As the Colorado Rockies wrap up celebrating their 30th anniversary, The Colorado Sun is taking an in-depth look at the team’s losing history and if there is hope for a turnaround. This four-part series breaks down the struggles and possible transformation.
Bob Gebhard was weeks removed from winning the 1991 World Series with the Minnesota Twins when he found himself in a sparse office space in downtown Denver. He had accepted a job as the first general manager of the Colorado Rockies, an expansion team still more than a year from first pitch. He could already see ahead to the hurdles.
Gebhard held tight to a briefcase full of notes, with names of players and coaches and candidates for manager, anybody who might help a burgeoning ballclub off the ground.
“I looked down at my rental desk and there were two paper clips. That’s it,” Gebhard said earlier this summer. “I said to myself, ‘What in the hell have I done?’ I just left a well-oiled machine and world champs and now I don’t have anything.”
Their instructions to him were clear: Build a team with limited means that might soon overtake the Broncos for prominence in a football-mad city, convert Colorado sports fans into Rockies fans and sell tickets without spending too much money.
That first Rockies team, Gebhard was told, should not exceed $8 million in player payroll, even as most other clubs cost near $55 million, even as the Florida Marlins — the Rockies’ partner in Major League Baseball’s 1993 expansion — entered with a seemingly unlimited budget.
“This is a football town. We didn’t know how well we’d draw,” Gebhard said. “They made it very clear to me, they wanted us to be as good as we could and we needed to win.”
Now, as the club celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, the Rockies remain a mixed bag of success and failure. The team did draw fans, lots of them — and immediately, with 4,483,350 tickets sold in their inaugural season, crushing a league record that still stands. They continue to sell tickets, lots of them, on pace to pass 2 million tickets sold again this year, something they’ve done every full season since 2006.
But the Rockies have been far less successful on the field, the only team among the five major sports in Denver without a championship.
In fact, the Rockies have been among the worst teams in the major leagues. Since the beginning of the expansion era in 1961, the Rockies have the third-worst record in baseball and have never won their own division, let alone a World Series. The Marlins, with the worst record in that span, nevertheless have won two World Series championships. The Arizona Diamondbacks, who entered the league five years after the Rockies and operate with similar mid-market constraints, won a World Series in their fourth season and have won their division five times.
On a financial ledger, the Rockies are a success of runaway riches for the club’s primary owners, brothers Dick and Charlie Monfort. The Rockies are now worth nearly $1.5 billion, according to an estimate by Forbes magazine. Since the Monforts pushed out original owner Jerry McMorris in a takeover bid in 2004, the value of the club spiked 426% from about $285 million — far outpacing any traditional investment gains in the stock market.
And yet, since Dick Monfort took over as managing owner and the club’s primary control person in 2011, the Rockies have won just one playoff game, a wild-card victory over the Chicago Cubs in 2018. Over the past 12 years under Monfort’s lead, the Rockies reached the postseason just twice and have the second-worst record in the majors, finishing with a winning record just twice, but finishing last in their division four times.
They will soon finish last in their division again and, almost surely, at the bottom of the National League, nearly 30 games behind the division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers midway through August and nowhere near a wild-card berth.
The Rockies have never won more than 92 games in a season — but they are on pace to lose 100 games this year for the first time in 30 years.
The Rockies are back where Gebhard started, still trying to find a way to win. In a sense, they continue to act like an expansion team, perpetually trying to restock a farm system of minor leaguers, spending heavily for established free agents, and preaching the value of drafting and developing while struggling at both.
Hard to keep fans while losing
A reckoning may be coming. The Rockies for decades rode a reliable income stream of consistent ticket sales and bloated television rights money. Those days are waning.
Before Opening Day in 1993, the Rockies said they already had sold 28,250 season tickets. That excitement for tickets continued as Coors Field was being built, so much so that the Rockies altered the park’s plans to increase the number of seats by 7,000, to 50,000 in total, with the addition of a third deck in the outfield. Over the years, those seats saw fewer and fewer fans and eventually became dead weight. In 2014, the club converted the seats to a rooftop party deck.
Season tickets appear less attractive than the team’s early years. The Rockies don’t release season-ticket sales numbers, but lower bowl seats behind home plate and the dugouts are often readily available on game days. The base of fans who originally and enthusiastically bought into the promise of the Rockies has aged and faded. And a new generation of fans who have only known the Rockies as perennial cellar dwellers appear less eager to sink money into season tickets.
