Nolan’s MVP push, business over baseball and CSU’s Power 5 options


Aug 7, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado (28) hits a three-run home run against the New York Yankees during the second inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Strike One: The Colorado Rockies will host the St. Louis Cardinals this week, and in their never ending push to sell more tickets, the home team is actively promoting the chance to say farewell to future Hall of Famers Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols, whom the Rockies have determined are making their final visits to Coors Field, even though the players have yet to formally announce they’re retiring.

They should be promoting the chance to say thank you to National League MVP candidate Nolan Arenado.

Arenado’s exit from purple pinstripes in the winter of 2021 remains a sore spot for many fans. Regardless of the reasons for the one-sided trade that sent him to St. Louis, Nolan is the best example yet that standout players are standout players regardless of where they perform.

Arenado is having a monster, MVP-caliber season for the first place Cardinals and he’s yet to take an at-bat at Coors Field. He’s doing his typical Gold Glove things at third base and putting up offensive stats that are on a pace to match or exceed his best statistics as a Rockie. His career OPS at Coors Field is a nice .890. His OPS this season is .921.

After the Cardinals weekend series sweep against the New York Yankees, Arenado has the best fWAR in the National League at 5.5 (same as Shohei Ohtani, trailing only Aaron Judge in MLB.) He’s hitting .301 with 22 homers (on his way to another 35+ homer season.) He’s hit 11 home runs with two outs, and 17 of his long balls have come with men on base. He’s clutch.

But Coors, right?

The nine-time Gold Glove winner is playing remarkable defense (again) for a first place team and having arguably his best season yet. If that doesn’t scream MVP, then what does?

Players having career years as a Rockie isn’t a new thing, nor is it readily acknowledged outside of the Mountain time zone. A whole bunch of guys have put up big and often inflated numbers here, helped by the vast expanse of the outfield and extra carry on decently hit baseballs. When an otherwise pedestrian player puts up career high stats while playing half his games at Coors Field, the baseball world just shrugs. But what about a guy who has his best season after being a Rockie? Doesn’t that deflate the argument that he’s just a product of the Mile High environment?

Some guys – like Hall of Famer Larry Walker and current Hall candidate Todd Helton – have done amazing things at Coors and on the road. Now Nolan is doing it for a full season at sea level. And that should only help the Hall case of Helton, for example, whose promoters are still trying to get voters to stop looking at the Gold Glove first baseman’s remarkable career with a jaded eye. DJ LeMahieu was once labeled a product of Coors Field. That was before he went to New York and played even better. Now Nolan is doing the same thing.

Arenado winning the NL MVP would be bittersweet for Rockies fans focused on the present. But it would actually be great news for Rockies players of the past, present and future.

Strike Two: My longtime friend Al has had enough. After the Rockies failed to make any moves at the MLB Trade deadline, he shot me a text message: “Wow. So the cellar dwellers were the only team in MLB that did not make a trade. Monforts need to sell the team, they don’t belong. And whose bright idea was it to go get Kris Bryant?”

It’s not a unique take. Al’s point of view is shared by a whole lot of disgruntled Rockies fans right now. But as I replied to him, don’t get your hopes up. The Rockies aren’t getting sold. Perhaps ever.

This franchise doesn’t belong to some rich billionaire looking for a side hustle, a hobby or a tax write off. The Rockies are the family business for one of the state’s leading business and philanthropic families. While they made their money in the cattle business years ago, the Monfort family is now 100% about the business of baseball. And as the song says, “Rockin’ is my business… and business is good.”

They have to get the business side right. It’s one thing if you’re Rob Walton and you overspend on the Denver Broncos and things don’t go well money-wise. You can weather the storm so to speak because your main financial focus, Walmart, is the leading retailer in the country. You’ll be just fine.

The Monforts don’t have a Walmart-style safety net.

Therefore, the business side of owning a baseball team will always be the top priority for the Monforts. They are note cheap. That label is grossly wrong and unfair. But like nearly every successful business, spending is based on revenues. Staying in the black is imperative. Dick Monfort’s man crush aside, he would not have signed Bryant to that mega contract if it would have meant going into the red. That’s not the way this family business operates.

It’s certainly any ownership’s prerogative to follow the business plan they’re most comfortable with. Those of us who are not in that seat can only second guess. We didn’t lose $100 million during the pandemic shortened season.

But we can also compare and contrast and look at the best ownership in Denver sports history – the Pat Bowlen Denver Broncos – and see a business model that was wildly successful with a different approach. Bowlen put on-field success at the top of his priority list, ahead of making money. So much so that he absorbed a fine of almost $2 million from the NFL for going over the salary cap back in the team’s glory days of the late 1990’s.

Bowlen paid any price to win. And as a result, he won. A lot. And along with all that on-field success came tremendous business success, too. So there is another way.

When Dick Monfort decides to step away from his ownership duties with the Rockies, the assumption is he’ll turn over those duties to his two sons, Walker and Sterling, both of whom currently work for the club’s front office. Rockies fans’ best hope is not that the Monforts will sell the team, but that both these two former high school baseball players hate all this losing as much as Al does.

Strike Three: Just a few short years ago, back in 2016, Colorado State supporters were in a tizzy because the Rams (who were in the middle of the Mike Bobo era and not winning many football games) weren’t being considered strongly enough in Big 12 expansion talks. Those talks turned out to be fruitless when the conference decided not to expand, even after several schools, including CSU, had laid all their cards on the table in talks with the conference.

At the time, CSU was opening a brand new football stadium, had an excellent and well deserved academic reputation, played in a good TV market (Denver is 16th nationally) and what looked at the time to be a growing (if not yet impressive, attendance-wise) fan base. So why not us?

Because at that time, supply was simply greater than demand.

Things have now changed. A lot.

First Texas and Oklahoma decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. (The success of that pending move is still TBD.) The Big 12 responded by going out and grabbing four non-Power 5 schools to join their conference, again passing over CSU in the process. It was notable that former rival BYU was among those four. All of them, including Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida, were doing a lot better on the playing field than the Steve Addazio coached Rams. That seemed to matter.

Then the other shoe dropped. USC and UCLA opted to leave the Pac 12 for the Big Ten. (Yes, the future of the college game likely includes two 20+ team NFL-style super conferences, but that’s another column.) The prevailing thought is that even more realignment is to come.

Now all of a sudden demand and supply are on more even terms.

And that’s the best news possible for CSU if the school is still hoping to land in an established – if not totally stable – Power 5 conference. While the movement among the current power five schools isn’t finished, the Rams – boosted by a very strong men’s basketball program and a football program that looks to be rejuvenated by the hiring of Jay Norvell – have floated to the top of the pack among still available non-Power 5 schools.

Noted college football writer Pete Fiutak recently published a column where he placed CSU as the fourth most desirable expansion candidate among the non-Power 5 programs, well ahead of Boise State, but behind UNLV. The new stadium and pro market appeal of Las Vegas overshadows the Rebels crummy on-field product which is good news for CSU, too.

Fiutak noted the “untapped” Denver market and said the Rams would be a great fit for the Big 12 with schools like Kansas State. (A lot of folks have been saying that all along.) He also notes that if the University of Colorado lands in the expanded (bloated?) Big Ten, which appears very possible, CSU would be a great fit as their replacement in the Pac 12 as well, assuming the Pac 12 still exists.

Suddenly it appears like athletic director Joe Parker (who just signed a new five-year contract extension) and the decision makers in the Fort may actually have options.

Talk about a shocking turnaround. Stay tuned.

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