While traveling with the ‘Rockies Caravan’, a three-state, 10-city trek around the Rocky Mountain region to meet with fans prior to spring training manager Bud Black joined Shawn Drotar and T.J. Carpenter of Mile High Sports AM 1340 | FM 104.7, and noted the enthusiasm of the team’s fans in the wake of their first postseason appearance in a decade.
“The reception’s been great. I know we’ve had about 20 players, doing 25 events… up in Wyoming, down in Albuquerque (home of the Isotopes, the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate), Grand Junction — I think some boys were down in Colorado Springs and Pueblo,” Black said. “I’ve been in and around Denver with some season-ticket holders; the response has been great. We’re trying to build off of last season, going into this season, and I think the fans are doing the same. It’s all good stuff.”
The NL West has been ruled by the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants for most of the Rockies’ history — the two clubs are traditionally sport top-five payrolls, giving them a margin for error that most teams can’t even hope to match. For Black, that’s just part of the business. “Well, we’ve got a good division; there’s no doubt about it. The Dodgers and the Giants have sort of set the standard for the last number of years, but it’s OK — personally, I’ve been in this division for a long time; I’ve been on the West Coast for a long time. It’s just the reality of what we have going on, and I think… personally, I embrace it. I think the players do, too,” Black said. “Listen, we’re not afraid of the Dodgers; we’re not afraid of the Giants or [Arizona] Diamondbacks or anybody in our division. We do what we do; we know what we have to do. We have a plan each and every year, and you know [that] you can’t worry about what other clubs do; you’ve got to take care of your own business, and that’s what we do.”
Black, a 15-year major league veteran pitcher who will be managing for the 11th season of his career in 2018, made his debut with the Kansas City Royals in 1981 at the age of 24, understands how youth and inexperience affects young players, and especially pitchers. The Rockies had to force-feed rookies German Marquez (22), Antonio Senzatela (22), Kyle Freeland (24) and Jeff Hoffman (25) due to injuries and illnesses, and Black feels they’ll be better for the experience this season.
“Obviously, I like the experience part, first of all. They got through their rookie seasons with success, for the most part. There was a couple rough spots for all those fellows, but nothing is better than experience,” Black explained. “They’ve had success with big-league hitters; they know what goes on during a big-league season. They’re not in awe of big-league hotels, flights, all that stuff. Now, they can concentrate on getting better and improving.”
Experience, however, can also fool young players into overconfidence. Black explained what he’ll be on the watch for. “You’ve got to be careful; to make sure that the adjustments have been made an you keep moving forward in your game. You can’t live on last year’s laurels. That’s the thing a lot of teams do after success,” Black said. “We’ve got to keep moving forward; I know the National League is going to make adjustments to Marquez and Freeland and Senzatela and Hoffman — and others. Jon Gray‘s still a developing pitcher; he’s still got some things to clean up. Again, I think it’s adjusting right along with the league as they adjust towards us, but I like the fact that these guys went through a season — came out of it healthy — and can feel confident going on to the next year.”
Regular season experience is one thing; postseason experience is another entirely. Even though the Rockies had only a one-game cameo, Black, who won a World Series ring with the Royals in 1985, believes that his team learned a great deal from the experience. “Well, I think it’s not so much the one game; it’s a different feeling playing in a playoff game, and the guys will remember that feeling of what it was like to end the season, go down to Arizona and prepare for one game,” Black said. “What I liked is what happened in September; going through a pennant race. For the most part, most of the players on last year’s team had not been through a pennant race. Really, ‘CarGo [Carlos Gonzalez] was the only one that been through it, and that was years ago. So, Nolan [Arenado], Charlie [Blackmon], Trevor [Story], D.J. [LeMahieu], all the young players who came up in September — Tony Wolters, [Ryan] McMahon, [Mike] Tauchman, [Raimel] Tapia — all these guys went through a September where every game was pivotal. So what’s what I like about last season; what they went through, and that experience on that end.”
Certain players — Black mentioned football’s Tom Brady, basketball Michael Jordan, and New York Yankee great Derek Jeter — seem to have a knack for big moments. Black feels that he has players like that on the Rockies today. “You know? I do. I think you look at — even though Charlie didn’t like his one game against the Diamondbacks — I think Charlie [Blackmon] is a pretty clear thinker, and has poise in the most critical of situations. I think Nolan [Arenado] relishes that,” Black said. “I think all good players sort of relish that; that moment in time when they’re ‘the guy’… closers who have passed the test of time; I think they have that in them. You can’t pitch the ninth inning unless you have a certain personality. Mariano Rivera had it. Those players who play well with two minutes left in a football game; guys who come down and take the last shot — they’re out there, and I think we have some of them.”
The Rockies added three-time All-Star closer Wade Davis to a record deal in the offseason, adding to the team’s collection of clutch performers.
On Wednesday, pitcher Kyle Freeland called Black ‘a pitcher’s manager’; something that the Rockies’ second-year skipper embraces. “I think, with Kyle — and with all the pitchers — I have a different relationship with them, just because I played their position. I think that’s natural for any manager, for position he played,” Black said. “If you caught, I think you have the ability to relate with catchers and pitchers. If you were a great offensive player, and you become a manager, I think you can understand what goes on in the batters’ box, you can understand the hitting side of it. If you were a great defender, a position player, you can understand the defensive component; what position players are going through.”
“So, I think with me, our conversations with the pitchers are based on: ‘I’ve been there; I’ve been in your shoes. I get it; I get what you’re going through.’ So it lends some credibility for me, and I think the pitching coaches, when we can talk to our pitchers.”
Black discussed what he expected to see from a Rockies squad that now understands what they’re capable of. “What I expect is that the expectation level should rise among the players, and the conversations should be more about what we can do, based on last year,” Black said. We have to turn the page on last year, because this year is a new year; we can’t assume that things will be the same. But that does give you confidence to go through what we went through next year. I know that teams who have ultimately won — you know, the [Chicago] Cubs self-admitted that there was a little bit of a hangover (from their 2016 World Series title), going into spring training — so we’re going to try to guard against it, which I think our group will do. We know we still have more steps to climb as we move forward. But again, I think there’s growth every year; when professional teams talk about building a roster, you like to have that blend of guys who have been there and been through it, and can bring a perspective — a year-long perspective, from the start of the season till the end — about what it takes. And the young guys are always listening and learning and growing.”
“I think we have a group of players that are committed to winning and to doing it the right way, from the start of spring training. We have great leadership in D.J. and Charlie and Nolan, and I think some of the new acquisitions — [Chris] Iannetta and Davis and [Bryan] Shaw — lend us that aspect, as well,” Black said. “It’s a pretty good group, and I think it’s well-balanced.”
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