The Rockies, with their league-worst record, have seen attendance dip this season, pushing them out of their regular perch among the top-10 biggest draws in baseball. And yet, the Rockies continue playing to big crowds, however casual those fans may be. Coors Field has averaged more than 32,000 tickets sold per game this season, with crowds to match, ranking 13th in the majors, better than several playoff-bound teams, including the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers.
“The Rockies aren’t very good,” one regular fan said last season, “but they’re the best baseball within at least 600 miles. So if you want to see baseball played at a fairly high level, you can at least come and watch the other team.”
Their television audience is a different story. In 2022, Rockies broadcasts carried the third-lowest ratings in the majors, ahead of only the Oakland A’s and Miami Marlins, according to Nielsen Media viewership numbers. The Rockies on AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain regularly rank among the bottom of the league in TV ratings.
And the Rockies may soon lose their TV home. In February, Warner Brothers Discovery, the corporate parent of ATTSN, told MLB that it wants out of the regional sports network business. Unlike the NFL, where all TV deals are national and negotiated directly with the league’s central office, MLB operates more locally with many of its TV deals. The regional networks that broadcast games locally negotiate deals directly with teams. And for some teams, that money can be lucrative.
In Colorado, the Rockies this year alone will take in about $57 million as part of a multi-year deal with ATTSN that started in 2019. With Warner looking to break from that deal, the Rockies could be left in the lurch on the money. Warner wants to negotiate its way out of its RSN deals, including with the Rockies, amid a shifting landscape for televised sports and cord-cutting revenue losses. If Warner can’t renegotiate, the company has suggested it will file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and simply walk away.
If you want to see baseball played at a fairly high level, you can at least come and watch the other team.
— A fan quoted in a 2021 story in The Athletic
In San Diego and Arizona, the Padres’ and Diamondbacks’ long-term TV deals with Diamond Sports Group abruptly ended earlier this season after the broadcaster declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. MLB then took over those teams’ broadcasts, airing them temporarily on other channels and offering them on the league’s in-house online streaming service.
If Warner follows through with its threats, the Rockies will likely see a similar drop from cable services soon, probably before next season. MLB has said it is prepared to take over any and all regional broadcasts and move them to its streaming service.
But here’s the rub. In the past, Rockies fans with cable packages in Colorado could flip to a game without thinking twice. Those broadcasts just showed up as part of a cable package and the games were always on, reliably. Soon though, fans will have to actively opt-in to buy Rockies broadcasts. MLB is charging $19.99 per month to stream Padres and Diamondbacks games.
Not only may the Rockies miss out on the planned revenue from their TV rights deal, it seems they will soon have to persuade fans to pay extra to watch their games on TV — a tough sell for a team trending for 100 losses.
Colorado Rockies fans watch in disbelief late during the 8-5 loss to Diamondbacks. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
30 years of dugout dilemmas
Their incentive to win will only swell. But the Rockies have rarely sustained any on-field success, hampered by both built-in disadvantages that no other team must face and a slew of unforced errors.
Behind the Blake Street Bombers — Vinny Castilla, Dante Bichette, Andrés Galarraga and eventual Hall of Famer Larry Walker — the Rockies reached the postseason in just their third year, the strike-shortened 1995 season. For years after, as the club fell further into the cellar, the club proudly displayed a banner in Coors Field’s outfield celebrating that wild-card berth. Tradition takes time.
They returned to the postseason 12 years later, late in Todd Helton’s career. Helton’s six-year span in the first half of the 2000s made him one of the best first basemen in the game, putting him on a path toward the Hall of Fame. But in those six years, the Rockies never finished better than fourth in their division and twice fell to last place. Helton’s prime was wasted.
That 2007 season, though, was special. The Rockies won 14 of their final 15 games in the season to earn a wild-card berth. The streak included a thrilling victory in a Game 163 over the San Diego Padres that finished in a flurry as Matt Holliday slid through home plate in the 13th inning.
For a month, the Rockies seemed unstoppable. They won 21 of 22 games to reach the World Series, sweeping the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks to win the National League pennant, their first significant trophy. But after a long wait to start the World Series, the Boston Red Sox swept them in turn, winning easily before celebrating in front of Rockies fans at Coors Field.
“Rocktober” as it came to be known, was one of the greatest stretch runs in baseball’s history. But that success was short-lived. The 2007 season proved to be more lightning in a bottle than proof of concept. A year later, they failed to reach the postseason, falling back to a losing record. In 2009, behind the best roster in their history, they won a club-record 92 games. But they fell short of winning their division, settled for a wild-card spot and were bounced out of a National League Division Series by the Philadelphia Phillies.
