Unassuming Tracy ideal fit for Rockies

A year ago this time, there were no wild-card races in Jim Tracy's life.

There were no standings to check. No lineup cards to fill out. No network broadcast crews waiting to pick his brain.

A year ago this time, Jim Tracy couldn't possibly have envisioned this magical 2009 chapter in his baseball life.

But that's why baseball is still the greatest reality show going. Sometimes, the best times in a man's life and career show up when nobody sees them coming. And who could have seen this coming?

The day the Colorado Rockies fired their longtime manager, Clint Hurdle, and handed Tracy their steering wheel, back on May 29, they had a worse record (18-28) than the Royals. And the Pirates. And the Padres. And the Orioles.

There was only one team in the whole sport, in fact, that had lost more games than the Rockies back then -- and that, of course, was the Washington Nationals. In other words, it was only that D.C. disaster that separated the Rockies from the prestigious title: "Worst Team in Baseball." Think about that. It was less than four months ago.

So what happened next just doesn't happen. It can't happen. It never happens. Even the man who hired Jim Tracy -- Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd -- had no grandiose illusions that it was about to happen to his team.

"We studied this historically before we did it," O'Dowd said. "And usually, these moves don't do anything."

Well, this one did.

Before this move, there had never been a manager -- not one -- in the history of baseball that took over a team that had plummeted to 10 games under .500 and then got that same team to a point where it was 20 games over .500.

But not anymore. Check those standings. You'll find Tracy's Rockies at exactly 20 games above sea level (85-65) right now as they head into the final two weeks of a special season. And that's a miracle. An official baseball miracle.

"You know what?" said Jim Tracy, during a visit to San Francisco last week. "It's turned out wonderful."

But if we roll back the videotape to a year ago this time, life wasn't so wonderful.

A year ago, Tracy was a man who had drifted, at age 52, into baseball's dreaded Whatever-Happened-To-Him Land -- a place lots of excellent baseball men never escape. He'd been gonged as manager of the Pirates after two seasons of 95 and 94 losses in 2006 and '07, respectively. He was in no hurry to take another job just to say he had one.

So he visited the ballparks where his three grown sons played and/or coached. And the rest of his days consisted of 11:30 a.m. tee times and evenings with a clicker, a TV and the MLB package.

"Did I want to get back in? Yes," Tracy said. "But I wanted it to be in the right circumstances. I wanted to contribute. I wanted to walk in and know that I was wanted from the get-go."

So he made up his mind he was going to pick his spot carefully. And then, in the last week of October, the phone rang.

It was Clint Hurdle, offering him a chance to be the bench coach in Colorado. Tracy considered it carefully, knowing that several of Hurdle's coaches had just been fired and pondering how he might fit on a staff where the future was so uncertain.

"I did not want the feeling that I was going into a clubhouse and having the perception be that I was being pushed off onto a group," he said.

But after the Rockies assured him that his talents and personality were exactly what they were looking for, he said yes. Little did he know what awaited him, just seven months down the trail. But on the morning of May 29, when O'Dowd sat him down and told him they wanted him to manage, here's the amazing part:

At first, Jim Tracy didn't take it.

"After we finished having our discussion," Tracy said, "I looked at him and I said, 'Can I have 60 minutes to think about this?'"

He was a man with a sense of right and wrong. So he felt for Clint Hurdle. And he was, naturally, concerned about how taking this job, as interim manager of a floundering team, might affect his own future.

But after having been around the team for more than three months, "I really strongly felt in my heart like the club was underachieving," Tracy said. "I felt that with the talent that I was looking at, day-in and day-out, I didn't feel like they were playing up to their capabilities."

So an hour later, he told his GM he'd take the gig. Then he walked into the clubhouse Hurdle had ruled for the previous eight seasons. And doing that, Tracy said, was one of the hardest things he'd ever done in his life.

Todd Helton You know, it's not like an NFL coach, where you've got schemes and guys bringing a playbook. It's baseball. It's more about managing people and the game. [Jim Tracy has] done a great job.

-- Rockies first baseman Todd Helton

What he didn't know was that, for these players, just having their manager's fate resolved, one way or the other, was a relief.

"When you play with a manager on the hot seat, I don't care how thick your skin is or how many veterans you have," said outfielder Ryan Spilborghs. "That's a lot of pressure to play with. When your manager is constantly under scrutiny, about how he's going to get fired if you don't start playing better, then you're playing to do more than just win. You're playing to keep your manager's job."

Many of these men had never played for any other manager beside Hurdle. So the idea of someone else -- anyone else -- sitting in that manager's office was hard to comprehend. In fact, there are times it's still hard to comprehend for some of them.

