DENVER, CO - APRIL 01: Players gloves lie on the field during batting practice as the field is ready for action as the Colorado Rockies host the Arizona Diamondbacks during Opening Day at Coors Field on April 1, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
While hopes don't run as high on Opening Day for the Colorado Rockies in 2012 as they did in 2011, there's still the promise of something better than in years past.
A baseball fan gets six months to dream, and six months to watch reality unfold. The dreaming starts in fall, once the turnstiles quit clicking and the tarp settles over the infield dirt for the long winter ahead. With so long to fantasize about what could be, the visions of the season to come grow grander as the days progress. By the time pitchers and catchers descend on spring training complexes throughout Florida and Arizona, even the most cynical rooters of the lowliest teams have allowed the seed to grow.
If the stars stay healthy... if the kids grow up fast... if a couple of our veterans exceed expectation ... if we can lock down the leads we get ...
If you can't believe on Opening Day, if there's not even a fraction of yourself that isn't convinced this can be 'THE year' when your team takes the field for the first time, you may lack the capacity to believe in anything at all. That's what Opening Day is. It is the clean slate that puts last year's pennant winners on level pegging with the cellar dwellers. The dreaming doesn't stop on Opening Day, but the realization eventually arrives that the odds are 29-in-30 you're going to wake up and watch some other team raising the Commissioner's Trophy in October.
One of my favorite lines in the movie Moneyball, a line painfully relatable to anybody who played the game beyond Little League, was what the scout tells the young Billy Beane sitting at his parents' dinner table: "We're all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children's game ... we just don't know when that's gonna be. But we're all told."
The baseball season works the same way. Some of us - mostly in Pittsburgh and Baltimore -- are told this is not 'THE year' in May or June. Some get to hold out that hope until the final out of the World Series. But we're all told -- all but the folks who wear the same logo on their caps as the guys dogpiling on top of each other after the season's final game. The trick, then, if you must have that conversation at all, is to put off having to have that conversation as long as possible.
How long are the Colorado Rockies going to give us this year? Last year, it wasn't long, and the cruelty of the Rockies slide into irrelevance was exaggerated by how promising everything felt entering the 2011 season. The 11-2 start to a season that began with grand expectations made the ultimate winter dream -- the dream of a juggernaut stampeding their way to the World Series - seem closer than ever before. Then ... well, then the rest of the season happened. But the greatest thing about today is that today, 2011's disappointment is replaced by the promise of 2012, for however long that promise lasts.
There are reasons for purple-tinted optimism in Colorado this season. Start with the star power of two of the game's best young players, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Even on the dreariest of evenings, Tulo will make a spectacular play at shortstop, or CarGo will hammer a ball that takes approximately 0.2 seconds to reach the right field bleachers, and you'll be reminded that rooting for players as otherworldly talented and as full of love for the game as those two will make all 162 nights you spend with this team worthwhile.
There are the lions in winter, including the greatest Rockie of them all, Todd Helton, hoping to tack one more .300 season and Gold Glove on the end of his Hall of Fame resume. Michael Cuddyer, Ramon Hernandez, Rafael Betancourt, Jason Giambi, and Jamie Moyer have been around the bend a few times, too. They are the leaders, the ones in charge of showing the team's younger players the way to a brighter future that they may not get to experience for themselves.
There are the kids -- a lot of them, this time around. It's not a full-scale youth movement on the level of 2004 or 2005's Rockies teams, but we'll be watching the first tentative steps in the big league careers of a lot of intriguing prospects. Wilin Rosario has thunder in his bat and lightning in his throwing arm behind the plate. Drew Pomeranz and Rex Brothers are gun-slinging lefties that could be the stars of the pitching staff someday. And in Colorado Springs and Tulsa, the Rockies have a crop of talent that is finally back to the level that it reached back in 2005 in 2006, when the core of a pennant winner was refining their games at the highest minor league levels.
While nobody's tipping these Rockies for a trip to the Fall Classic, nobody should feel very comfortable writing them off, either. Not with a 3-4 tandem as good as any in the game. Not with a bullpen that should be solid, if unspectacular. Not with the chance that the young pitchers might be faster to approach their ceiling than some would expect.
It will be a season where reputations will be put on the line: Tulowitzki's as a leader, the prospect parade as future big league lynchpins, general manager Dan O'Dowd's as a talent evaluator, manager Jim Tracy's as a ... well, as a manager. It's a season where little is certain about the final destination, and even less is certain about the journey this team will take to get there.
It will be fun, and it will be frustrating. Mostly, it will be interesting. And it will not be 2011, which alone is reason to be delighted for the moment when Marco Scutaro settles into the batter's box at Minute Maid Park Friday night and awaits the first pitch of the new season.
It may -- just may -- be 'THE year'. It probably won't be. But that's alright. What I'm hoping for is a year where we can believe that it could be for as long as possible, and a year that shows this franchise the way to many of 'THE years' to come.