With the contract extensions handed out to Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez this winter, the Colorado Rockies have seized the positive headlines in the Denver sports pages in a way they haven't managed to during the hot stove in a decade. And with positive headlines harder to find when it comes to the other three major sports teams in the state, the conclusion that the Rockies are making a power grab for the affection of the rabid Denver sports fan base is an easy one to make. But to stop there misses what is truly special about these two contracts, and these two players opting to delay a pursuit of a free-market contract for the sake of spending their prime years with the Rockies.
Denver sports fans have always wanted to love the Rockies, ever since four and a half million jammed the Mile High Stadium turnstiles to see the ball club in its birth year of 1993. But the Rockies teams that followed the slow dissolution of the Blake Street Bombers in the late 1990s usually helped to lend credence to the old Jerry Seinfeld line about sports fans rooting for laundry. The way to build a fan base is to give them a team - a series of teams - that they can connect with for years. Rockies fans weren't connecting with Todd Zeile or Darren Oliver. Preston Wilson jerseys weren't flying off the racks. The early years of the 2000s are a haze of mediocrity, with Todd Helton and Larry Walker the only consistent attractions to casual fans. When Walker was traded in 2004, only Helton remained.
Meanwhile, an entire generation - one I'm a part of, a group that was just beginning to identify with sports and our favorite teams when the Rockies came into existence - never had an opportunity to connect with the Rockies in any meaningful way as fans. Aside from them being the home team, there were few, if any, compelling reasons to root for the Rockies. They weren't any good, had no bonafide stars outside of Helton and Walker - only the logo and the ballpark stayed the same, year after year.
But again - Denver fans have wanted to love this team, have ACHED to fall in love with the Rockies, and after an arduous rebuilding process brought the fruits of a National League pennant in 2007. That's exactly what we did. Here, now, were homegrown players who seemed poised to spend long careers in Denver. The 'Gen R' movement had brought a bonafide superstar in Matt Holliday, popular complimentary stars in Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins, and an ace in Jeff Francis. Those players won ballgames, sold jerseys, filled Coors Field ... but now, four years later, they're all gone.
In fact, from that Game 1 starting lineup in the 2007 World Series, only two players remain. Helton, of course, the elder statesman, soldiers on in the twilight of his career. His polar opposite - a star on the rise, a leader who is comfortable in that role on and off the field - remains at short. Troy Tulowitzki has established himself as more than the heir to Helton's throne as 'Mr. Rockie'. He's a potential franchise icon, a leader by example, a player with a chance to be the face of contending teams in Denver. As great as Helton was in his prime, his prime will forever be associated with the mediocrity around him. In Tulowitzki's four big league seasons he has been a catalyst for two playoff appearances and one other season's worth of contention in 2010. With the talent that has coalesced around him, it's no stretch to say it's just a start for his era in purple pinstripes.
That talent includes - and will for the next seven seasons - Carlos Gonzalez, perhaps the most talented all-around player the Rockies have fielded since Larry Walker patrolled right field. In a breathtaking year and a half's worth of work with the Rockies, Gonzalez has just begun to deliver on the potential seen in him throughout his minor league career. It would have been hard for even the biggest optimist to imagine that the player with the least major league experience acquired in the Matt Holliday trade would go on to become more popular than Holliday. There was an aloofness to Holliday that suggested that he was merely biding his time in Denver before the big payday that would await him elsewhere. In stark contrast, Gonzalez has decided that Denver is the place for him.
In a five season span the Rockies have gone from the very bottom with an unrecognizable roster (67 wins in 2005, tied for the lowest full-season total in franchise history) to being a destination organization that their young players want to be with for the long haul. Leading that transformation are two young superstars who resonate with fans more than any other homegrown talent before them with their talent and charisma. Their presence will allow the franchise to gain a foothold among young fans, a generation that has known nothing but summers with the Rockies. The groundwork is being laid for the Rockies to build a tradition of success - and as importantly, a tradition of passionate fan support.
Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are two fabulous talents, and having them in the heart of the order for the next seven years should pay dividends on the field. But even if that's not guaranteed, what is much more of a sure thing is the devotion they will inspire and the connection that fans will make with them. These two don't just have the potential to be the best players in Rockies history - they could also be the most important. Rockies fans aren't just rooting for laundry anymore. And the 'Gen-R' movement that will endure in Denver will be the purple-and-black clad supporters who are being given a team to fall in love with.