"Ever since I've been in professional baseball, Clint has been there, in some capacity," said Todd Helton, who met Hurdle in his first pro season, way back in 1995, when Helton was a No. 1 pick starting out in the Sally League and Hurdle was a roving instructor. "So it's different. There's no doubt about that. I keep waiting for him to come around the corner. But as we all know, the game waits on nobody, and it goes on."

Anyone who has ever met Clint Hurdle knows it's almost impossible not to like him. But he'd been there so long, he'd become a lightning rod, inside and outside his own clubhouse.

"I love Clint," said one NL West scout. "But I really believe he'd begun to wear on those players. Clint was larger than life. It seemed like he was the Voice of the Rockies all the time. It was like nobody else ever spoke."

But now the man doing the speaking was Jim Tracy. And he was speaking in a voice softer than a mountain breeze. While Hurdle -- and his booming vocal cords -- seemed to be everywhere, Tracy has spent so little time in his own clubhouse, he practically needs a GPS just to find it.

"He talks about how he's going to stay in his hole, and he won't come out till he's summoned," Spilborghs said, laughing. "He's like a ground hog that's packed away, and he doesn't come out until you need him."

And it turned out that what Jim Tracy brought was exactly what the Rockies needed. They didn't need a new voice to crash through their clubhouse like a tsunami. All they really needed was a little stability.

So Tracy set out, he said, "to build some continuity to the lineup and some consistency to it." He wanted to establish "a method to the madness of how a bullpen was used." And unlike Hurdle, who had developed one of the quickest hooks around, Tracy eased up on the throttle. His approach: "Trust your starters -- and give your starter every chance to win a game but not allow them to lose a game."

He also went to work on shoring up what had been a surprisingly shaky defense. The fix he applied there was to give a long look to some of the younger players who'd been zigzagging in and out of the lineup under Hurdle.

In went Clint Barmes to play second every day. In went Ian Stewart to hold down third every day. Within a week, Carlos Gonzalez was in the big leagues, adding mesmerizing athleticism to this outfield. And soon, he, too, was playing every day.

Suddenly, balls were getting caught. Plays were being made. And the guys making those plays responded to the trust their new manager was showing in them.

"This isn't to knock anybody," said Stewart, who has gone on to hit 24 home runs. "But I would say we didn't really have that consistent lineup [before Tracy]. If I was struggling or [Garrett Atkins] was struggling, we wouldn't know who would play the next day. A lot of guys didn't know. If they didn't perform, maybe they'd be getting benched for a game day or two.

"But Trace, he kind of has that set lineup he likes to run out there every day. And I think that tells the guys he believes in that lineup, and he's going to stick with them. And it also allows guys to work out of slumps and … turn things around. Just to know that you're going to get those at-bats, it really helps."

Who would have known, though, how much it would help?

Two series into the Tracy administration, the Rockies kicked off the insane hot streak that would rewrite the script of their tumultuous season. They won 11 in a row. And 17 of 18.

They swept a four-game series in St. Louis. They swept the Brewers in Milwaukee. They won five more against the Mariners and Rays. And they were officially off and stampeding toward October.

Along the way, Tracy tied the modern record for most wins (41) in a team's first 60 games after a midseason managerial change. A couple of weeks later, he became the first manager since Bob Lemon took over the '78 Yankees to win 50 of his first 75 games after an in-season switcheroo. And just last week, he became only the third manager since 1900 to win 64 of his first 100 games after getting the job in midseason.

You look at that record and it looks like something magical happened. But most of it, said Helton, was the simple aftereffects of the "quiet confidence" Tracy showed in a group that needed exactly that.

"You know, it's not like an NFL coach, where you've got schemes and guys bringing a playbook," Helton said. "It's baseball. It's more about managing people and the game. He's done a great job."

But Jim Tracy doesn't want any standing O's. All he did, he said, was something his mentor, Felipe Alou, taught him years ago: Trust your players. Put them in position to do what they can do. And don't ask them to do things they can't do. It may sound awfully basic. But sometimes, managing really is that simple.

"Everyone has his own style," Tracy said. "This is no knock on Clint. That's what I tried to do. And they embraced it, and they took off with it."

A year ago this time, he was a man still carrying around the scars from his messy time in Pittsburgh. Now here he is, on his way to a manager-of-the-year award. Funny how a life can turn -- and how fast it can turn. Isn't it?

"You know what?" I'm no different," Jim Tracy said. "I don't manage any differently. I just have a few more pieces to work with.

"Do I feel vindicated by what's taken place here? I don't want to be perceived as, I'm sitting here now, looking at [the Pirates] and saying, 'See? Look what I've done.' I don't have that kind of ego."

What he has, though, is something better, something more fulfilling. He has a miraculous wild-card run to finish off -- and a date with October baseball waiting. So who cares how Jim Tracy got started on this journey? What matters is that he's making it at all.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.