SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There are jobs. There are pursuits. There are passions. There are ways to pay the rent.
There is pitching coach for the Colorado Rockies, which qualifies as all of those, with the additional benefit of lending compassion, patience, parenting skills, stress management, life perspective, the virtues of a wind-blown, body-englished foul ball and the occasional day off. It allows that some days sliders break and some days they don’t, that young men can be fragile but don’t have to be, and that Sisyphus in a lot of ways had a pretty cake gig.
It is possibly the worst job in sports, which is to say the man who currently holds it loves every inch of it, thinks maybe it’s the best job in sports, can’t wait to get to work every morning even for home games and, besides, “God handpicked me.”
His name is Steve Foster.
“I do love it,” he said Tuesday morning here, standing as he was but 1,000 feet above sea level. “I love the challenge of it. … I think it’s made me a better person.”
He grew up in North Texas. A right-hander, he pitched parts of three seasons for the Cincinnati Reds. Then the shoulder went. That was going on 25 years ago. He became a scout, then a coach, the usual track, including stops with the Florida Marlins and Kansas City Royals. He became pitching coach for the Rockies two years back. He is, at 50, a man who leans into his words, who lives half his life in the frictionless drama that is Coors Field, and who believes Coors Field is different and there’s no getting around it. And who then asks, “Now what are you going to do about it?”
For years, decades even, the answer has been, Well, I’m going to turn around and see how far it goes. Then I’m going to try to ignore my ERA, because it lies.
The ballpark, the greatest ever created for a hitter, is evil because it serves opposing masters. One, it eats confidence. Two, it delivers alibis.
And where does that leave a young man with a fastball and some secondary stuff, who is raised on the ideals of preparation and location and cleverness, who answers to the numbers of games he wins and his ERA, to pitching deep and trusting that a fly ball is just a fly ball?
“It doesn’t mean you can’t win,” Foster said.
He stands behind — or beside — a young rotation, which probably will decide whether the 900-or-so runs the Rockies will score this season will be anything more than an occasional annoyance in the NL West. Jon Gray is 25. He’s made 38 big-league starts. Chad Bettis is 27. Sixty starts. Tyler Chatwood is 27. Eighty-eight starts, 27 since 2014. Tyler Anderson is 27. Nineteen starts. The many choices to fill the rotation come with the same light pedigrees, or less.
Bud Black, the new manager and the Rockies’ first who was a pitcher, wants tough men. He’s not the first to ask. The Rockies do this a lot, and plenty step forward, and then a game won’t ever end, a month won’t end, another season is lost to the routine of too much ground to cover and not enough outfield to contain what anywhere else would be a regular ballgame. So the organization looks to a handful of pitchers, most of whom it developed, and believes these are the ones who change it. They will throw first-pitch strikes. They will pitch courageously in the zone. They will field their positions and hold opposing runners and outlast the other guy. And they will live with what comes and show up in five days to do it again, unshaken. That’s the plan.
“If you believe something in your mind, you can create stumbling blocks for yourself or build stepping stones,” Foster said. “It’s a mindset. And it’s mental toughness. I don’t care if you’re pitching in an ice arena or in Arlington with that short right porch or at Yankee Stadium … there’s challenges in every ballpark in the big leagues. We talk about it. We don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Bettis (whose season ERA was higher on the road) had a 3.67 ERA across his final 15 starts. The Rockies won 12 of them. Over 13 mid-season starts Gray’s ERA was 2.61. Chatwood’s road ERA was 1.69. Anderson debuted in June and posted a 3.00 ERA in 12 Coors Field starts. There are younger arms all over camp — Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, Jeff Hoffman, Riley Pint, all in the organization’s top 10 prospects, all in a well-regarded farm system — that hint change is coming to the Rockies. Maybe. The season is out there. Another one after that.
“This game,” Bettis said, “will chew you up and spit you out.”
But that’s the job, even when it’s more than a job. Especially so. That’s when Steve Foster tells them to control what they can control, forget the rest. When he asks them to be better people than they are pitchers, when they’re pretty good pitchers. When he laughs with them and consoles them, all the things pitching coaches do, only in a ballpark that won’t often do either.
“For a lot of us he’s a father figure,” Bettis said. “We can go to him with anything.”
Anderson pitched 2 2/3 innings against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday afternoon. Mike Napoli homered against him for the Rangers’ run. A lefty, he holds his glove to his left shoulder — not in front of him — from the windup. When he goes to the plate, his front leg stutters three times, like he’s trying to kick-start a cranky motorcycle, then he delivers. He was OK on Tuesday. Asked about pitching at Coors Field, he smiled and recalled pitching in Asheville, where the right-field fence is 297 feet away, and in the California League, famously hitter-ish, and in Albuquerque, which plays like gravity wasn’t ever invented. There are obstacles everywhere, he said.
“We would hear guys in the past complain about the altitude,” Anderson said. “Nobody complains any more though. The thought is, ‘So what?’”
Tough mindsets, they want. Tough men. It’s their turn. They’re next.
“It’s a reality,” Foster said. “These guys have been taught to live in reality.”
Now they’re asked what they’re going to do about it. That’s the job. That’s the pursuit.
“We’re not pitching on the moon,” he said. “We’re pitching at Coors Field.”