“Truth matters.” It’s a sign I see on Main Street in this little three-block New England town of Putney, Vermont, between Doubleday Field in Cooperstown and Fenway Park, a town with more “Black Lives Matters” signs than houses.
And if you love hearing the truth, you’ll love talking to Rockies manager Bud Black, who is truthful to a fault. When Black thinks poorly of a pitcher who made his big league debut by holding the Rockies to one hit in five shutout innings, he doesn’t mince words.
“We helped him a little bit early with some fast balls at the top of the zone that might have been balls that we popped up or swung through for strike three,” Black told the Daily Planet of the Rangers’ 23-year-old A.J. Alexy. “His ball-strike ratio wasn't great, but it's a good arm, and he's got enough stuff to get it done. Got to give credit for garnering a five-inning win with some strikeouts, three walks, only gave one hit to Cronny (C.J. Cron). He'll look back on this game as one he'll never forget, for sure.”
The easy answer would be to praise the rookie on his big day and let the Rockies off the hook for flailing in futility against a team 100 points behind them in winning percentage. But that’s not Bud’s way. If it was, the Rockies would still be wallowing in mediocrity, rather than facing their reality head-on, while going 41-38 since May 30.
Here’s another in the category of baseball-speak that doesn’t solve Colorado’s road conundrum: “The key to winning is to hit a lot of solo homers,” said no one ever.
The Rockies proved the absence of merit to that non-existent theory by going to Texas and getting six hits in each of their first two games Monday and Tuesday — both 4-3 losses. The third and final game of the series Wednesday was not finished by press time. Five of those hits were homers, four were solo shots, and three came from hometown heroes Trevor Story, who hit a pair in the opener, and Sam Hilliard, who offered his own in the middle game.
“The homer showed up for our runs,” Black said after losing the series in Arlington and securing another losing road trip. “We just couldn’t string together enough base runners and get a big knock.”
For all the road woes, which seem to be ever-so-slowly getting oh-so-slightly better, the chance to play a “road” game at “home” has been especially meaningful for Story and Hilliard, native Texans from Irving and Mansfield, Texas, respectively.
Story’s had the most challenging two-year stretch in his career, and this season he’s struggled more than in any of his previous five big league seasons, hitting roughly 30 points lower than his career average. No active Rockies player took more on his shoulders during the racial justice movement that engulfed baseball in 2020 and on into 2021. Story internalized the social unrest, using the community consciousness that is part of his family DNA to speak out and act on behalf of community members and teammates who were suffering injustices. On top of that, he took on the mantle of leadership following Nolan Arenado’s departure, and the sense of certainty regarding his own anticipated but unrealized deadline trade from the Rockies at the end of July got into his game. To come home and excel in front of dozens of friends and family members was the perfect anchor to sanity for a player who seemed to be adrift through much of 2021. For a few dog days at summer’s end in Texas, it seemed like everywhere Story looked in the ballpark was a familiar, friendly face.
“It's cool, and it's always special to play here, just because I grew up here, watching the Rangers, going to all those games right across the street,” Story told the Planet after his two-homer outing in the opener, just his seventh game against the Rangers in Texas — three of which were played in front of cardboard cutouts last season. “It meant a lot to me. It's cool to kind of see this thing come full circle and be able to play well. I just feel blessed that my family is able to see me play in person and here in Texas. That means a lot to me, and it’s something I'll cherish for a while.”
Story drove in all three of the Rockies’ runs Monday, and on Tuesday Hilliard — his teammate and fellow-Texan — kept the hometown homer parade in step, starting the scoring off with his own solo shot to put the Rockies on the scoreboard and tie the game in the third frame.
The experience was perhaps even more meaningful for Hilliard. It was just his fourth game against the Rangers in their park — a long relay throw from his childhood neighborhood — and through he had 30-40 of his own family and friends in attendance, his dad couldn’t be there as he battles ALS. Ironically, when the Rockies opened the empty new ballpark last season, his dad was just about the only person allowed in when COVID kept the crowds away.
“Last year was super weird, no matter where we were playing. It was just really funky,” Hilliard told the Planet, making a special point to thank the Rangers for accommodating his dad and his family over the past two seasons. “This time it's a great, good new ballpark, seeing fans in the stands. I could hear all my friends and family screaming.”
And while coming home may have eased some of the pressure Story has felt this season, for Hilliard, it’s almost as if the pressure amps up as he tries to do well for his hometown fans.
“It definitely feels more like a monkey off my back than anything, because I haven't had any success really in the state of Texas in the big leagues,” Hilliard said, noting it was his first homer in Texas and his first hit in Arlington. “I've been battling every single time I get to the plate, not feeling super great, not seeing the ball well. To finally put a good swing on a ball is huge. It's up there (among my highlights).”
It’s a microcosm for the Rockies’ collective season on the road, and if a friendly face or familial cheer can help the Rockies find a happy place on the road, then bring it home.