Talking to Walt Weiss on the phone, I could have sworn I was talking to Tony La Russa.
“I want these guys to enjoy the competition,” said Weiss, the Rockies’ new manager. “It might sound kind of elementary. But it’s really important.”
That’s what La Russa was all about — the competition. Weiss played for La Russa in Oakland at the start of his career. He played for Bobby Cox in Atlanta at the end. And evidently, he learned a few things from the two future Hall of Fame managers.
The Rockies, at 11-4 through Thursday, are one of baseball’s biggest early surprises, maybe the biggest considering that they lost 98 games last season and finished with a 5.22 ERA, the worst in the majors by nearly a half-run.
Health is the primary reason for the Rockies’ quick start — shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, right fielder Michael Cuddyer, right-hander Jhoulys Chacin and left-hander Jorge De La Rosa all are back after missing significant time in 2012.
I know, I know — the Rockies’ pitching could fall apart, as it does seemingly every season. But Weiss — who, like the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny, White Sox’s Robin Ventura and Dodgers’ Don Mattingly, had no previous managing experience — is making a difference, too.
Cuddyer, a 13-year veteran, said that the tone set by Weiss, new hitting coach Dante Bichette and the front office at the start of spring training was “a confidence boost.”
“Walt came in using aggressive terminology,” Cuddyer said. “We started believing and we started doing things. We were aggressive on the basepaths. Our pitchers were getting ground-ball outs. It allowed us to believe in what they were preaching, and we’ve been able to accomplish that in the first two weeks of the season.”
Two games already stand out to Weiss, confirming to him the Rockies’ desire, in La Russa’s words, “to play a hard nine.”
The first was April 14 in San Diego, the finale of a six-game road trip. The Rockies already had won the first two games of the series. Weiss said he anticipated a possible letdown. But the Rockies broke a scoreless tie in the seventh to prevail 2-1.
“We could have just checked out, but we found a way to win that game,” Weiss said. “It spoke volumes about our club, who we are, how we compete.”
The second, even more vivid confirmation of the Rockies’ resolve occurred Tuesday night at Coors Field, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Mets, on a night that Weiss described as “absolutely miserable — bitter, bitter cold.”
The Rockies won the first game, fell behind 8-2 in the fifth inning of the second, then rallied for a 9-8 victory in 10 innings, earning the sweep.
La Russa, who now works in the commissioner’s office, said that he watched the Rockies’ comeback and couldn’t help but be impressed.
“Compete, compete, compete; everything flows from that,” La Russa said. “It was something that was passed on to me, and I passed it on, and our guys embraced as well.
“Walt understands it. The name of the game is not being distracted by fame and fortune, whatever. It’s when the game starts, take your best shot.”
Weiss, 49, played that way from the moment he joined the Athletics in September 1987, La Russa said. That A’s team had established veterans such as Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart and Carney Lansford. The following season, they added Bob Welch, Dave Henderson and Dave Parker. Weiss gained their immediate confidence, La Russa said, winning AL Rookie of the Year in ’88 and playing for three straight World Series teams.
To La Russa, the “classic” way to become a manager is to work your way through the minors the way his friend Jim Leyland did, learning the craft, gaining practical experience. But La Russa acknowledged that he once was something of a novice himself — he had scant minor league experience when the Chicago White Sox named him manager at age 34 in 1979. And he said former major leaguers such as Weiss, Matheny, Ventura and Mattingly command instant respect from players because of what they accomplished in their careers.
Weiss, like La Russa before him, wants his players to display a certain edge, saying, “It’s tough to play in our league without a chip on your shoulder.” But La Russa didn’t succeed merely by establishing a mindset, and Weiss won’t, either. The game demands so much more.
Indeed, Weiss already is demonstrating his acumen with some of his smaller touches. For example, even though the Rockies have played only 14 games, Weiss has rested each of his regulars at least once. The manager, who played for the Rockies from 1994 to ’97, knows that playing at altitude can exact a physical toll.
“My first year here was ’94, playing shortstop every day,” Weiss said. “That was the year of the strike. It started on Aug. 12. If we didn’t have the strike, I would have had a tough time making it. I was done.”
The Rockies also are trying some new methods to combat altitude, including hiring a full-time chef and emphasizing in-game replenishment (something other teams also do). But they’ve played only five home games, so it’s difficult to know if any of their changes will make a difference.
Cuddyer said the Rockies are playing well because of “the things we’re doing on the field, the belief we have in ourselves.”
“No question it’s real,” Cuddyer said. “I firmly believe last year was an anomaly, a snowball effect in a bad way. It’s easy to get caught up in our season last year, our record, our ERA. But we definitely believe in ourselves.”
Which, of course, reflects on the manager.
La Russa said he spoke with Weiss around the time that Weiss interviewed with the Rockies and came away thinking, “Wow, he’s got a helluva shot. He’s learned a lot over the years.” If anything, La Russa is even more convinced now that Weiss will succeed — adding the caveat, of course, that his players must perform.
“I’ll put it this way — there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that knows him that he’s ready and will do a heck of a job,” La Russa said.
“He’s got it. He’s definitely got it. If he gets the support of ownership and the front office to get past bad times, he’s going to be very special.”