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Old friends lead Rockies to the top

Old friends lead Rockies to the top

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The rushed, off-balance throw by Troy Tulowitzki popped into the glove of Todd Helton before Eric Byrnes nose-dived into first base, putting the 2007 Rockies where no Rockies team ever had been and putting two men in their dugout essentially where they had been 19 years earlier. As Helton posed for posterity, Bob Apodaca turned to Clint Hurdle and reminded his best friend that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For an instant amid the frenzy and frolic Monday night, downtown Denver was transported to the east coast of Florida, and the pitching coach and manager of the Rockies were wearing the uniform of the St. Lucie Mets. "Just like 1988 all over again, buddy," Apodaca said to Hurdle.

They embraced each other and toasted their team's achievement at Coors Field on Monday night, re-enacting what they had shared in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Sept. 11, 1988.

Apodaca and Hurdle had the same job descriptions then, though not the same titles. They constituted the full staff of the Florida State League champions, the Mets' affiliate in that Class A league. Each was in his first season at the job, just as the St. Lucie franchise was in its first season. And now the Rockies are in the World Series for the first time.

The parallels are many and not the least bit eerie; they're fun. "So much fun, such unbelievable fun," Apodaca said Thursday.

By the time the St. Lucie Mets defeated the Osceola Astros for the '88 FSL championship, Apodaca and Hurdle were months into a relationship that would blossom into nearly two decades of friendship and successful professional association. They already were finishing each other's sentences then as they do now when certain pitching aspects of the 2007 National League champions require discussion.

"We hit it off pretty good from the start," Hurdle said Friday. "Pretty much since Day 1, Dac's had a special place in my heart."

Apodaca had been a right-handed pitcher, Hurdle a left-handed hitter. Together, they are the two sides of the brain that has moved the peak of the National League to the Mountain time zone. And now the rarefied air of the World Series is to be mixed with the thin air of the Mile High City.

"Being in the World Series is beyond any dream of mine," Apodaca said. "And being here with Clint makes it better. ... It's been amazing."

Apodaca had used the very adjective Casey Stengel had made part of the Mets' unofficial name in 1962. And how apropos. His career and Hurdle's first intersected in the Mets organization.

Apodaca, 38 in '88, was an unassuming pitching coach in the Mets system for seven seasons before he was promoted to the franchise's new affiliate in the sprawling, but mostly undeveloped city that the big league players had identified as Port St. Lonesome when they trained there for the first time that spring. He had pitched -- with modest results -- for the Mets for precisely four years -- Sept. 18, 1973, to Sept. 18, 1977, before his elbow betrayed him.

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Hurdle, whose big league career began the day of Apodaca's final big league appearance, was a month shy of his 30th birthday when his big league career -- 10 years, four clubs and marginal success -- ended with the Mets in June 1987. He had been a Sports Illustrated cover boy with a sweet swing that Jim Frey, his second big league manager, said "moved through the hitting zone faster than any player I ever saw until I saw Darryl Strawberry."

The Mets had recognized Hurdle's people skills, earnestness and willingness and ability to learn during his three tours with the big league team, 1983, '85 and '87. Steve Schyver, then the club's Minor League director, believed he had a big league manager in the making in his midst.

"I knew who he was before I met him," Apodaca said. "But I didn't know him at all, and he didn't know anything about me. That first night in Port St. Lucie, we went to dinner -- there weren't many restaurants then -- and right off the bat, it was like he was reading my mind. And I'd answer his questions before he asked them. We connected right away."

Fate played a role, too. Schyver initially was opposed to starting Hurdle at the highest Class A level. But Hurdle lived in Stuart, a city close to Port St. Lucie. He wasn't yet sure he wanted to end his playing career, but when Schyver said the St. Lucie job was available, a managing career began.

The St. Lucie Mets won the second-half championship in 1988. As Apodaca recalls it, "We struggled at first. We had a bunch of gypsies." Hurdle remembers that roster as "filled mostly by players who probably were close to the end."


