"Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify. Because the players are always changing, the team could move to the other city... you're actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You know what I mean? You're standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city." – Jerry Seinfeld
I still remember the first time I saw him pitch in person. It wasn't in Denver, mind you, or even in a Rockies uniform. When I heard he was getting the call from AA Tulsa up to AAA Colorado Springs, I sought out the date he would be pitching at home for the first time and made plans to head down I-25 South to watch his first start at altitude.
He didn't dominate the Portland Beavers that night. I don't remember all the details, but I do know he got hit around. The off-speed pitches hadn't yet arrived with him from Tulsa, so he didn't have anything but the fastball... but my God, what a fastball, a tracer bullet delivered from his right hand.
I'm thinking about that night as I write this, along with a lot of other nights. The first time I saw him pitch in Denver, a pivotal game late in the season against San Diego in 2007. The time I saw he and Tim Lincecum trade zeroes at Coors in 2008. The time I saw him win one of his franchise-record 19 games last year, seven strong innings against Washington when he was putting together a first half for the ages. And a lot of nights I wasn't there too – the night he dazzled for seven innings in the NLCS clincher in 2007, or the night in Atlanta last year where he threw the franchise's first no-hitter.
That night I made the following my Facebook status: "Hello World, I'm Ubaldo Jimenez."
There are few better feelings as a baseball fan than when you can wake up every fifth day and not worry about the lineup you're facing, or the opposing pitcher, or the weather, or any other factor, and feel like your team is going to win strictly because you're running your ace out to the mound. In 2010, finally, Rockies fans had that feeling. There had been pitchers who had good seasons and pitchers who won a goodly amount of ballgames in the team's short history, but Ubaldo was John Wayne in 2010. With a six-pitch arsenal fronted by a triple-digit fastball, Jimenez was legendary in the first half of the season, and even if he was merely very good in the second half, it all added up to the best season by a starting pitcher in Rockies history by a margin resembling Secretariat at the Belmont.
Jimenez was always an easy kid to root for, too, a product of the club's Dominican scouting that emerged on the scene to help save the 2007 pitching staff and then kept getting better and better. Humble, polite, and hard-working, it was easy to envision him being around a long time, and the sky seemed the limit after the 2009 season with Jimenez the ace of the staff.
But let's be honest with ourselves. That feeling of invincibility isn't there anymore. Ubaldo made some missteps this season. Maybe skipping winter ball was a mistake. Maybe he should have shut it down in the spring after thumb and leg injuries cropped up. Maybe he shouldn't have rushed back so fast after missing two starts in April on the disabled list. But Ubaldo Jimenez in 2011 was not the same Ubaldo of 2010, and one needed only to watch the numbers on the radar gun, which sat mid-90s and would occasionally tick upwards to 96... 97... 98... but never further.
The off-speed stuff was still excellent, of course, and after two rocky months Jimenez had seemed to get himself back on track. So we'd have waited all year for those numbers to show 100 again. All of next year, too. As long as it took.
We didn't know what Ubaldo Jimenez would become when he arrived in the big leagues. Didn't know if he'd ever harness the wildness that had plagued him at the lower levels of the bushes. Didn't know if he'd eventually reach top-of-the-rotation heights. But he did. And then, this year, more questions. Questions about Ubaldo's arm strength, his loss of velocity, any lingering injuries.
Now we get to ask those same questions about Alex White and Drew Pomeranz. The two crucial players acquired in the trade from Cleveland, both men have the potential to be key rotation cogs. We will ask the same questions about their stuff, their make-up, their capacity to contribute to the big club, and hope for the best.
Because at the end of the day, that's all we've got. No player arrives fully formed at the big league level. You first hear about a young player as just that – a young player, trying to make his way through the minor leagues. You read the scouting reports and check the minor league boxscores and dream that somewhere in Modesto, California or Tulsa, Oklahoma or Pasco, Washington or Casper, Wyoming, the next great Rockies player is taking his first professional steps. It's baseball's version of the circle of life, and it keeps spinning without regard to sentiment.
The baseball side of this trade is digestible. The Rockies are talent deficient in relation to the rest of their NL West competition. The records since 2010 don't lie. The Giants are better, the Diamondbacks are (this year) better. The Rockies are playing catch-up. The injury to Jorge de la Rosa exposed the lack of upper-level pitching talent and depth in the Rockies system. In a division full of pitcher's parks, and full of aces of the present and future variety, the Rockies needed to re-stock the pitching cupboard. While trading Jimenez feels counter-productive to that end, Pomeranz and White both offer similar potential to being the pitcher that Ubaldo is. When added to the current big-league production of Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio, the Rockies now have four tantalizing young arms for the future that can stack up with future rotations in San Francisco and Arizona.
But there's another side, that side that made me turn the game off on Saturday night after watching Ubaldo Jimenez hug his teammates goodbye in the Rockies dugout.
Forget what we know and don't know about Ubaldo's future, his missing velocity, the promise of White and Pomeranz, any of that. Because, frankly, we don't know anything about any of that. I only know one thing: I loved having Ubaldo Jimenez on my baseball team, loved rooting for him, loved seeing that thousand-watt smile every time he brought home a victory and the equally electric stuff that brought so many of those wins to the team.
Yeah, I know there's a lot of truth to that Seinfeld bit, that we're just rooting for clothes. But we get attached to certain guys wearing those clothes, and then one day, they're not, and as long as we're sports fans, it never gets any easier.