McMorris brought baseball to Denver

I will never forget the first time I heard of Jerry McMorris, who died on Tuesday at age 71 following a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer.

It was early August 1992. I was sitting in the office of then-National League president Bill White. Mickey Monus, a Youngstown, Ohio, businessman who had put together a group that was awarded a Major League Baseball expansion franchise in Denver was headed to prison for an embezzlement scheme.

No local group was willing to assume Monus’ financial commitment and take over the franchise. No new group had surfaced to assume the team. Arrangements were being made to announce the franchise was being withdrawn from Denver and awarded to a group in Tampa, Fla.

White’s phone rang. After a brief conversation, he hung up and smiled.

"Colorado’s keeping its franchise,’’ White said.

McMorris, a limited partner in the initial ownership group had stepped up and committed to assume the general partner’s role. By the time the transaction was finalized a month later, he also was joined in the general partnership by Charlie Monfort and Oren Benton.

"Besides (the late Angels owner) Gene Autry, Jerry was the best owner I was associated with," said original Rockies manager Don Baylor "He is responsible for the team in Denver. Bill White was going to award another city until Jerry stepped in with his influence. He loved that club, there’s no doubt about it."

McMorris made his money in the trucking business, starting out with three used vehicles his sophomore year at the University of Colorado. He turned Nation’s Way Transport into what, at one point, was the fourth largest trucking company in the United States and one of only four of the top 100 that was a union company.

McMorris stepped up and saved baseball for the Rocky Mountains, and he quickly established himself as an owner with an impact on the game in general.

He immediately assumed a significant role in baseball’s labor negotiations. The work stoppage that forced the cancellation of the World Series in 1995 followed, but in a bigger view, McMorris’ leadership led to a relationship between owners and players that has since led to a labor peace unmatched in other team sports.

"I put him on the labor committee right away,’’ said Commissioner Bud Selig, who at the time was owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and the head of ownership’s executive committee. "He had dealt with the Teamsters (in the trucking business) and had earned their respect, although he did admit after a while he had never quite dealt with a challenge like baseball faced."

Following the ouster of commissioner Fay Vincent in September 1993, McMorris, just a year into his role as an owner, was appointed to the search committee for Vincent’s replacement. The committee eventually appointed Selig, who still holds the position.

The Rockies were an instant expansion success, setting major league records for single game and single season attendance, setting what at the time was a record for consecutive sellouts. He oversaw the construction of Coors Field, and was a stickler on keeping the facility looking fresh to the point where there is a sense of shock when visitors find out that Coors Field, which opened in 1995, is the third oldest facility in the National League, behind Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium.

McMorris and his wife, Mary, would regularly walk the facility when the Rockies were on the road, looking for areas that needed to be addressed to maintain a fresh, clean feeling for fans.

From day one, when the Rockies were setting records for ticket sales, the ownership group was committed to repaying the fans. In that first season of play, 1993, then-general manager Bob Gebhard was told to find a player at the July 31 trade deadline who would affirm to the fans the organization’s commitment to reinvesting profits into the team.

Gebhard’s initial effort was a trade with San Diego for Fred McGriff, but with Andres Galarraga entrenched at first base, that would have required McGriff to agree to move to left field. McGriff balked, was instead traded to Atlanta, but the Rockies renewed talks with San Diego, and eventually acquired pitchers Greg Harris and Bruce Hurst.

Neither one flourished in Colorado, but the seeds were planted.

Prior to the 1994 season the Rockies signed free agent shortstop Walt Weiss, outfielder Ellis Burks and pitcher Mike Harkey. A year later they signed outfielder Larry Walker and right-hander Bill Swift in the offseason and added the in-season acquisition of Bret Saberhagen.

In 1995, the franchise’s third year of existence, the Rockies claimed the initial NL wild-card, advancing to the postseason more quickly than any previous expansion team.

"When we need a player, he OK’d the Saberhagen deal, Larry Walker, Walt Weiss, whatever we needed," said Baylor. "He’s somebody who shared his wealth with other people. Even though the players made a lot of money, he and the other couple owners always tried to do things for the players."

After divesting himself of ownership in the Rockies he was occasionally approached by Selig about the possiblity of becoming involved in ownership of another team. He was even asked about overseeing the Los Angeles Dodgers when former owner Frank McCourt filed bankruptcy. Tempted as he was, he was already battling cancer, something he did not make public, and knew he had to decline that opportunity.

His lasting legacy will be bringing Major League Baseball to the Rocky Mountain Region, something that will be enjoyed by generations to come.