If you are in Colorado or generally read about the Rockies (as opposed to generally show up at Coors Field for a drink), you might’ve heard of a little tempest brewing at 20th and Blake. Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post had some very candid questions for owner Dick Monfort. Mark Kiszla, also of the Denver Post, followed that up by discussing the feelings of that very same man with that very same man. Mr. Monfort wants to win, but either from Kiszla’s overall impression or the direct answers to each of Saunders’ questions, it seems he didn’t know where to start.
Not that 2014 is an easy starting point. After all, 2014 has been a season of extreme highs and almost gruesome lows. The Rockies went from a tie from first place and the best run differential in the National League to, um, hoping they can end the season at a .500 win-loss record. Plan A (Brett Anderson, Nolan Arenado) got injured then Plan B (Eddie Butler) joined Plan A on the DL. Even Plan D (Dan Winkler) decided to join in on the fun and join (in no particular order), Plan C (Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood, Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Gonzalez) on the Rooftop DL. Even the plan no one saw coming, Christian Bergman (Plan CB?) got 10-3‘ed. But hey, at least Troy Tulowitzki‘s been healthy. At one point the percentage of the Rockies payroll on the Disabled List was over 37% of the total team salary. It might have even gotten higher except I lost track.
For a brief period this week, the Rockies ownership might’ve garnered some sympathy. The corners of the Rockies blogosphere lit up, breaking down the interview and suggesting ways the Rockies could improve without blowing up everything, including hiring a president from outside the organization to trading some of the veterans akin to how rebuilding organizations like the Astros and Pirates did. It seemed that an actual dialogue between the fans and the front office/ownership might start up, which would be a real step forward for a Rockies organization considered so closely knit that its a black box. Unfortunately, a distinction started to emerge as owner Dick Monfort decided to spend time reading (and responding) to fans justifiably disgruntled with their Coors Field experience.
The basic thread is this. A fan goes to the game and is upset at the prospect of not only watching another losing game, but enduring another losing season. Ownership is upset that the fans are expressing their upset. Or, to quote the elegant statement made earlier this week: “If product and experience that bad don’t come!”
Things went downhill from there and any empathy or sympathy that might’ve been acquired got tossed aside.
Fans have a right to be upset. Bloggers (who also happen to be fans), also can get upset too. Color me a little confused, but I found it odd that a guy who fills out a comment card between innings gets a response from an owner when someone who types up 500+ words about how the Rockies could field a better baseball team doesn’t even get a Facebook Like or any other indication it was read.
Then things became a tad bit clearer for me… and without inside info, the following is just based on personal assumption (because without inside information or information in general, people resort to personal opinions to try to relate some method to the madness).
The thing that became clearer to me is that Dick Monfort is right. To an extent. It might be one of those fun unwritten rules, but Americans as consumers have a choice on where they spend their money or what they do with their time. It is somewhat empowering when the owner of a business says “If you don’t like our product, feel free to take your business elsewhere.”
But that begs the question as to what _is_ the product that the Colorado Rockies are providing? That’s when I got a better grasp, when before I and others just had an inkling, that the product is the Rockies “brand” which is not necessarily the Rockies team, from a win-loss perspective. The Coors Field Experience, the ambiance, the Rooftop, all of it. All things considered, the ownership does a good job at marketing that.
What about the team? Oh that they’re also good at too. Throughout their existence, they’ve had a “face” of the franchise and other players to root for, from Andres Galarraga and the Blake Street Bombers through the Todd Helton years and now, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado. Even the bit players like Ryan Spilborghs and Jason Giambi have gotten love. The Rockies goal is to get to the playoffs twice every five years which, as Maury Brown noted in our interview with him, is “aggressive” compared to Bud Selig’s version of parity where once every five years should be the goal. The Rockies have never damaged their brand with a fire sale and even the most contentious of situations with players such as Ubaldo Jimenez has been handled without much damage from a public relations standpoint. Even when a player has been distastefully dispatched such as Dexter Fowler, receiving Jordan Lyles and Brandon Barnes and seeing their early season success made it easier to stomach.
