On Enemy Turf: Understanding the Rocky Terrain

Who knew the Rockies and Rangers were “natural rivals”? (via Jennifer Linnea and Mike LaChance)

“Something’s wrong,” I said to my hiking companion, otherwise known as my wife, as we looked at the map and then at the unfamiliar meadow around us.

“This just doesn’t feel right.”

On either side of the footpath, multicolored flowers and alpine grass stood in stark distinction to the creepiness of the moment, a kind of portentous doom that had cut across the mountain air to fall upon our sun-beaten shoulders. To this point, we had climbed more than 3,200 feet and, according to our distance tracker, trekked more than five miles, yet still had not arrived at the homestead cabin that had promised to serve as our turnaround point.

Perplexed, and more than a little worried, I glanced up at the jagged rocks of the Grand Traverse that loomed high above us, then around at the thick stands of shadowy pines that concealed whatever perils might have lurked.

“Honestly,” I said, in a way that would prove far too honest for any normal person in a far-from-home land, “this feels like a place where people die.”

We had just found our turnaround point.

Cabin or no cabin, we turned and high-tailed it toward our point of origin and all the safety it held in store. Only later, once inside our Colorado hotel room and with celebratory cocktails in hand, did we fully appreciate each other’s particular jitters. Having watched a crime show on TV just before our departure from Texas, my wife had feared an unbathed band of murderous woodsmen skulking in the shadows. Me? Having watched a show called I Was Prey just one night prior, I had dreaded an unscheduled visit from U. horribilis, known otherwise as the North American brown bear, and, more specifically, a prompt invitation to become its lunch.

It was on that same TV, nights earlier, that I had tuned to a Colorado Rockies game while my wife drifted to early slumber. Reader, know this: The Rockies, in accordance with the mandates of Major League Baseball, are designated a “natural rival” of my favorite team — the franchise of my fatherland — the Texas Rangers. Indeed, ever since Baseball instituted interleague play in 1997, the Rockies and Rangers have been, or are supposed to be, enemies.

I suppose this makes some sense, at least to members of an East Coast cabal headquartered in New York, New York, where, evidently, the collective mindset is that everyone west of the Missouri River travels on a sway-backed nag to the Last Chance Saloon and shouts “consarn it!” whenever the barkeep has run out of sarsaparilla. My guess is that Commissioner Rob Manfred and his Gotham cohort are wondering when Adrian Beltre and DJ LeMahieu will duke it out while the piano player pounds out The Little Brown Jug on an upright Chickering.

I suppose it makes some sense, too, to residents of the Centennial State, whose well-documented loathing of us Lone Star folk aligns pretty conveniently with MLB’s weird fixation on manufacturing Bronx/Queens-style rivalries where none exist. This unified contempt of Texans, likely enshrined in the state constitution and taught to kindergarteners throughout Colorado, probably stems from vintage Texan behavior on the wintertime slopes, where, traditionally, many a hootin’ Amarilloan and hollerin’ Lubbockian whooshes pell-mell down a Double Black Diamond in Scotchgarded jeans and seven layers of old flannel shirts.

I speak, with an accent, from experience. Though a native of neither Lubbock nor Amarillo, I, too, wore flannel shirts and Levi’s coated with Scotchgard — it keeps the water out, OK? — on my inaugural ski trip, back when I was a 17-year-old senior who had once watched the Winter Olympics on network TV. After about two and a half minutes of ski instruction, during which I almost learned how to stop, I decided I was ready for an intermediate slope, known otherwise as a Blue, and overdue for a flawless run through its sharp turns and gnarliest descents.

Up we went, just me and my jeans and flannel, on our introductory ski lift. And down we promptly came, just me and my face and forehead, on our introductory ski run. To any interested onlooker, it probably looked as if I were plowing the ski fields for the upcoming spring, with plans for a bountiful harvest.

Defeated but mostly undaunted, I went up the lift once more, to redeem my ghastly debut with a remarkable conquest of this Colorado piste. How hard could it possibly be? I was a shortstop, after all. I had turned double plays! I had made relay throws to the plate! Yeah, let’s see some wiry dude from Innsbruck catch a short hop and then gun down the runner at home.

Colder by the moment, I toppled off the lift like a frozen dung beetle. Helped to my feet, I set off again with visions of alpine glory, but, contrary to plan, saw everything but my skis perform the skiing. Turns out, Scotchgard will get you only so far. I was mostly ice. They could’ve have used me for a lesson in glaciology.

