Time is right for D-backs to honor Colangelo
PHOENIX -- Jerry Colangelo recalls giving a speech to his Arizona Diamondbacks on the night in 2001 when they clinched the National League West title by defeating the Brewers in Milwaukee.It was Oct. 5, and the D-backs irrevocably now led the Giants by three games with only two to go. The fact that the club was going back to the playoffs for the second time in its first four seasons of existence was unprecedented. The fact that it had a chance to win it all was Colangelo's pipe dream. But the founding owner and managing general partner had already learned this harsh lesson: In a similar leadership position with the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association, Colangelo felt pretty cocky when his then eight-year-old team ascended to the finals against the Celtics in 1976. It took them 17 years to get back, and the Suns still haven't won it all. "I just told the guys, 'You never know, you may go through an entire career without an opportunity to win it,'" Colangelo recalled recently. "And I told that story about an early, young franchise in basketball getting there so early and then having to wait so long to get back. So, you have to seize the opportunity -- that was the whole message." Those Snakes did indeed seize that opportunity and accomplished the improbable, winning their only World Series in seven chilling games against the Yankees on a walk-off bloop single from Luis Gonzalez in Game 7. To get there, they had to defeat excellent Cardinals and Braves teams in the playoffs.
Colangelo was indeed prescient. The D-backs haven't been back to the big fall dance since.The D-backs are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of that grand accomplishment this weekend at Chase Field. The actual reunion is Saturday evening, and Colangelo has been asked to throw out a first pitch prior to the game against the Padres. Colangelo, at 71, is a venerated sports executive. He's a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and as current director of USA Basketball, he has restored the U.S. to its former place in Olympic and World Championship gold medal eminence.
He no longer owns a stake in either the D-backs or the Suns, but his place is cemented in Phoenix professional sports history. Without him, there might not be the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, Arena Football and even the National Hockey League in the Valley of the Sun. The ballpark and US Airways Center stand as monuments to his long-term foresight in what was once a barren downtown.Whatever chill remained between present D-backs management and Colangelo has now completely thawed. Last month, D-backs current managing general partner Ken Kendrick called Colangelo directly and asked that he return to what was once called "The BOB (Bank One Ballpark)" to be part of this weekend's festivities. Kendrick is an original limited and general partner who replaced Colangelo in 2004 after Colangelo sold his share of the franchise. There was a falling out over finances. The new organization rebranded from purple and teal to sedona red. And since all that happened, Colangelo has been in the ballpark he helped build -- but only on rare occasions -- and never in an honored capacity. It's obviously time. "We are all grateful to Jerry for bringing both this wonderful franchise and a World Championship here," said Derrick Hall, the team's current president, reflecting on Colangelo's place in D-backs history. "We are delighted that he will be joining us for the reunion weekend. In fact, Ken Kendrick called him and asked if he would be one of our first pitches, and he agreed to do so. It should be another great opportunity for him to take a well-deserved bow." Colangelo, a former basketball player, has a storied sports history. Under an ownership group headed by local Phoenix businessman Richard Bloch, a 28-year-old Colangelo was the Suns' first general manager and later their second head coach. He built that early team -- which lost the finals in six games to the Celtics -- around Alvan Adams, Walter Davis and Paul Westphal. The 1993 team, which lost in six games to Michael Jordan's Bulls, had the talented and loquacious Charles Barkley at its core. Colangelo eventually headed another ownership group that bought out Bloch. He raised nearly $100 million to build the downtown arena and then turned his sights on wooing an MLB expansion franchise for a proposed retractable-roof stadium. Maricopa County capped its taxpayer-generated contribution to the stadium and Colangelo's group had to pay the sizeable cost overruns. Then after drawing 3.6 million fans for the inaugural 1998 season, attendance plummeted in one year by 600,000, and by almost a million in 2001, as the D-backs vied for the championship. The stadium, at a 47,000-seat capacity, proved to be too big, meaning there was no clamor to buy tickets. With the National Football League also in town, there was too much competition for the pro sports dollar. As a condition of expansion, MLB also limited the amount of national television money distributed to Arizona and Tampa Bay those first few years, thus unintentionally fostering financial problems. Colangelo originally had the usual five-year plan of hoisting an expansion team to respectability. After a 100-win second season and judging the economic landscape, he decided to try and win it all as quickly as possible. "We managed to turn a profit that first season," Colangelo recalled. "But unfortunately, we lost 25 percent of our season tickets. Our research showed us that fans determined they could share seats. That was a real eye-opener for us. We lost 9,000 season tickets. That was a hit we really couldn't support. Because of all those problems, we basically had to win now. I advised all the partners. I kept them all involved. "The new plan was four years to build [a winner] and eight years to pay it off." The 2001 D-backs payroll was $71.5 million, as opposed to the Yankees' MLB-leading $114.5 million. The Yankees, of course, were structured to keep winning, and they won the World Series four times from 1996-2000. Those D-backs were structured to win once with the hope that the farm system would ultimately kick in. It did, producing the likes of Brandon Webb, Stephen Drew, Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds. Under Colangelo, the D-backs sold a sizeable interest in the club to a group of limited partners, infusing cash slowly into the franchise over a decade. Under Kendrick, most of the deferred money in player compensation stemming from the 2001 championship will be paid off next season. The plan may have been painful at times, but in the end, it worked. The D-backs are again competitive and the franchise is on stable financial ground. And because of Colangelo, the D-backs and their fans will always have 2001.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.