"When you consider how tough it can be to get outs in our place day in and day out, you know what a job Dac's done."
-- Clint Hurdle on pitching coach Bob Apodaca

"But we took off the second half of the year when we switched our second baseman and shortstop," Apodaca said. The shortstop, Dave Gelatt, shifted to second. And Tim Bogar, who later played for the Mets and now manages in the Indians organization, moved from second to short. "We were a better team that way, and we took off like [the Rockies] did this year when our shortstop [Tulowitzki] established himself."

Apodaca enjoys that parallel. Hurdle points to another -- how that St. Lucie team ran off victories to win its championship. It lost its first game to Lakeland but won the next two, swept Tampa and Osceola. "We got on a run just like we have this year," Hurdle said. The Mets were impressed.

Apodaca and Hurdle spent four seasons together -- 1988 in St. Lucie, 1990 with Double-A Jackson and 1992 and 1993 with Triple-A Tidewater. Hurdle was not rehired following the '93 season. Steve Phillips, then the Mets' Minor League director, had differences with Hurdle. As the Mets' general manager, 6 1/2 years later, Phillips dismissed Apodaca as New York's pitching coach.

"We still giggle about that," Hurdle said. "Dac and I have a few things in common, including that both of us fell out of favor with Steve."

Hurdle moved to the Rockies as a Minor League hitting instructor and then the big league hitting coach, while Apodaca served as the Brewers' pitching coach in 2000 and 2001 before moving back to the Mets and Port St. Lucie in 2002.

"I was kinda back to my roots as a coach, and I was loving it," Apodaca said. "Watching the Minor League kids develop ... I really liked it. I could have been happy doing that for years."

But his best friend was about to interrupt that enjoyment. The Rockies appointed Hurdle manager April 26, 2002, creating an instant ambivalence in Apodaca.

"I walked in one day right after Clint was named and someone asked me what was wrong," Apodaca said. "I said, 'My best friend just got a big league [managing] job and now I know he's going to ask me to be his pitching coach.' I knew he would, and I didn't want him to. But July rolls around and I get this call:

"'Dac, I've got one question to ask.'

"I said 'Don't. I don't want to answer it. I don't want to choose.'

"He said 'I've got to.' And then he put me on the spot."

Apodaca and wife Deborah discussed the opportunity. "She knew I had reservations, and she asked, 'What's the matter? Are you afraid to go back to the big leagues?'" he said. "I knew the issues. I remember the pain and disappointment of pouring my heart into something and having it taken away.

"She told me, 'You can't be afraid of being hurt.' And then later she added, 'Besides, it will be more money.'"

Apodaca and Hurdle were wearing the same uniform in 2003 and starting the climb that has brought the Rockies to the World Series. The manager put a different spin on the old Bob Gibson-to-Tim McCarver line and said, "The only thing I know about pitching is that it's hard to hit. ... You're in charge of the pitching." And his friend responded.

"Clint gave me the chance to come back," Apodaca said. "He had made me better back when we were in St. Lucie and did it again here. Before I worked with Clint, I was just a 50-50 pitching coach -- didn't help anybody, didn't hurt anybody. But he said, 'You take charge.' He put the responsibility on me. And that's when I began to seek out the higher authorities -- the Al Jacksons, the Mel Stottlemyres. It hadn't been a huge aspiration of mine to get to the big leagues. Just like when I was a player, I just wanted to do well where I was. But that changed. And I owe that to Clint."

Hurdle, though, believes the debt is his. "[Coors Field] is such a challenging venue," he said. "It's mission impossible, but Bob's made it mission possible. He's a great communicator. He has no ego, he just wants his pitchers to succeed. And that's so important here.

"We are where we are for a lot of reasons, but when you consider how tough it can be to get outs in our place day in and day out, you know what a job Dac's done."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["world_series" ] }
{"content":["world_series" ] }
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