Then there is the added complication of what fans want can be particularly fickle. If some of us look across I-25 at the Denver Broncos which the Rockies organization is often compared and contrasted to, we see a fan base that perpetually has a quarterback flavor of the year. Broncos fans also have an annoying habit of getting what they want. The Broncos didn’t want Jake Plummer anymore, they wanted Jay Cutler. Then they didn’t want Cutler anymore and didn’t want coach Mike Shanahan anymore. They wanted Tebow then tossed him out. And even though the Broncos went to the Super Bowl last year, they’re considered a complete failure for not winning it. Broncos fans got everything they wanted and still poo-pooed the team as a failure.
In football, generally the better team (or the better matchup) wins in a sudden death playoff format. Baseball’s all about rolling the dice (or throwing spaghetti at the wall) so it’s a little more complicated than that. Nonetheless, Rockies fans can be just as fickle. It was a mere month and a half ago that people suggested trading Eddie Butler or Jonathan Gray in a package for Jeff Samardzija. Charlie Blackmon was emerging as a star, Justin Morneau had rejuvenated his career and we had “won” the Fowler trade. Even I was thinking my “optimistic” projection of 80 wins for the 2014 Rockies was too conservative. Instead, a broken thumb and a bunch of June happened. That June and much of July has us fickle fans getting upset.
How does an owner respond to that? iPad emails probably aren’t recommended. However, it is telling that many fans said “We’ve got a nice stadium, we’ll take the A’s!” I don’t think it’s just about win-loss record either. Some suggest the Astros who may be losing in 2014 but still built an exciting minor _and_ major league system in just a few short years. The Pirates sandblasted their organization and have made the playoffs with young, fun talent and a sustainable player development model. Both teams accomplished those feats _since_ the Rockies have been to the playoffs. Oh, and we’d still take the Tampa Bay Rays. Sure, Monfort might lament the Rockies facing the Dodgers with only 1/3rd of the payroll, but the Rays have survived worse (and in a worse stadium).
But again, he apologized, so it’s not like Coors Field is really up for grabs to a new team.
And again, in terms of the brand itself, fielding a team that people can recognize for years to enjoy the overall experience of going to Coors Field (and paying for that experience), the Rockies generally do a good job. So, the calls from around the net to fire Dan O’Dowd? He’s been around awhile so fans have less of a right to be fickle, but it doesn’t change the underlying culture. An internal candidate that is promoted will most likely keep the focus on the Rockies brand. Hoping a losing season to the point of cheering for one would force a change? Sure it might. But if they could survive that well-intentioned but horribly implemented 4 man 75 pitch rotation in 2011, the current front office can survive this. Heck they even could do a fire sale (since “everyone” “knows” Tulowitzki wants to leave) or do a Pirates-style sandblast of the major league organization. They would still weather the storm as long as they kept Arenado around to remain the face of the organization. Might as well since he’s usually the first person on the practice field anyway.
But this is also where Monfort’s a little wrong. It should be possible to have your cake and eat it to. It should be possible to build a better brand _and_ build a better team. There is even some business sense to this as well. The Rockies have a significant Latin American influence along with a lot of good local Colorado prep talent. A kid like Kyle Freeland is more likely like these, which appeal to fans, and sign for less money, which appeals to most owners.
But in order to do that, Dick Monfort needs to do his homework. As a baseball owner, he should approach it as a business owner. He needs to know baseball (i.e. his industry) just as he would know what each of his major competitors in the meatpacking and distributing does. Since he controls the purse strings, he should know how his money flows through the organization, where it is spent well, and what things (such as developing a starter that can throw six innings) continually fail. He can’t just rely on people telling him “the plan” is working. He needs to be able to evaluate the macro and the micro by himself.
If he does his homework, he shouldn’t need to bring in a president from outside the organization or seek the opinions of bloggers because he would know the answers themselves. Hopefully those kinds of answers (what’s wrong and how and when it will be fixed) take the front page in the next Denver Post interview instead of his latest iPad conversations. Building a good team can only help build a better Rockies brand. But if he doesn’t know his own industry, he shouldn’t be surprised when people question the brand.