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That evening, en route to the hotel, our unheated bus broke down on the side of the mountain. And there it stayed, for hours. Late that night, I ate some leftover rice casserole. A couple hours after that, safely tucked in, I turned my head and puked.

It was at that moment, and the moments thereafter, that I hated Colorado.

Years hence, I would draw on that hatred — or try to — in service to rivalry.

***

Rivalries in baseball are mostly old and, as the cool kids would say, organic.

Famously, the Yankees and Red Sox absolutely detest each other, as do their respective fans, for a number of legitimate reasons, not least their geographic proximity — 190 miles, or, roughly the distance from Arlington to Uncertain, Texas — and, let it be said, their competing claims to cultural preeminence in all interests that do not include catfish noodling.

Likewise, the Dodgers and Giants enjoy a reciprocal hatred on the basis of their respective positions in A) the same baseball division and B) the same echelon of civilizational supremacy, wherein L.A. is the leading producer of movies that glorify L.A. and San Francisco is the leading location for car commercials that feature every possible signifier of superficial progressivism.

Back in Middle America, where, according to the coastal elite, the befuddled masses are shopping for church clothes at Family Dollar while looking forward to the next NCIS: Los Angeles, the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry continues unabated from its origin in the 1885 World Series, in which the teams played to a hotly contested 3-3-1 tie. You can’t get more rivalrous than that.

In the flickering light of Room 309, I tried with no small measure of steely resolve to conjure that same kind of antipathy for the Colorado Rockies and their purple hue. The bottom of the seventh inning had just begun, with the home team leading the Mariners, 4-0, in the sort of interleague clash baseball introduced 21 years earlier with a game between my Rangers and the Giants of San Francisco, the home of Subarus rife with enlightenment.

Try as I might, though, I just couldn’t generate the hatred that any fan might hold for an actual natural rival, one whose city is all plagues and locusts and whose players are the emissaries of darkness. No, I couldn’t conjure the sort of emotion that, more often than not, is inherited from red-faced forebears who can’t mention the opposing city without first using a bleepin’ expletive to introduce it, and that now perpetuates itself in the mutually antagonistic flame wars that litter the ’Net.

I couldn’t even generate the unilateral hatred so common to folks like me, neglected as we are by TV networks — howdy, ESPN and MLB! — that have never met a Yankees game they couldn’t broadcast. In fact, I couldn’t even generate the hatred that most fans could direct at any team, were they so inclined. Indeed, if you look for it, there’s a legitimate reason to despise every franchise, be it the absolution of ex-teen bigots (what’s up, Brewers?), the dumb-luck drafting of the world’s best player (yo, Anaheim!) or the pitch-tipped claim to the Lone Star State’s first World Series title.

I know where you live, Astros.

Not that anyone asked, but I’ve got other teams on my Most Hated list.

Here at the top five:

  • the Cardinals, because of the 2011 World Series
  • the Blue Jays, because of the 2015 ALDS
  • the Yankees, because they’re the Yankees
  • the Red Sox, because they’re the Red Sox
  • the A’s, because they’re the opposite of the Yankees and Red Sox, i.e., they’ve got exactly $14.50 to their name, yet still manage to draft a 78th rounder from Miss Peregrine’s School For Awkward Athletes and turn him into a Goliath who slams 36 home runs, 35 of which are against my hometown team

If hatred is to be had, you can find a rationale.

But here’s the question: Can you feel it?

Now, as Charlie Blackmon took a 79.4 mph slider for strike one to begin the Rockies seventh, I searched for that rationale, a reason to loathe the Rockies as much as I loathe the good ol’ Evil Empire. Why not add one more team to the list? Baseball, with its Manhattanized presumption that Colorado and Texas should meet on a dusty street to settle this once and for all, had practically demanded my raging animus, as purple as the Colorado threads.

Still, as Blackmon fouled a Casey Lawrence changeup for strike two, I just couldn’t coax it from whatever organ produces that steady secretion of bile. I couldn’t find the hostility, the ill will, the unfettered hatred that turns actual rivalry into an exercise in finger-pointing, that finger being the one in the middle. I mean, c’mon, who can hate Charlie Blackmon? Dude rocks a mullet that makes circa-1992 Billy Ray Cyrus look like a Cistercian monk. And that beard! — it probably serves as a rookery for orphaned seabirds, there to provide safe harbor until they at last take wing.

Next, following Blackmon’s groundout, came former Ranger Ian Desmond — or, as Rockies play-by-play announcer Drew Goodman called him, “Desi.”

