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McMorris, former Rockies owner, dies at 71

DENVER -- Whether it was to save Major League Baseball in Denver, or to simply save baseball, Jerry McMorris was the person people called.

He not only answered. He led.

McMorris put together the Colorado-based group that rescued the Colorado Rockies franchise in 1992, the year before it took the field, when the original ownership group fell apart because of legal issues. After labor discord forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, he spearheaded negotiations from the owners' side and helped bring baseball back to the field in early 1995.

McMorris, who at first didn't want to be involved in the franchise's day-to-day operation, was chief executive officer for the Rockies' first nine years and maintained a presence in the ownership group for 14 years. During his tenure, he oversaw record-setting attendance at Mile High Stadium and the successful opening of Coors Field, was a driving force behind a team that made the playoffs in its third year of existence -- a record at the time -- saw an All-Star Game at Coors Field and helped the game maintain labor peace and experience growth.

McMorris, 71, who died on Tuesday at The Anschutz Medical Campus at the University of Colorado-Denver after a long illness, was more than a facilitator and a dealmaker.

"I am very saddened by the loss of my friend Jerry McMorris, whose efforts were integral to bringing Major League Baseball to Colorado in 1993," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Under Jerry's leadership, the Rockies attracted more than three million fans in each of the club's first nine years and became a first-class franchise in a wonderful ballpark. Jerry quickly established himself as a leader within our industry, playing a key role on a number of our committees and serving not only the Rockies franchise but all of Major League Baseball very well.

"On behalf of Jerry's many friends throughout the game, I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Mary and his entire family."

"The Colorado Rockies family is deeply saddened by the passing of Jerry McMorris," said Rockies Owner/Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dick Monfort. "I believe It is fair to say without the efforts of Jerry there may have never been Major League Baseball in Denver. He will be greatly missed by us all."

McMorris was a fan of the game, a competitor and a team owner who enjoyed his players as people.

"There were two things I'll remember most about him," said first baseman Todd Helton, who was the Rockies No. 1 pick in the 1995 MLB First-Year Player Draft and has been with the club ever since. "We'd have Sunday-morning coffee together in the clubhouse. We talked a little bit about everything.

"Then I'd always go to the National Western Stock Show with him. [McMorris served on the board of the event in many capacities, including chairman]. He loved it and got me involved with it. I'm very grateful. More than anything, he introduced me to a great group of people who live in Colorado. They made my transition a lot easier."

The labor issues in the mid '90s were contentious, but former Rockies star third baseman Vinny Castilla said it was clear that McMorris had affection for the players who were across the negotiating table.

"That was business and we understood it," Castilla said. "But there were no hard feelings. He was a friendly man, and I got to know him well. I remember him all summer in the clubhouse, and when we went to the playoffs in '95 it was very exciting. He and his family were there for the celebration in the clubhouse.

"He was known in the Hispanic community with Linda Alvarado [a member of the ownership group]. He didn't speak Spanish, but he still reached out to the community."

Born on Oct. 9, 1940, in Rock Island, Ill., McMorris was a 1962 graduate of the University of Colorado's School of Business. He purchased his first trucking company before graduation and was in the trucking industry for 40 years.

McMorris joined the Rockies ownership group as a limited partner at the behest of then-Colorado Gov. Roy Rohmer, who wanted key business leaders from the state involved with the team. But the original group began to collapse when Youngstown, Ohio-based Mickey Monus became accused, and later convicted, of fraud associated with his Phar-Mor drug-store company. The fallout left the Rockies $20 million short of the $95 million expansion fee that was due the National League. Paul Jacobs, who helped put together the original group, called McMorris to see if he could help save the franchise.

McMorris came up with the money, bringing in Charlie Monfort and the late Oren Benton.

"Pressure was bearing down on us in terms of Major League Baseball's schedule, and quite frankly, there was going to be a large amount of money due within a short time," McMorris said in a story published by the Denver Post in 2006. "I thought maybe the Colorado partners in the ownership could fix it. I think baseball would say that it was important that somebody stepped up, and preferably people from Colorado."

With that, baseball in Denver was safe.

Don Baylor, the Rockies' first manager and now the hitting coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, said there was no underestimating McMorris' role in bringing Major League Baseball to Denver.

"Besides Gene Autry [with the Angels], he was the best owner I played for or managed for -- he was great to the players," Baylor said. "Really, he's responsible for having that team in Denver. Most people don't understand that or realize it. Bill White [then the National League president] was going to award another city until Jerry stepped in with his influence. He loved that club, there's no doubt about it."

A few months after baseball's labor crisis claimed the 1994 World Series, Commissioner Bud Selig, then the acting commissioner, tabbed McMorris to spearhead the owners' negotiations.

"Jerry is the best person to come," Selig said in a New York Times article published on Dec. 22, 1994.

In that same article, David Cone, then a Royals pitcher and the alternate American League player representative, said, "He's approachable. We admire him as a second-year owner who has the guts to speak his mind."

Though it took a judge's ruling in April 1995 to end the strike, McMorris was respected among the players.

McMorris gave his mind and heart to the Rockies and to baseball for far longer than he thought he would. He stepped aside as club president and CEO in 2001, when the late Keli McGregor took over the post, and sold his financial interest in the club to brothers Charlie and Dick Monfort in a decision announced Dec. 15, 2005.

"Jerry McMorris stepped in at the beginning of the Rockies' history and served a critical role both in the team's early successes and in the industry," Selig said at the time. "Under his stewardship, Coors Field became a reality and the Rockies reached the playoffs in only the third year of existence, the fastest any expansion team had reached the playoffs at that time."

Baylor, who rejoined the Rockies as hitting coach in 2009 and 2010, was saddened that McMorris was no longer part of the club.

"It hurt me to see how the departure happened, because he put his whole life into that club to make it a first-class operation," Baylor said. "When we need a player, he OK'd the [Bret] Saberhagen deal, Larry Walker, Walt Weiss, whatever we needed. 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."

McMorris left the Rockies satisfied.

" I'll never forget the experience of going to Spring Training for the first time," McMorris said. "Then, there was our first opening day against the Mets in New York. We came back to Denver for our first home game and Eric Young hit the home run leading off the bottom of the first inning. The home run and the great crowd were huge. Then fast forward to the opening game in Coors Field, making the playoffs in 1995 and our All-Star Game in 1998. All of those things were great for Denver."

McMorris owned Timnath Farms with his wife, Mary, and headed Timnath Land & Cattle Co. LLC with extensive interests in northern Colorado and Wyoming. McMorris is survived by his wife, two adult children and six grandchildren.

In addition to many business and educational posts, McMorris created the Roy Foundation after cystic fibrosis took the life of Mike McMorris, his son, at age 32 in 1996. "Roy" was Mike's nickname.

"He's pretty special, a real special person," Baylor said. "When I took over there I didn't realize that his son had cystic fibrosis and that's my No. 1 charity that I've been with for 35 years. His son Mike passed away of CF. They do have a hospital named after him. They spent a lot of money trying to find a cure for cystic fibrosis."

Now "ROY" is an acronym for Reaching Out to Youth to benefit the 30,000 Americans, 3,000 Canadians and 20,000 Europeans battling cystic fibrosis, according to C.B. & Potts & Big Horn Brewing, in the Denver area, which raises money for the Mike McMorris Cystic Fibrosis Center at Children's Hospital in Denver.