TUCSON, Ariz. - The fans, that's the first thing you notice about theColorado Rockies. "They're psycho," outfielder Dante Bichette said, laughing."They're football fans. I wouldn't be surprised to see them painting theirfaces Opening Day."
The fans are everywhere. Here in the desert, where they stream to HiCorbett Field wearing black Rockies caps. In cities such as Salt Lake City andSanta Fe, where they're adopting the team. And soon at Denver's Mile HighStadium, where nearly 80,000 are expected for the home opener.
Rockies officials refer to the phenomenon as "Cubs West," and they mightnot be far off. The Cubs are America's favorite underdogs, a team followedwith religious fervor in Chicago and beyond. Now here come the Rockies,galvanizing an entire region before even playing their first game.
People envision them as lovable losers.
Don Baylor doesn't.
"I look at spring training as a serious time for us to set our standards,"the rookie manager said Tuesday night, after the Rockies pounded defending ALWest champion Oakland, 12-3. "I don't want to be viewed as an expansion team,making mistakes day in and day out. That's something I will not accept."
Baylor, 43, gave the team a fiery lecture after a five-error game March10, but for the most part, the Rockies (7-7) are playing sound baseball.Against Oakland, the hitters were aggressive, the pitchers threw strikes, theinfielders turned double plays. The team actually looked good.
It's probably a mirage -- the Rockies, remember, are fighting for jobs,while everyone else is playing at half-speed. Baylor, however, is trying toinstill a familiar ethic into his ragtag collection of players.
Pitching and defense. Sound fundamentals. The Oriole way.
"Look around and see it," said Baylor, who rose through the Orioles' farmsystem and played the first four seasons of his 17-year career in Baltimore(1972 to '75). "That's how we go about our business. That's how the Orioleswent about their business.
"If you pitch and defend like the Orioles did, you have a chance to win.That's why we brought 36 pitchers to camp. When you have a pitching coach[Larry Bearnarth] who was a pitcher and a general manager [Bob Gebhard] whowas a pitcher, that's where it starts.
"Weaver wasn't a pitcher," Baylor added, smiling. "He just couldn't hit."
Joking aside, Earl Weaver's spirit is indeed present in this camp. Duringthe winter, Baylor wrote a two-volume instruction manual based on the famousBaltimore primer, "The Oriole Way." He said the hours of work "about cost me adivorce." But attention to detail was a Weaver trademark.
"I know when I went to every level with the Orioles, all the cut-off playswere all done the same way, no matter what classification you went to," Baylorsaid. "One year, I went from Single-A to Double-A to Triple-A, and everythingwas done the same way."
It's a wonderful system, but without talented players, it won't show inthe results. That, of course, is the problem Baylor will face. His No. 1starter, rookie David Nied, has three major-league wins. No Rockies pitcherhas won 20 games in a season. Only Andres Galarraga has hit 20 home runs.
Baylor wants to break the 1961 Angels record for wins by an expansion team(70). But he's also mindful of the big picture. The Angels won 86 games theirsecond season, then took 16 years to surpass that total. By contrast, the 1962New York Mets went 40-120, but won the World Series seven years later.
This will take patience. The Rockies are drooling over second basemanRoberto Mejia, a 20-year-old phenom who has never played above Single-A. Butwith the Orioles, Baylor learned the value of being "overqualified," even ifit meant spending extra time in the minor leagues.
"That's one thing I know I'll take with me," Baylor said. "[Bobby] Grichand I went back to Rochester a second time, but we never saw the minors again.Guys like [Mike] Flanagan and Eddie Murray, they didn't have to go back.
"You can sit here and fall in love with a lot of guys real easy, then dothem an injustice by bringing them to the big leagues. If you let 'em getknocked around, they could get somewhat scarred. We're trying not to do thathere."
No, the idea is to succeed long-term. Baylor began his career with anorganization that defined baseball excellence. Now he's attacking his firstmanaging job with the same zeal that made him one of the game's greatcompetitors.
Keep those Rockies jokes to yourself.
Baylor isn't cracking a smile.