Desi? thought I. WE never called him Desi. Why are THEY calling him Desi?

In 2016, Desmond came to Texas on a one-year contract and performed quite well, learning the new position of center field and playing to a 3.7 WAR on the strength of 22 homers, 21 steals and a .782 OPS. He’d even repped the Rangers at the All-Star Game, replacing the world’s best player in the sixth.

Along the way, I had come to really like Desmond. He seemed earnest. He played hard. And he was durable, playing in all but six of the 162 games.

Now here he was, playing for the Rockies and rocking a new pet name.

It’s always weird when you lose a player you like, even if the move is expected. While it’s true that we all root for laundry, we also root for the individuals who wear that laundry, players we enjoy and respect. Sure, at times, we root for crummy dudes who just happen to wear the team threads.

“He’s a jackwagon,” the saying goes, “but he’s our jackwagon.”

Mostly, though, we find a rooting interest in the “good guys,” players who, in our admittedly biased perspective, have honored the home colors. Now, one of the “good guys” was playing in purple — and being called Desi. Suddenly, my proprietary claim to Ian M. Desmond, residual though it might have been, had been aggrieved. Would it be enough to make me despise the Rockies?

Not really — I mean, I ain’t married to the guy.

In fact, not even the announcers’ insistence on calling him a “grinder,” that most hackneyed of Pastime descriptors, could make me hate the Rockies.

Hatred is too visceral an emotion, too automatic, to have its root in analysis or even reaction. It is not a considered thing. It avoids intellectual assembly. It comes from way down deep, from the place that makes you — makes me, anyway — turn the channel whenever the Yankees are on TV. It comes, if you allow it, from a feeling that the offender has wronged your sense of rightness.

It might also come, if you try hard enough, from memories of that big bad mountain.

That mountain, whatever its slope, could be part of the Rockies.

***

Dressed in dry jeans and different flannel shirts, I sat inside the ski lodge at the foot of the busy slopes and put my head on the table like any sick kid would. Hours earlier, I’d cleaned a vomitus mass of rice casserole from the pile carpet and now here I was, fevered, chilled, weak, watching my friends come hootin’ and hollerin’ down the mount as I wasted Day Two of my inaugural trip with a temperature of 102.

It was my first, but hardly my last, run-in with the Colorado Rockies.

A few years later, on a rented bike, I pedaled from Aspen to Leadville with only a single water bottle. That bottle had come with the bike. And whoever had used that bottle before me had put coffee — I repeat: coffee -—inside it. You have never known misery until you’ve swigged coffee-flavored water while ascending more than 4,000 feet, over Independence Pass, of the highland.

A couple years later, on my own bike, I cycled up the Flatirons outside Boulder. There I noticed an off-road trail. Hey, thought I, THAT looks fun! Hours later, lost and starved, I emerged from the woods on a rough dirt road and saw headlights approaching. Saved! I flagged it down, like you see in the movies, and had the driver roll down the window. “How do I get back down to Boulder?”

He gazed at me and said, “Ich spreche kein Englisch.”

A year after that, outside Boulder again, I came hootin’ and hollerin’ down an unpaved path at 45 mph and did the endo to end all endos, flying over the handlebars of my rented mountain bike and sliding down the slope on my face. That seemed familiar. I also slid on my ribs, cracking some. Upon reaching the paved road at the bottom, both my inner tubes exploded. Good times.

Lastly, again on a rented bike, I cycled out of Estes Park and into Rocky Mountain National Park. There, having ignored my lesson, I saw a dirt road and thought, Hey, THAT looks fun! Up I went, switchback after switchback, mile after mile, higher and higher until I had climbed above the tree line and with only a small breakfast to sustain me. Hunger set in, of the desperate kind, yet still I went, unwilling to turn around before I had reached whatever summit awaited my appetite. Pedaling ever upward, I searched the trees for edible fruits. I saw a trashcan and gazed inside, hopeful of a leftover scrap.

How I wished — oh, how I wished! — for a heapin’ helpin’ of rice casserole.

Soon the wind picked up. Sleet began to fall, slapping my bare arms and legs. In time I saw another trashcan. I stopped, desperate for a bite. I found none. A ravening had set in, hunger I’d never known. I had just one option. I reached into my fanny pack, pulled out a map of Colorado and ate it.

You have never known despair, and relief, until you’ve eaten Grand Junction.

