Cinderella back in Colorado

Cinderella back in Colorado

Buzzards were hovering over Coors Field as Memorial Day approached, ready to pick apart the Rockies and fly away with the best pieces they could grab.

What I really mean is, general managers were poised to call Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd and discuss deals for any of his frontline players that might be available.

The Rockies were having a dreadful season, so far out of the NL West race in last place, it was generally agreed they were a good target for contenders needing a pitcher or a hitter or a key bench player.

The Phillies, desperate for pitching help, had their sights on right-hander Jason Marquis, who can be a free agent after the season. Other teams were also scouting the Rockies.

Before O'Dowd made any decisions or even answered his phone, he dismissed longtime manager Clint Hurdle, who was in his eighth season.

"We had a great spring," says O'Dowd, who traded slugger Matt Holliday to Oakland during the offseason and got back one piece of the Rockies' current success, closer Huston Street (19 saves). "We thought coming out of Spring Training, we'd be competitive, be athletic and youthful. But we played so poorly out of the gate, it was very discouraging.

"This was very difficult for me, personally. Clint is one of my best friends in life. It had gotten to the point where I felt badly for him. I could see the pain and everything he was going through. We collectively knew it was the best thing to do."

Bench coach Jim Tracy took over on May 29, and since then, all bets are off. The Rockies are the hottest team in the Major Leagues.

As they headed to Los Angeles for the beginning of a three-game reality check against the first-place Dodgers beginning Monday night, they'd won 22 of 29 games under Tracy and 20 of their last 23.

After starting 2-3 under their new skipper, the Rockies reeled off an 11-game winning streak, lost, 12-4, to Tampa Bay, then won six in a row.

They're suddenly back in the race, at least for the NL Wild Card. GMs should forget about making a deal for any of the Rockies key parts. At least for now.

I've always felt that changing managers midstream is risky business and can often backfire. I've never subscribed to the notion that in-season managerial changes can create any great magic. It really comes down to the players on the field.

There have been exceptions, and what has happened with the Rockies is a perfect example.

Go back to May 2003, when Trader Jack McKeon took over the dreadful Florida Marlins from Jeff Torborg. McKeon, an excellent motivator, quickly taught the Marlins to believe in themselves. They didn't stop winning until they had shocked the Yankees and won the World Series.

That doesn't happen very often.

In fact, of all the managers who've taken over during the season, only 16 have guided their teams to the postseason.

And of those, just McKeon and the Yankees' Bob Lemon, who replaced Billy Martin in 1978, won the World Series.

Oakland's Billy Beane says, "When you change managers, it's a pretty radical step."

Even O'Dowd believes changing managers during the season is a gamble.

"I'm not a big believer of it," he says. "If you look at the history of changes in the game, these things rarely work out."

Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin says what's been happening with the Rockies makes it even more difficult to swing a deal.

Change for Change's Sake?
Teams that advanced to the postseason after replacing managers in-season:
Year
Team
Old manager
New manager
2008Milwaukee BrewersNed YostDale Sveum
2004Houston AstrosJimy WilliamsPhil Garner
2003Florida MarlinsJeff TorborgJack McKeon*
1996Los Angeles DodgersTommy LasordaBill Russell
1989Toronto Blue JaysJimy WilliamsCito Gaston
1988Boston Red SoxJohn McNamaraJoe Morgan
1983Philadelphia PhilliesPat CorralesPaul Owens
1982Milwaukee BrewersBuck RodgersHarvey Kuenn
1981Kansas City RoyalsJim FreyDick Howser
1981Montreal ExposDick WilliamsJim Fanning
1981New York YankeesGene MichaelBob Lemon
1978New York YankeesBilly MartinBob Lemon*
1947Brooklyn DodgersClyde SukeforthBurt Shotton
1938Chicago CubsCharlie GrimmGabby Hartnett
1932Chicago CubsRogers HornsbyCharlie Grimm
*Won World Series

Note: The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers had Clyde Sukeforth as interim manager for the first two games of the season (Leo Durocher was suspended for the year) until Burt Shotton took over.
"The Rockies were out of it, then won 11 in a row. Every club likes to think it can do that and get back in the race," he says.

In 2004, the Houston Astros were 10 1/2 games behind St. Louis in the NL Central on July 14, when manager Jimy Williams was dismissed and replaced by Phil Garner. They won 36 of their last 46 games to take the Wild Card. They lost to St. Louis in the National League Championship Series, but the following year, made it to the World Series under Garner.

What the Rockies are doing is reminiscent of 2007, when they won 21 of 22 games from mid-September through the first two rounds of the playoffs against the Phillies and Arizona. They were swept by Boston in the World Series.

Hurdle was manager of that team, and must have done something right. But in 2008, the Rockies finished in third place, at 74-88.

Tracy managed the Dodgers and Pirates before becoming Hurdle's bench coach during the offseason.

"Jim's done a great job," says O'Dowd. "They're playing the way they did the last three weeks of Spring Training. It's a total team effort. It's not about one player. Pretty much every night, someone different is picking up the club. He's done a good job getting everybody involved in the picture, and he's really settled some roles on the club, too."

Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki told the Denver Post, "Tracy's the exact opposite of Hurdle. You had a guy who was very loud, very intimidating and sometimes you didn't know what you were going to get with your lineup. Tracy is low maintenance, very mild-tempered, will let you know if you aren't playing. Both ways can be very effective."

Veteran first baseman Todd Helton says focusing on the game at hand is Tracy's forte.

"I don't know if it's a case of what he's told us, or what he hasn't told us that's been the biggest thing," Helton says. "But we know that when we show up, in his mind and our minds, today is the most important and we're going to do everything we can to win that game and worry about the next game tomorrow.

"I just think we started playing up to our potential and doing a lot of the little things it takes to win games."

O'Dowd is enjoying the ride, but overly cautious.

"Separate from even winning games, we just weren't playing well," he says. "We know that to win in our market size, we have to be able to execute the game fundamentally well. We've been doing that.

"We are far from a perfect club. We have issues in our bullpen, maybe an injury away from not being real good. We're trying to get an identity at least on how we play the game."

I mentioned what a difference a month makes, that the Rockies have disappointed a lot of fellow GMs. They're no longer knocking on Dan's door, bombarding his cell phone.

"This is such a humbling business, who knows? We might be back in that position," O'Dowd offered, laughing. "I'm hesitant to say anything."

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.