard, who enjoyed early success as Colorado's first general manager. "Because it has something to do with the consistency of the pitching. One day, you can throw a curveball and it does what it should and the next time it doesn't.

"It can wear you down. You can have a 3-2 game there, but chances are you're going to have a high-scoring game and all those runs and pitches take a toll on a pitching [staff], especially the bullpen."

"Going from altitude to sea level, you notice the difference in the way your balls break," said Colorado rookie left-hander Jeff Francis, one of the top pitching prospects in the game. "When I went down to sea level last year, everything seemed to be in the dirt. I think that's what guys notice the most. It's a constant adjustment."

The altitude affects more than the pitching, though; the hitters feel it as well. They get used to pitches breaking a certain way during a homestand, then they go on the road and see sliders that bite and sinkers that drop just a little more. Everyone knows that batters benefit while in Colorado – what's less appreciated is that they're also hurt when they go on the road.

"There's maybe a hair difference in the way the pitches break," Todd Helton said. "But that's all the difference it takes.

"The biggest thing for me is that I see the big green pastures in the outfield at Coors. It looks like there's all this space for your hits to drop in. That's the same way it feels when you're going good. Then you go on the road and you look out and it seems like there are 25 guys jammed up there ready to catch what you hit."

O'Dowd says playing in Colorado requires a team with speed and depth (especially in the bullpen), while Helton and Gebhard say the team will also always need a powerful lineup that can outslug opponents.

"A team like the Angels would do well here," Helton said. "A team like the Cardinals. Those guys, 1-8, are a tough out. That's the type of lineup you have to put out there. The opposing pitchers have to come in and not only say, 'Man, we have to pitch in this place, we have to get these guys out.'"

Whatever team the Rockies wind up building, the key, they say, is that they are finally building.

"We have no unrealistic expectations,'' O'Dowd said. "We hope some of the guys in this first wave will develop into solid major league players and then hope the prospects behind them push them. Then we'll see where we are. We're not going to rush people. We're going to make sure we do it right and that whatever pain we go through is worth it."

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is being published by Plume and went on sale March 2. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.