From left: Todd Helton celebrates the final out against the Arizona Diamondbacks to send the Rockies to their first — and only — World Series in 2007. The scene in the next photo is the team celebrating following that out. Matt Holliday slides to score the winning run against the San Diego Padres in a wild-card tiebreaker and send the Rockies to the 2007 playoffs. (David Zalubowski and Eric Gay, AP file photos)
Back to wander the desert again for seven more years, with just one winning season between 2010 and 2017.
Then, the Rockies hired Bud Black as their manager. The Padres’ losing manager in the 2007 tiebreaker Game 163 arrived in Colorado and changed the club’s fortunes.
As a former World Series-winning pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, Black helped build a young and competent pitching staff, with the best starting rotation in the Rockies’ history. They earned another wild-card berth in 2017 before losing to the Diamondbacks. And in 2018, they pushed the Dodgers to a Game 163 tiebreaker, before losing in Los Angeles to finish second in the division.
Hope emerged. Denver-born lefty Kyle Freeland in just his second season finished fourth in National League Cy Young voting for the league’s best pitcher in 2018. Venezuelan right-hander Germán Márquez was one of the best pitchers in the league over the second half of that season. Jon Gray, a No. 3 draft pick, and Antonio Senzatela rounded out their rotation.
Humidor can’t solve all problems
Pitching at Coors Field, though, is a cruel chore. Before big-league baseball arrived in Denver, Bart Giamatti, then president of the National League, hired a Yale professor as official league physicist in charge of determining if the game could work a mile above sea level. They knew, before the first pitch, that baseballs would fly farther in the thinner air.
And balls did fly. In 1996, the Rockies smashed a National League record by scoring 658 runs at Coors Field — more than 8 runs per game by average — more than 40 more runs than the American League record, set by the Red Sox in 1950.
All those runs means more hits. And more hits means more pitches. And more pitches only wear down an arm more quickly. If a starting pitcher gets an early hook in the fourth inning and the Rockies need five relievers to finish a game, even if they win, the next day their bullpen will be short-handed, which compounds the problem and by the end of a long Coors Field homestand, the problems have spiraled and every pitcher is exhausted. Then they have to win on the road.
A trend-setting humidor installed in the basement of Coors Field before the 2003 season helped prevent baseballs from becoming too hard and dry, which led to fewer hits and runs over a season. And the Rockies raised their outfield fences in 2016 trying to cut down on home runs. Still, Coors Field remains an extreme hitter’s park.
“From the very start, that was an issue we talked about, every year I was there,” Gebhard said. “It’s hard to put a team together. It’s hard to get free agents. I get it.”
That promising rotation that led the Rockies to back-to-back postseason berths for the first time in club history eventually fell short. And since then, that rotation has unraveled. Márquez and Senzatela both underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery this year. Gray signed a free agent deal with the Texas Rangers and is headed toward the postseason on another team. The Rockies are back among the league’s worst teams.
Having to play so many games in the thin air of Coors Field is a challenge that confronts no other team in baseball. And the Rockies’ difficulty sustaining a high level of pitching is understandable.
They also trip on their own feet.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Rockies spent more than $300 million on free agent signings. But those 19 players collectively contributed less statistically than average minor-league replacement players.
Their priciest free agent signings since 2017 have all failed to prop up the Rockies. They signed Ian Desmond (five years, $70 million), a shortstop-turned-outfielder, to play first base. He played three seasons and hit just .252, well below league average by park-adjusted numbers. They signed closer Wade Davis (three years, $52 million), but after leading the league in saves in 2018, his ERA ballooned to 8.65 then 20.77 and he was released.
And they signed ex-Chicago Cubs MVP Kris Bryant in 2022 for seven years and $182 million. “So many things about this feel really, really right,” Rockies owner Dick Monfort said at the time. “We’re extremely excited to have Kris with us for the next seven years to help us win that elusive World Series that we all are looking for.”
But in two years, nagged by injuries, Bryant has played in just 107 games and hit 13 home runs. His impact has been light. He has not yet led them out of last place.
Front office follies
While players, some of them all-stars and MVP candidates, have come and gone, the Rockies’ front office has largely remained intact.
Just four general managers have helmed their baseball operations in three decades, first Gebhard, then Dan O’Dowd, both hired by McMorris, the original owner. In 2014, Dick Monfort looked within and installed Jeff Bridich, who had started with the club a decade earlier. After Bridich and Monfort oversaw fan-favorite Nolan Arenado’s trade to the Cardinals in 2021 — roundly considered one of the worst trades in baseball’s history — Monfort fired Bridich and replaced him with Bill Schmidt, who started with the club in 1999 as a scout.
