Monfort predicts more improvement

Optimistic Monfort predicts more improvement

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Colorado CEO Charlie Monfort relaxed in an office off the right-field corner of Hi Corbett Field before Thursday's first home Spring Training game of 2006 -- a less giddy time and place than behind home plate at Coors Field last Opening Day. Monfort proclaimed then that his Rockies could win the National League West, leaving some media members, as he put it, thinking he'd "been drinking Kool-Aid."

Let the record show that when he talked on this morning, what he'd been drinking was not even that strong -- just bottled water. But even after Colorado's 67-95 finish in 2005, Monfort believes he is dealing in possibilities, not spiked punch.

"I think everybody on the outside would be happy for us to get back to .500," Monfort said. "But I'd answer that with my goal, which is to finish one game better than the team that finishes in second place. I'm optimistic."

After five straight losing seasons and a financial crisis, brought on by expensive decisions followed by low win totals, Monfort thinks the Rockies have turned a corner. He put his money where his faith is by granting one-year contract extensions through 2007 for general manager Dan O'Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle.

The extensions raised eyebrows in some circles. O'Dowd's only winning season was his first, 2000. The Rockies are 276-350 in a little less than four seasons under Hurdle. But Monfort said the pair was instrumental in pulling the franchise out of a hole that was a lot more serious than being below .500.

Monfort made it clear "no one feels sorry for us" and no one should. But he said even as the early Rockies were smashing attendance records, revenue was spent paying debts, and the franchise had to extend itself by receiving a higher line of credit from its banking partners.

Before the 2001 season, at the beginning of a leveling off of attendance, the Rockies paid $172.5 million for free-agent pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle and a $141.5 million contract extension for the soul of the franchise, first baseman Todd Helton. The wins didn't come, and by the middle of the season the fan support, the money and the immediate future began to evaporate.

"We lost well over $50 million on contracts that weren't successful," Monfort said. "When you're losing money and your team is no good, that to me is a crisis."

Calling for additional capital from the franchise's partners and taking on an equity partner in Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain to cover the losses still didn't make life easier for O'Dowd and Hurdle, who replaced Buddy Bell as manager on April 26, 2002. Their profiles took the biggest hits because of the financial mess.

A complication was teams had three years from the ratification of a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the players in 2002 to comply with a "debt service rule" (DSR), which required teams to cut expenses or find equity partners, rather than borrow, to pay existing debt. The Rockies weren't the only team that had to shed expenses. The Rockies judged Helton's money well-spent, but O'Dowd had to move other contracts in a climate full of sellers. Now, no payroll and only some bonus money, most or all pre-funded, is due players no longer with the club.

"That's been our loyalty to Dan because he did get us out of those contracts," Monfort said. "Dan, I think, did a fantastic job there."

Monfort also said he has watched Hurdle prove to be the right guy to handle the roster turnover while introducing the young nucleus to the Majors.

"Game-day situations you can always throw stones at, but in the overall picture it's how managers mold and how they keep their club, the camaraderie of the clubhouse, going in a positive direction," Monfort said. "You are going to have your tough times during the course of 162 games, and I think Clint is a heck of a motivator. He's the perfect fit for our ballclub."

Without victories, Monfort is relying on the simple principle that if O'Dowd and Hurdle could get through a precarious period for the franchise, they can win games as the talent improves.

The Rockies often point to their 30-28 record from Aug. 1 to the end of last season. They insist that they're dressing up an ugly season, but they're seeing a beautiful new dawn that's a payoff for the hard times, which O'Dowd and Hurdle had to face more publicly than anyone.

"We all bunkered down, got everyone on the same page and said, 'It's going to be painful. ... It's going to be four or five years of some really difficult times,'" Monfort said. "I think our record at the last part of last year, even though it's a new year and it may not transfer, but we feel good about it. We are what we thought we would be at this point in time. Everyone believes."

The Rockies see believers beyond their offices.

Monfort said game-day ticket sales are up 13 percent from last year, and that a decline in season ticket sales has clearly halted. The extensions for O'Dowd and Hurdle kept their statuses from becoming issue No. 1.

As happy as Monfort is about 2006, he is confident that the club can delve deeper into the free-agency market to solve any problems in future years.

"We won't be stupid like we were in the past, but we have that ability to fill some holes that we have and we think be successful for a long period of time," Monfort said.

But optimism can be debunked with a poor start. After Monfort made his bold Opening Day statement, the Rockies stumbled to 15-35 through the end of May. In a division that was won by the 82-80 San Diego Padres, who knows what would have happened with a decent beginning? Monfort may have gone down as the clairvoyant CEO.

But he realizes he'll be held to his vision.

"We've done what we've said we were going to do," Monfort said. "We're going to continue doing it. But if it doesn't work, then the fans say, 'Well, you've tried that. It didn't work.' These are second-year guys. Everyone knows the sophomore jinx. I don't think that will happen to us because I think our guys will make those adjustments.

"If they don't, we do have a little more flexibility [financially] to take care of the situation. But if it's collectively a problem, yeah, it's a risk."

Monfort soberly believes his vision was reasonable, but it just came early.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.