DENVER — It’s the tell-tale sign of a baseball team that knows it’s good. It doesn’t need blingy jewelry or ritzy cars to remind the world of its status as a championship contender.
Know how the MLB playoffs often double as a hairiest man contest? On brand for a club with the postseason on its mind, the Rockies have let themselves go. From Charlie Blackmon’s awe-inspiring beard, bushy enough that it can legally vote in three states, to Nolan Arenado’s 5 o’clock shadow and wardrobe of sweatpants, the local ballclub certainly looks the part of a team that is all ball, all the time, with no time for a silly trip to the barber. When I saw Jon Gray’s flowing locks under a pulled-low beanie, I wasn’t sure whether to ask the staff ace how is arm is feeling or if he needed a warm meal.
“I might get stared at,” Blackmon deadpanned. “But I don’t get recognized.”
There’s a lot going on at Coors Field these days. Razors aren’t included.
“I think going into this year teams will look at us differently than last year,” manager Bud Black said.
Saturday when the Rockies wrapped up their annual caravan, with goodwill stops up and down the Front Range, I expected to hear a team that is giddy with excitement over the 2018 season. Spring training opens in a month, you know. Oh, the Rockies aren’t shying from the expectation they will advance to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history.
But the underlying message — from the marquee players in the lineup, at least — is that their motivation comes straight from the last game they played: 11-8, Diamondbacks, in the National League Wild Card game.
“I was talking to some of the guys and we’re still talking about it to this day: ‘Hey, man. What happened? How’d that game go crazy like that?’” Arenado said.
A devoted student of game film, Blackmon said it’s the only game on the schedule he hasn’t rewatched after the fact. The season-ending defeat stuck with the All-Star outfielder as he tripped to Costa Rica to catch a sailfish and to Arkansas for reasons unknown. "I fit right in there," Blackmon said as his All-Star mullet brushed across his neckline. Arenado was so unsettled at the loss that he didn’t fly back to Colorado with the team. He made a series of tee times in Arizona and enjoyed the steadying company of his parents, who, he joked, “were kind of worried I was going to jump off a cliff.” Arenado attended a concert all by his lonesome. "Nobody would go with me," he said. His mind raced at memories of a finale that featured, among other wildness, the first triple by a relief pitcher, Archie Bradley, in postseason history.
“There was a little bit of depression after that last game,” Arenado said.
Think these guys care a little bit?
“It’s really funny. In baseball, as soon as you start playing pro ball, they grind this mentality into your head: don’t get too up, don’t get too down. Then you go play a one-game playoff and there’s no tomorrow,” said Blackmon, who signed a one-year contract worth $14 million but still carries the keys to the 2004 Jeep he drove in high school. “It changes your mentality. As I’ve gone into my offseason I have this mentality of, I have to play 162 games — plus playoffs. Really, playoffs are the only thing that matters.”
Are the Rockies truly a World Series contender, as GM Jeff Bridich sincerely believes? Couldn’t tell you. It’s Jan. 20. What I know for certain is they have a Dodgers problem. The only sure way to make the postseason but avoid the one-game, sudden death, 50-50 coin flip of a Wild Card — and the nightmares that still linger three months later — is to win the National League West.
“We’re a better team than we were last year, and we made the playoffs (last year),” Arenado said.
Then it could really get hairy around here.