There is little turnover at the top. Last year, when the Rockies sought a fresh voice to help with minor-league development, they hired their former manager Clint Hurdle out of retirement.
When the club’s beloved former president, Keli McGregor, died in 2010 after a rare virus infected his heart, the club chose not to replace him. Dick Monfort essentially took over that role instead.
“They are one of the weirdest front offices to deal with,” a rival team executive said in 2021. “My feeling is they’re very insular.”
The most consistent voice at Coors Field has been Monfort’s. He inherited a meat-packing fortune from his father, Ken. But he also took from his dad a business philosophy, which is spelled out in the biography “Kenny’s Shoes.” In it, the elder Monfort talks about trusting his instincts and not being influenced by outside factors.
In his 12 years as primary owner and CEO, Dick Monfort has seen his Rockies fall among the worst teams in the majors, nearly 200 games below .500 over that span.
His philosophy, though, has never wavered.
“I think your goal has to be that every September you’re playing meaningful games,” Monfort said in 2014. “That’s really the goal for us. And that’s realistic. We’ve got to draft well, we’ve got to develop good and then I think we can get in this deal where every year we’re doing it.”
But they’re not doing it. They have rarely been relevant in September, let alone October.
They have not drafted an all-star since Trevor Story in 2011 — and Story, in the end, was eager to leave the team in free agency.
They are one of the weirdest front offices to deal with. My feeling is they’re very insular.
— A rival executive about the Rockies organization in 2001
Schmidt, who oversaw the Rockies’ draft before ascending to general manager, did well scouting amateur hitters, picking Arenado, Story, Charlie Blackmon and Ryan McMahon, among others. But Schmidt fared far worse drafting pitchers, using first-round picks on Mike Nikorak (never reached the majors), Riley Pint (one appearance) and Robert Tyler (never reached the majors).
And because the Rockies are mostly off the market for free-agent pitchers — why would a pitcher choose to play at Coors Field? — and because they’ve found it difficult to develop young arms, they are left with too few options to restock their staff.
Since 2010, the Rockies have fielded just one all-star starting pitcher, Márquez in 2021. As they sit, the Rockies have a farm system that most scouting evaluators rank as average or a bit above average, but heavy on hitters and light on arms.
This, it seems, has always been the Rockies’ fate.
Meanwhile, they were slow to adapt to more advanced scouting technologies, operating with the smallest data and analytics departments in the majors, a group that had been whittled to just one person after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
They tend not to spend big in international free agency, choosing instead to look for undervalued and less expensive young players on the margins.
Creative ideas have come and gone. They experimented and failed with several strategies over the years: A piggy-back pitching rotation in 2013, a sinkerball pitching strategy in the manner of Aaron Cook, breaking the bank for free agents (Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle) and leaning on defense (a Gold Glove-stacked infield that at one time included Arenado, Story and DJ LeMahieu).
Coors Field may be their bane, but the Rockies eventually settled on a strategy that at times avoids the puzzle altogether. They do it their way, aiming simply to be better than other teams, in a general sense.
“But that’s not a strategy, it’s a tautology,” Sam Miller wrote in Baseball Prospectus earlier this year. “Everybody is trying to do that.”
Monfort brothers push to control team
By the standards of baseball’s league office, the Rockies are an ideal team. They draw big crowds. They play in a beautiful ballpark that is built to last. They spend money on free agents. They are financially solvent and never in debt. Their ownership structure avoids any drama or trouble.
This is why Monfort was appointed by commissioner Rob Manfred as chairman of MLB’s labor policy committee during the league’s lockout of players last year. Monfort occupies a middle ground among baseball owners, able to bridge a gap between the major-market big-spenders (New York Yankees, L.A. Dodgers) and smaller-market penny-pinchers (Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays).
In their early years, though, the Rockies were in trouble. Then-Colorado governor Roy Romer and a Denver attorney named Paul Jacobs found two Ohio business partners, Mickey Monus and John Antonucci, to pony up the primary investment for a new team.
They did not last long. Monus was eventually convicted of embezzling $10 million from a pharmaceutical company and he and Antonucci were replaced by a trio who included trucking magnate Jerry McMorris, uranium trader Oren Benton and meat-packing scion Charlie Monfort.
