Bodley: Rockies play for McGregor

Bodley: Rockies play for McGregor

WASHINGTON -- This wasn't about winning one for the president. This wasn't about a rallying cry to crush the Nationals because the Colorado Rockies unexpectedly lost beloved Keli McGregor on Tuesday.

This was far beyond one meaningless baseball game on the field. This was about the close-knit fraternity those who play and run baseball form. It was about the heartache they suffer when one of them who's only 48 dies suddenly and leaves behind a wife and four children.

This wasn't about Troy Tulowitzki's leadoff homer in the second inning that started the Rockies to their 10-4 smashing victory.

It was about going to work because that's what you do as hard as it might be. Nothing more.

Rockies manager Jim Tracy, in a daze, sat on the dugout bench an hour before the game that had to go on at Nationals Park, fought back tears and tried to answer reporters' questions.

When someone asked if the death of the Rockies' president in a Salt Lake City hotel room might be a rallying cry, Tracy swallowed hard and turned away. He didn't utter a word. He didn't have to.

The game has hundreds of behind-the-scenes men and women who don't wear uniforms or have their pictures on baseball cards. These people are just as important and just as loved.

That was McGregor.

As Rockies president, he was responsible for the day-to-day operation of the National League franchise. In reality, he did much more and Tuesday night, it was apparent what a close bond he formed with his players. McGregor brought a football background -- he was an All-American at Colorado State -- to the Rockies after their first season in 1993, and quickly adapted to the summer game. Everyone who knew him realized he was destined to climb the ladder and when he became president in 2001, it was no surprise.

I always enjoyed my brief chats with McGregor at Major League Owners' meetings because it only took a minute or two to realize how enthusiastic he was and how much he loved the game.

The feeling was mutual.

McGregor made you feel like you were his best friend.

Batting practice was just about over Tuesday when Todd Helton walked over to me and just stood there for a moment.

"I was watching ESPN this afternoon and suddenly Keli's picture popped up on the screen," he said and I could see tears forming in his eyes. "I couldn't believe it." Don't force it, I told Helton.

"In Spring Training one day, we played golf -- Keli, his father and son, Jordan, -- three generations," Helton said. "After it was over, he said he was going to slow down a little, spend more time with his family and play more golf."

There was no denying the love the Rockies had for him.

Don Baylor was the Rockies first manager and was there when McGregor came aboard in October 1993.

"He was just 48 years old and you ask, 'Why?'" Baylor, now the Rockies hitting coach, said Tuesday. "Guys went out and played for him and the legacy of the organization. We wanted to do exactly what Keli wanted which was putting this organization first. He was just a tremendous human being. Period."

McGregor, in a sense, brought a football mentality to baseball.

"He was a football guy," said Baylor. "He had a lot to learn. He didn't know what the 6-4-3 double play was or what an ERA was. He dedicated himself, though, to learning because that was the way he did things."

The Nationals' Jason Marquis, who pitched for Colorado last year, found it important to mingle with some of his former teammates before the game.

"We used to have good conversations in the weight room, just talking baseball and the Rockies' organization," Marquis said, adding that McGregor often worked out with the players because he was so health-conscious. "The loss of him is going to linger because he meant a lot not only to the team, but also to the people of Colorado and Denver. He has done some great things. You know, you have to cherish every day you have and every moment."

As the first pitch was a few minutes away on the beautiful evening in our nation's capital, the sparse crowd stood during a moment of silence for McGregor. On the field, the Rockies, their hats over their hearts, bowed their heads and you could sense how difficult it was to go out and play.

"It's one of those things where it's never easy," said second baseman Clint Barmes, fighting off tears. "It never will be easy, but the game's going to go on and that's how it's going to be. We're going to go out and play. He was one of us and will be missed."

To Helton, who's been with the Rockies since 1997, McGregor "definitely was one of the guys. The biggest thing is he has been in locker rooms and respected us as players -- what we did. I'm sure he'd want us to go out there and play hard tonight. The biggest thing is this is about his family, his wife, Lori, and the kids. That's the tough part. I've known him for 15 years."

Tracy kept repeating, "I don't understand. I've told so many people in the clubhouse that. I can't believe what has happened. I don't know what to say."

A McGregor jersey with 88, the number he wore as a tight end at Colorado State hung in the Rockies' dugout.

As Helton walked through the tunnel to the clubhouse, he glanced at it and kept walking.

Sometimes words are not necessary.

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