NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Walt Weiss is coming from a few years away from the Majors into a managerial job in which he'll be asked to turn around a Rockies team that went 64-98 in 2012. But he didn't have to look far on Tuesday to know it can be done.
Right after Weiss had his scheduled Q&A session with media members during the Winter Meetings, he stopped to shake hands with Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who was in a similar situation last year. Matheny was away from the game and had no professional managerial experience, yet was asked to take over the defending World Series champion Cardinals. Matheny, who replaced legend Tony La Russa, led that team back to the playoffs.
Also, Robin Ventura was away from the game when asked to revive the White Sox, and he led them to an 85-77 finish.
"Robin and Mike certainly knocked down some walls for someone like me," said Weiss, who worked for the Rockies as a special front office assistant from 2002-08, left to spend time with his family, and was head baseball coach and assistant football coach at Regis Jesuit High School in the Denver area before the Rockies hired him. "What do we need to have success? I think the bottom line is you're trying to lead men.
"And for me, I think we've got to try to create an environment where we respect each other and we trust each other, and then you've got a chance at something special. If you're just counting on running your talent out there, it's a tough league. So we've got to create an environment that's different not necessarily different but special. And you do that by developing relationships and caring for one another and earning the respect of each other. For me that's more important than the X's and O's right now."
That said, Weiss knows he'll have to address some of the strategic challenges that come with managing a team at mile-high altitude. Weiss played for the Rockies from 1994-97 and knows the advantage a team can build with a fearsome offense and credible pitching. The Rockies did exactly that in '95, when they made the playoffs in their third year of existence -- at the time the fastest expansion-to-postseason rise in Major League history.
The club lost shortstop Troy Tulowitkzi, first baseman Todd Helton, outfielder Michael Cuddyer and catcher Ramon Hernandez to season-ending injuries at various points, and All-Star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez dealt with rarely being challenged during the second half of the season. Yet, catcher Wilin Rosario led National League rookies in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage, and corner infielder Jordan Pacheco led NL rookies in batting average. The result was a club that led the NL in batting average and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), and finished second in runs.
However, the front office's well-meaning attempt to deal with altitude-based issues it felt affected pitching -- the team finished with a 5.22 ERA, with the starters finishing with a 5.81 mark -- and made it more difficult to stay healthy, left the impression that the team was finding reasons not to win as opposed to reasons to win. Frustration with various issues led former manager Jim Tracy, who had a contract through 2013, to resign in October.
The Rockies continue to move to their own beat, with a different structure for the front office and a plan to revamp their pitching from the lowest level of the Minors through the Majors. But Weiss' message this offseason has been all of the research and the numbers should add up to advantages. He lived it with those early Rockies teams under manager Don Baylor, and insists the Rockies have the talent to take advantages of the pros of playing at altitude.
"Ultimately you've got to pitch and catch the ball," Weiss said. "But I think because of where we play, again, we could exploit some things in our park, and we have the lineup to do that, like we did back then. But we still have to execute the game, and when you go on the road, it becomes paramount that we execute the game. So it's still baseball.
"I see some similarities with the clubs in the mid '90s, and that club was pretty unique as far as the thump in that lineup. We might have to spend $300 million to get that again [laughter], but we've got some established guys that are, like I said, bigtime guys, and we've got some young guys who are exciting."
Weiss, however, said he realizes he won't have all the answers immediately and will rely on this staff. Bench coach Tom Runnells and first-base coach Rene Lachemann have Major League managerial experience, and third-base coach Stu Cole joins the club after years of managing at Triple-A Colorado Springs.
"That's a security blanket for me, having a guy like Tommy Reynolds sitting right next to me who's been the bench coach there for the last couple years under Jim, and 'Lach,' who I go way back with," Weiss said. "Not only those guys, but we've got a good staff. We brought in Dante [Bichette, a former Rockies All-Star as hitting coach], who's going to, I think, have an impact with our club.
"Stu Cole, the guy who has been grinding as a third-base coach. He's been grinding away in the Minor Leagues in our system, been a loyal guy. It's great to see him get this opportunity. And our pitching coaches [Jim Wright and assistant pitching coach Bo McLaughlin] are very familiar with our guys. They've been in the organization for a while. So no, we set up pretty well. I really like our staff."