McMorris, the primary owner, was pushed out in the early 2000s after his trucking company went bankrupt in 1999. Charlie Monfort then persuaded his brother, Dick, to join the ownership group. Dick, never a diehard baseball investor, slowly compiled more shares and power, pushing out McMorris as the club’s point person, then overtaking Charlie as the club’s biggest investor. Over time, Dick Monfort bought out the shares of McMorris, Fox Sports and KOA.
Charlie Monfort, by reputation a smart baseball mind, was pushed into the background around 2013 after a second arrest for driving under the influence.
The Monfort brothers together own more than 75% of the Rockies, with Dick controlling a larger share, estimated based on publicly available records, statements and histories. The rest of the pie is split among a limited liability company owned by Jay Stein, of the Stein Mart family, who bought the original Coors stake; The Denver Post and its hedge fund owner, Alden Global Capital; beverage distributor Marne Obernauer Jr.; and construction company owner Linda Alvarado. The Rockies do not disclose their ownership structure and refused to comment on it specifically.
While no one person owns a majority stake in the Rockies, a takeover bid appears highly unlikely.
After former Broncos owner Pat Bowlen died in 2019, he intended to pass the team to his children. But a rivalry between Bowlen’s daughters for control of the team led to lawsuits and a breakdown in Bowlen’s trust. Eventually, the trustees sold the team to a group led by Rob Walton, a Walmart heir.
Dick Monfort, 69, has already positioned the Rockies in a way to avoid any family fallout in the future. As controlling owner, chairman and chief executive officer, Monfort installed his two sons in high-ranking jobs within the club.
Walker Monfort, 35, works as vice president of corporate partnerships, a job he’s held the past nine years, including in 2014 when a Troy Tulowitzki jersey giveaway sponsored by King Soopers misspelled the star shortstop’s name as “Tulowizki.”
Sterling Monfort, 32, was promoted to director of pro scouting last year, despite a clear lack of experience for the position. Many baseball ops people around the game questioned his promotion to such a high-profile job.
Their father, though, appears to be grooming future owners. In the messy fallout of Arenado’s trade two years ago, Dick Monfort off-handedly said: “I have thought about firing myself.” Maybe that was sarcasm. But Monfort has said repeatedly he has no intention of selling the Rockies.
Pretty park, ugly baseball
No other professional team in Denver is tied to the civics of the city like the Rockies. The very existence of the team is due only to the generosity of Coloradans.
Denver, in a way, was never meant to have a ballclub. Major League Baseball did not seek out the city in some grand plan for profit-building expansion. No, Denver had to twist the arm of baseball’s power brokers, convincing them that a faded former oil town was ready for the major leagues.
In order to do so, the city — and, eventually, the state — wrangled a promise, underhanded at times, to buy and build a ballpark for the Rockies. Major League Baseball made it a condition of expansion. No park, no team.
So the Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District was formed of seven metro Denver counties in 1991 to fund the construction of Coors Field.
The Rockies’ initial ownership group paid $95 million for the team. Colorado’s taxpayers paid more than twice that, more than $200 million, to gift those owners a ballpark.
While the Rockies have been, in total, a losing team over their first three decades, Coors Field is a runaway success. Three decades ago, the stadium helped revive a forgotten part of downtown Denver. The ballpark is now the third-oldest in the National League.
This story first appeared in
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Meanwhile, the club’s owners continue to squeeze what they can out of the city. In 2017, Dick Monfort balked at signing a new lease at Coors Field and pushed the stadium board to the eleventh hour before a deadline for renewal. The unspoken threat, wielded by owners across all sports, is that they can simply move the team to a more generous city. The Oakland A’s, for example, appear to be following through on a threat to move to Las Vegas.
The stadium board relented and in 2017 Monfort renewed the Rockies’ lease at Coors Field for 30 more years. In return, the stadium district leased him a valuable parcel of land across the street from the park. He used that space to build McGregor Square.
So Monfort now profits from two prime pieces of land in the middle of Denver with only the contractual promise of caring for Coors Field with annual upgrades.
The idea of sports teams existing in the public trust is a hazy notion. The Rockies are a private enterprise, whose primary purpose is to make money, not win games. Unlike, say, a library or a fire department, the Rockies do not provide Colorado any direct public good.
But the Rockies also would not exist if not for the people who live in Colorado. Baseball fans, those rabid seamheads who first gobbled up millions of tickets when the team was still nothing but a name, are as responsible for the birth of the Rockies as any investor.
In return, those fans can claim a gem of a home ballpark, picturesque Coors Field, with unrivaled sightlines to watch a losing team.