As the Nuggets drift into the eyeteeth of the off season and things wind down to a sleepy trot until training camp, we look to the Nuggets neighbors several blocks to the north. The Colorado Rockies are playing out an absurd baseball management horror film ... and the problem lies at the top.
The reign of Dick and Charlie Monfort as principal managing partners of the Colorado Rockies (after forcing the increasingly financially strapped Jerry McMorris out his managing partner role in early 2001) has been interesting indeed. It actually coincides with Stan Kroenke buying the the Denver Nuggets from Liberty Media in 2000. This is a neat coincidence that allows us to compare and contrast the 12 years that have passed with each club, and maybe learn some lessons.
Before his second year as general manager in late 2000, Dealin' Dan O'Dowd, went out and signed Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle to extremely large contracts for pitchers. O'Dowd (who was a hire of the newly irrelevant Jerry McMorris in 1999) would almost immediately rue the day he made those signings and dramatically changed course a mere two seasons after the signings. There we have the start of the "lets change the plan" part of O'Dowd's career in Denver. Shifting as much as the weather patterns in spring.
In a great article written by 850 KOA's Dave Krieger, O'Dowd says that he said to owner and spokesman Dick Monfort (Charlie Monfort, it is presumed, has been exiled to silence for one too many public gaffes in the mid 2000's) that he would be the scapegoat and he should fire him after the team as posted an abysmal 38-68 record this season, and is on pace to lose over 100 games. According to O'Dowd, Monfort refused. Then the article points out that it's difficult to field a pitching staff at Coors Field and that may account for the overall poor record since O'Dowd took over. (This is, of course, discounting the relatively good overall pitching performances since the installation of the humidor in 2002 and the excellent pitching from Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010 and Jorge DeLaRosa in 2009 as anomalous) A simpler explanation would be the rash of injuries the team has suffered this season. Couple that with some extremely poor pitching acquisitions (particularly this last off season) and drafting from 2004-2008, plus a manager in Jim Tracy who's skills at inspiration are easily compared to that of a ham sandwich, are largely to blame for this year's debacle. The "blame Colorado" aspect is unsettling.
However, all this could be forgiven and erased if ownership had stepped in and said ENOUGH. Enough excuse making, enough blaming everyone else...time for some fresh air. Whatever has happened since this current season began ... outside of injuries ... lies at the feet of CEO and Team President Dick Monfort (who appointed himself Team President when Keli McGregor passed away in 2010) who on one hand is notoriously risk-averse but on the other hand is willing to go along with O'Dowd's rather questionable "Project 5,183" which has become a national punch line.
In a series of public gaffes that would be laughable if they weren't scary, Dick Monfort inserted his foot into his mouth by proclaiming about Dan O'Dowd:
"He's a tremendous asset," Monfort said. "I can't think of a general manager in baseball that's as good as him. Granted, I don't know all of them. I do get a chance every once in a while to speak with them, but I just think (O'Dowd) is head and shoulders above everybody else"
On Blake St. they are hoping for a hail Mary, but it may not come until the ownership realizes that they themselves are the problem. It's abundantly clear that the reason Dan O'Dowd is still in his current position at General Manager is because Dick Monfort simply doesn't know how to replace him. He's never had to search for a GM before and his entire knowledge of baseball is based on what O'Dowd has told him. This is the most scary point of all regard to the Rockies ... the man who's in charge may not have the confidence or baseball knowledge to make a General Manager change.
Saving the Nuggets
In 1999 there was real fear the Nuggets may be moved out of Denver. Several ownership groups that inquired to Liberty Media (who owned the Nuggets for exactly two years) about purchasing the team wouldn't commit to keeping the franchise in Denver ... including Stan Kroenke's brother in-law Bill Laurie. Then Stan Kroenke stepped up in late 1999 (sale completed in 2000) to buy the Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche NHL team and the Pepsi Center from Liberty Media.
