I'm not a gambling man by nature, but I'd be willing to place a wager that no matter how long I live, I will never live through and experience anything as a sports fan that remotely compares to September and October of 2007. The Colorado Rockies defied logic, reason, and past performance to put together perhaps the greatest stretch run of all time, set a club record for wins, win one of the greatest baseball games ever played to reach the playoffs, and sweep their way to a National League pennant. Even two time zones away, in Indiana completing my college education, I followed the mind-boggling run nightly, ignoring such trivial responsibilities as my senior thesis to immerse myself in the first pennant race I'd had the pleasure to follow as a Rockies fan.
I remember everything about that year with the sort of clarity usually reserved for important personal milestones. I remember Todd Helton's walk-off home run that sparked the streak, sweeps in Los Angeles and San Diego that kept the dream alive, every meaningful moment of the play-in game and all seven NL Playoff games, and sitting in the Coors Field stands to watch the Rockies secure a pennant I'd hardly dared to dream possible. Time will pass and seasons will change, but that month's memories are locked up in a vault in my mind. I will forget old friends, favorite vacations and familiar places, but never Rocktober 2007.
Two thousand nine is a different story. If 2007 was a delirious fever dream, the hot streak to end all hot streaks, 2009 told a more straightforward tale of a talented team that needed an attitude adjustment before deciding to run absolutely rampant through the National League. But time, place, and circumstance tend to alter our ability to absorb what happens around us. I went through a major life change in 2009, changing jobs and moving forward with my own professional career. The move consumed my August, and my new job stole my September. So while I was able to enjoy the initial magic that the Jim Tracy Era brought to the Rockies, I observed the nip-and-tuck race for the NL West with a detatchment required of my by happenstance. For God's sake, I slept through the end of the game that came to be known simply as 'The SpillySlam', and missed Ryan Spilborghs' manic trip around the bases in the game that defined the 2009 Rockies above any other. I would never have allowed that in 2007 – I'd have just stayed up and skipped morning class the next day.
I did watch all four games of that year's Division Series, and even attended Game 3 at Coors Field, nearly freezing in the process and bemoaning Troy Tulowitzki missing a hero shot by a mere grain in the late innings. But that season does not belong to me like 2007 did. The memories are not as dear, because they are not as clear. The lone consolation for this was simple. I never expect to see another 2007, but I expected there would be plenty more 2009s in the Rockies future.
Again, 2009 was no fluke. (Not that 2007 was, either. I don't mean to dismiss that team as a mediocre bunch that got ludicrously lucky, like, say, the 2011 Giants. Their run differential suggested they actually deserved better than their 90-73 mark. They just peaked at the right time and had all the outside factors that needed to fall their way, do so.) The 09 Rockies were a good baseball team, with Tulo coming into his own as a leader, Carlos Gonzalez emerging as a future star, a durable starting rotation, and a steady bullpen. With players like Dexter Fowler and Ian Stewart playing big roles and Ubaldo Jimenez taking the next big step forward in his development, the Rockies now looked to have what the 2008 season proved the 2007 bunch didn't – staying power.
Since that night in October 2009 when Ryan Howard broke my heart, the Rockies are one game below .500. 127 up, 128 down. They have been hot and they have been cold, they have been dominant and they have been listless, they have emerged and they have regressed. They have been the dictionary definition of mediocre, and in the context of everything that went right in 2009, it hasn't made a damn bit of sense.
My last column spoke to the frustration of following this year's Rockies. The fun factor, the moments of out-of-nowhere excitement and joy that make the 162-game grind worth it, have been absent. The old saying that a baseball season is like a marathon has never felt more true. At 43-48, the Rockies are beneath the .500 level at the All-Star Break for only the second time in the last six seasons. (The other season, of course, was The Season Of Which We Do Not Speak, a/k/a 2008. I mean, Luis Vizcaino and Livan Hernandez pitched for that team. I just shuddered involuntarily while typing those names.)
Tulowitzki and Gonzalez have contributed, but not to the MVP-caliber level expected of either man. Stewart, the third baseman of the future, isn't hitting LeAnn Rimes' weight. Dexter Fowler, who looked to be a center field mainstay, has been relegated to patrolling the green in Colorado Springs. The pitching has been as good as it has ever been, but the loss of Jorge de la Rosa and subsequent struggles of Aaron Cook and Juan Nicasio, not to mention the miserable April and May that Jimenez submitted, have put a drag on the rest of the staff. There are reasons, tangible and intangible, that explain this record. The Rockies have earned the dire straits they find themselves in, eight and a half games off the pace in the West and with no real hope of challenging for the Wild Card.
As I've watched the Rockies in 2011, I've thought a lot about 2009. I've thought a lot about the parts of that season I do remember, the month of June in particular, where the club felt as invincible as in those heady Rocktober times. I've thought about the promise that team seemed to offer, which only makes the fact that this team seems no closer to, and perhaps further away from, delivering on that promise even harder to bear.
But there is one other gift Rocktober gave me, beyond the memories, beyond the experience of being at a pennant-clinching game, beyond the souvenir towels and cups and programs that I'll keep forever. It's the gift of optimism. The gift of belief. It lies dormant, now, watching these Rockies scuffle. But as the second half begins tonight, it waits to be stirred, and with every win, every Tulo homer or Jimenez strikeout, it will grow. And it will always be there, only capable of being extinguished for the summer by the cruel mathematical reality that the standings eventually provide for all but one team every year.
So tonight, I'll tug my black CR cap low over my eyes, and throw logic, reason, and past performance out the door, and believe anything is possible until the numbers tell me it isn't. Every night, for the rest of the summer, until my heart stops pumping purple and black blood.