Do the Colorado Rockies have you down this season? You're not the only one.
All things considered, this is a great time to be a Rockies fan. No, not on this day, with a record five games below .500 and in third place in the National League West. But this time, this era, the point in the franchise's brief history where the team has grown from 'fly-over laughingstock' to 'competitive yearly', and with the next stage, 'championship caliber', just a page-turn away. The kids who were in kindergarten when the Rockies were founded have grown into loyal adult fans, streaming through the gates at Coors Field and supporting a team full of popular players. Of those stars, the two most popular are committed to the franchise for several years to come.
Yes, the vibes surrounding Rockies baseball should be good ones. Even as far back in the division race as the Rockies are, the magic of 2007 and 2009 is still fresh enough in everyone's minds that the loyal fanbase remains hopeful that the purple pinstripes can make a move before it's too late.
And yet, there seems to be something missing from the Rockies 2011 season, from a fan's perspective. I didn't realize it until watching Tuesday night's Rockies loss in Atlanta. It was a nine-inning slog, a game where the Rockies, minus their two best players, played a superior opponent on the road and never really seemed to have a chance to win even as they closed a 4-0 deficit to 4-3 in the sixth inning and threatened to tie the game with two runners in scoring position and one out in the 8th.
And if any four words can sum up the Rockies season to this point, those are it. It isn't any fun.
Think back through the Rockies 41 wins this season. How many of them resonate? How many have been worth clearing vault space in the memory bank for? Even the ill-fated 2010 season had Ubaldo Jimenez's no-hitter, Seth Smith's walk-off to cap an improbable nine-run ninth against St. Louis, and Jason Giambi's massive walk-off homer to beat the Red Sox – and that's just to name a few that came before the All-Star Break.
This season, however, late inning heroics – the kind that make you sense that anything is possible with a team – have been in shorter supply than beer vendors at BYU football games. The team's one walk-off win of the season came on a bloop single from Ty Wigginton, and can be credited just as much to Brent Lillibridge's lack of awareness as Troy Tulowitzki's mad dash to the plate. Sure, there was a fun comeback win over Tim Lincecum and the Giants back on May 16, Ubaldo Jimenez's complete game shutout of the Dodgers June 1, and Seth Smith's ninth-inning homer to beat the Indians June 21, but I doubt I'll be thinking about any of those games with any fondness beyond the end of this season. Signature performances and thrilling rallies have not been part of this team's DNA.
Another thing that's sorely been missing is the skip in your step you get as a fan when you're sending a hot pitcher to the mound and you know that day is Win Day, no matter if he's facing the Padres or the 1927 Yankees. Hell, even the 2008 Rockies had that with Aaron Cook in his finest form. Last year, every five days, Ubaldo Jimenez's starts were appointment viewing. This year, we've watched his outings through covered eyes, waiting for the radar gun readings to hit last year's levels and hoping he commands the strike zone rather than expecting a chance to win.
Jimenez isn't the only homegrown Rockie to have struggled this season. When it's a homegrown player, fans are more invested in their success. We watched Dexter Fowler and Ian Stewart come up together and play an integral part in 2009's postseason run. We watched both of them struggle mightily at times in 2010 but still offer glimpses of a promising future. In 2011, Ian and Dexter – two of the most likeable players on the roster, Fowler for his tantalizing speed and ever-present smile and Stewart for his prodigious power, slick glove – are spending their summer toiling in Colorado Springs, each trying to find themselves. Though Ty Wigginton's filled in acceptably at third base in Stewart's absence, and Charlie Blackmon's shown flashes in the outfield, I find their success lest enjoyable in light of the struggles of the men they've replaced. I've spent the last several years believing in Fowler and Stewart as parts of the franchise's bright future, and their demotions this season have nearly sapped that belief entirely.
There is still some joy in the day-to-day proceedings. I still love watching Huston Street, warts and all, lock down the ninth inning. I still love CarGo's swing, Tulo's fielding, and Ryan Spilborghs showering every home run hitter at Coors Field with sunflower seeds. But it's as if the final two weeks of last season – that 1-13 run that ruined Rocktober dreams – created a malaise that still hangs over Rockies baseball to this day.
I still believe this team is better than its record, and that the final result will reflect that. But this season's journey has been more a test of endurance than a thrill ride.