This event, coupled with the drafting of Carmelo Anthony in 2003 saved the Nuggets franchise as we know it. It's undeniable that the Nuggets' comically bad ownership situation throughout the decade of the 90's crippled the Nuggets ability to attract any sort of free agent (not even marginal free agents would come to Denver) and combined with incompetent General Managers (Bernie Bickerstaff, Allen Bristow and the decline of Dan Issel) made the Nuggets a kabuki theater of the absurd. Bad ownership led to bad drafting. Bad ownership led to bad coaching hires (Dick Motta). Bad ownership made Denver the Siberia of the NBA. An utter laughing stock and it started from the top down.
I have my own quibbles with Stan Kroenke as an owner. If you talk to any fan of the Arsenal football club in England and the Colorado Avalanche here you may get a different picture than the one I'm painting. Truth be told, on a personal note, I've always felt Kroenke's competitive business drive sometimes trumps his sports competitive drive. Those two things sometimes are diametrically opposed. Also it seems, relishes a labor fight a little too much. Willing to double down on crushing players to get his way, even if it means sacrificing an entire season. These are things are where I will continue to be critical of him.
Despite my quibbles, you can say that the top down consistency and unified message (for the most part) has resulted in making the playoffs for 9 straight season. Be it Kiki Vandeweghe, Mark Warkentein, Rex Chapman or Masai Ujiri you get the sense that even if we disagree with their approach there's the ultimate end game and everyone wants the same thing. This has resulted in the most successful stretch of basketball in Nuggets history. It must be pointed out that basketball and baseball, operationally, are completely different. Yet, the principals of good ownership apply to every single sport. From 1990 to 2000, the Nuggets were one of the worst run organizations in pro sports, since Kroenke Sports Enterprises bought them in 2000 it's been a completely different story.
The NBA is cursed with some of the worst owners, if not THE worst owners in professional sports. Owners who are odd (Paul Allen) owners who are ego driven (James Dolan), owners who are horrible human beings (Donald Sterling) and owners who steal teams from cities (Clay Bennett) and so forth. It's within the best run organizations that you see the best results, regardless of perceived market disadvantages. You can have all the LeBron James' of the world you want, if your team is poorly run it will never succeed. The Nuggets as an organization are one of the best run in the state and it reflects on the court. We can argue about rebuilding approaches and how they allocate money and whatnot. That will always happen. Yet, there's a cache of trust that has been built up between the Nuggets organization and the fans that allow experimentation and it allows for a better product on the court.
I am coming in to my third season as a writer for Denver Stiffs. In that time I have never once received a retaliatory email from Nuggets PR for the critical columns I have written (and I've written more than my share). Not once. My relationship with the team is as solid as it was prior (for what it's worth). On the flip side, there are several writers and talk show hosts in Denver who say they have received angry communication from the Rockies after they have been critical of the team and it's management. It seems that Mile High Sports Magazine/radio and Sandy Clough have been the two most targeted members of the media.
This is what happens when actions at the top infect what happens at the bottom. It starts with the Monforts and trickles down to Dan O'Dowd and filters through the system. This is particularly upsetting for the Rockies fans who still come out to see a bad team. This is upsetting for two great players in Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki. If you are a fan of the Rockies you can SEE there's potentially a good team there, but it's been let down by incompetent/baseball ignorant ownership, a desperate general manager, and a paranoid PR staff. This can't help but infect the product that's on the field.
Until Dick and Charlie Monfort change their own ways, nothing will change within the Rockies organization. Hopefully this off-season they will take a look in the mirror and decide that letting baseball people (other than Dan O'Dowd and Bill Geivett) run the team is the best course of action. Fingers crossed
Writers note: Purple Row is one of the best sports blogs in town. It's run by Andrew Martin and Rox Girl. If you want to know more about what's happening with the team and other baseball related activity associated with the Rockies I suggest you check out that blog. You will learn something.