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Tracy working miracles for playoff-bound Rockies

by Wayne Graczyk

“Mile High Miracle, Mile High Magic, Rocky Mountain High, whatever you want to call it, but baseball in Colorado is spectacular again this year.” So says Ken Shimada, a Japanese fan living in Denver who dumped the team but is now back at Coors Field as an avid supporter.

His reclaimed Rockies are in the National League playoffs following a spectacular comeback and a resurrection from the nearly dead under manager Jim Tracy, a former Japan pro baseball player with the Yokohama Taiyo Whales in 1983 and, very briefly, in 1984.

Shimada admits to being a “fair-weather fan,” backing the team when it’s winning such as in 2007 when it went to the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, but turning into a critic when times are hard and the club is losing.

“I declared myself independent earlier this year after the Rockies traded Matt Holliday to Oakland as well as letting Brian Fuentes go via free agency, but I found independent to be boring, and there’s nothing like cheering for your favorite team whether it’s good, bad or ugly,” wrote Shimada in an e-mail.

“I’m no longer independent and declaring myself a Rockies fan once again,” he says now, as the team heads into the NL postseason tournament, at least as a wild card entry but still alive (as of Friday) for the division championship.

“How can firing Clint Hurdle and naming Jim Tracy make a difference, since the front office did not trade or change lineups? Tracy must be a great motivator, or the players got their act together and started to win games,” reasons the wishy-washy Shimada.

Whatever it was that swept the Mile High City began on May 29 when manager Hurdle was fired and bench coach Tracy was named to succeed him. At the time, the Rockies were 18-28 and heading for a ho-hum season somewhere south of .500 in the NL West.

The change in field leadership somehow triggered a series of winning streaks that saw Colorado not only make it to the break-even point but also go way beyond it. Under Tracy, the Rockies went 74-40 through games of Friday and had clinched a spot in the NL Division Series beginning Oct. 7.

Recalling Tracy, who has also managed the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates, as a young player in Yokohama 25 years ago, a former Taiyo Whales and Yokohama BayStars front office man says he is not surprised at this year’s success in Denver.

Tadahiro “Tad” Ushigome, one-time Taiyo interpreter, traveling secretary and international rep, signed Tracy to a contract late in 1982 to play in Japan in ’83. The outfielder came through with a halfway decent season, hitting .303 with 19 home runs and 66 RBIs while playing in 125 games.

“He is a good guy who learned how to be a manager,” said Ushigome, currently a TV commentator for major league games televised in Japan on the J-SPORTS cable channels.

“When I signed him, he had the best contract of his pro career,” Ushigome remembers about Tracy who had played previously with the Chicago Cubs in parts of the 1980 and ’81 seasons.

But his contract with Taiyo was forfeited just three days into the 1984 season when Tracy suddenly quit the team after being removed by Whales manager Junzo Sekine for a pinch runner after a walk in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game against the Yakult Swallows at Yokohama Stadium.

The player claimed he should have been left in the game in case it went to extra innings when his bat might be needed.

“We were shocked. He quit because of his pride,” said Ushigome.

American teammate Leon Lee told Tracy it was a foolish pride, but the incident perhaps revealed Tracy’s first display of a manager’s strategic mentality that seems to be paying off today in Colorado.

Curiously, Ushigome said, just after Tracy left, Lee had a dream that his flighty teammate got a job as manager of a major league team.

Ushigome has followed Tracy’s career since he walked out after walking.

“He went back to play Triple-A ball with the Tucson Toros but never got back to the majors as a player,” said Ushigome. “Then he worked in a cardboard box company but re-entered the baseball world as manager of the Cubs’ Class-A team, the Peoria Chiefs, in 1985.”