***

As Nolan Arenado stepped to the plate with two outs in the seventh, I drew upon my experiences — maybe not near-death but definitely near-near-death — and used them in the way an unrepentant polemicist would use what he considers “facts” while writing sectarian screeds for a hyperpartisan website. I bent them, or tried to bend them, to fit the factional hatred demanded of me.

Had the Cardinals been on TV, or the Blue Jays or Red Sox or Astros or A’s, or, more likely, the Yankees, such loathing would have come naturally. Yet as I watched Arenado foul off a four-seamer for strike one and a slider for strike two, I still couldn’t manufacture an emotion that, contrary to the wishes from New York, New York, defies do-it-yourself assembly, even if memories of cracked ribs, face plants, fever, regurgitated casserole, ice-bitten skin, frigid wind, near-starvation and water that tastes like day-old Folgers have informed it.

Next I watched Arenado, with that distinctly Arenadoan swing, slap a 92.4 mph four-seamer on the inner half for an opposite-field line-drive double.

Man. If you’re a baseball fan, what’s not to like?

***

Commercial breaks came — Sonic, T-Mobile, Rockies season tickets.

Commercial breaks went —Volvo, Smashburger, Ramos Law.

As in any regional broadcast, some ads were national and some local. Every city has its Sonics, and each has its personal-injury attorneys who try to rustle up rear-ended clients between innings of the local nine’s latest game.

Smashburger, an international chain founded in Denver, tailored its come-on to the Pastime itself, calling its menu “the most stacked lineup yet.” Pizza Ranch, another chain with local outlets, also went the baseball route, saying, “You can kiss that crust goodbye!” Onscreen, indeed, were the hallmarks that turn every regional broadcast into a close cousin of the 29 others but one with its own peculiar attributes. Here, in the moments before the Toyota Postgame Show, came promotions for the Rooftop Party Areas, and now, to begin the ninth, came the Subaru Strike Zone. The first pitch from Colorado closer Wade Davis, a 78.8 mph knuckle-curve to Mitch Haniger, missed it. Caring less than Wade Davis, I assumed, was Subaru.

The closer’s second pitch, another knuckle-curve, found the bottom of the zone. This time Haniger fouled it off. The count stood at 1-1 as Colorado held a 4-1 lead. With three more outs, the Rockies would claim their fourth straight victory and fifth straight series win over teams with records of .500 or better. They’d move to five games above .500 themselves.

Watching from the hotel-room bed, I found myself rooting for Davis and the Rockies. To an outside observer, this rooting interest might have seemed natural. After all, the Mariners are division rivals of my hometown team and any loss for a rival is a win, mathematically, for the good guys. That said, the good guys had been bad, terrible, all season and were fated to sell at deadline. Who cared if the Mariners lost?

Well, somebody cared, but I sure didn’t.

I cared only about a Rockies win. At some point you say, “That’s enough.”

Yep, I was rooting for the Rockies. And, naturally, you never root for a rival.

Read it and weep, New York, New York.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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Shane Tourtellotte
Member

My compliments, sir, for your correct spelling of “sarsaparilla.” I bet you didn’t even need to check, just to be sure.

John DiFool2
Member
John DiFool2

And here I thought this would go into vivid detail about what makes their park such a hitter’s haven (and the choices the Rockies have to try to lessen its effects)…

mikejunt
Member
Member
mikejunt

The rangers and rockies arent “designated rivals”. The team the rockies always play in interleague is the Mariners.

The wests play the wests this year.

This entire article is based on a false premise.

Defenestrater
Member
Defenestrater

Not quite: it is a split rivalry. The Rangers get the Rockies in even-numbered years (like this year) and the Padres in odd-numbered years. The Mariners get the other.

Defenestrater
Member
Defenestrater

And before that, it was Rockies, Rangers, Astros, and D-Backs (2013-2015) in a split rivalry.

hopbitters
Member
hopbitters

John, John, John. You really don’t get the Rockies. Your problem is that you try to go there and do things. You’re not supposed to _do_ things in, on, or around mountains (possible exception: make moonshine. Cite: God’s Own Drunk). You’re supposed to hang around the bottom until a mysterious train pulls up and hands you a beer. It’s probably not a particularly good beer, but it’s still beer. And that’s better than being eaten by a bear.

aschaefe
Member
aschaefe

Would it be rude of me to suggest that maybe you need to prepare a little better for your excursions into the wilderness, for instance by bringing sufficient amounts of water and food? Because if it wouldn’t be rude to suggest that, then I’d like to suggest that.