Honor or curse, Gray is ex­cited

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MARK KISZLA Den­ver Post Columnist

scotts­dale, ariz. »

He might not be stuck with the most mind- freak­ing job in sports, but Rockies pitcher Jon Gray is def­i­nitely on the short­list.

Be­stowed the honor of tak­ing the mound for the sea­son opener at Mil­wau­kee, Gray re­sponded with a non­cha­lant grin and said, “I’m just look­ing to go out there and get that first W.”

Me? I would have re­acted to the news like that dude Ed­vard Munch painted in “The Scream,” then scur­ried home, jumped in bed and hid un­der the cov­ers for a week.

“It’s a feather in the cap to be named the open­ing- day starter. It’s a spe­cial day for all of us in base­ball,” Colorado man­ager Bud Black said Thurs­day.

For fans, the an­nual re­turn of base­ball is all about the po­etry, odes in­spired by the heady mix of beer for break­fast, the smell of freshly cut grass and hope spring­ing eter­nal. What’s the re­al­ity? Be­ing named the open­ing- day starter for the Rockies might in­deed be an honor, but it also can be a curse that quickly ru­ins a per­fectly fine pitch­ing ca­reer.

With a shout of “Play ball!” the Rockies will open their 25th sea­son as a Na­tional League fran­chise in 2017. Try to wrap your mind around this fac­toid with­out freak­ing out: Gray will be the 18th dif­fer­ent start­ing pitcher for Colorado on open­ing day.

Want to be the ace for this team? Are

you sure? From David Nied to Bill Swift, and from Jeremy Guthrie to Kyle Ken­drick, the list of ca­su­al­ties con­demned to this dirty job is long and ugly.

The real bur­den for Gray is not the sig­nif­i­cance of the first start but the re­spon­si­bil­ity to lead a young Rockies pitch­ing staff in all the starts that fol­low, against the likes of San Fran­cisco stop­per Madi­son Bum­gar­ner and Clay­ton Ker­shaw, who has won the Cy Young Award three times for the Los An­ge­les Dodgers.

“You want to set the tone. … Go out there and do your job ev­ery time,” Gray said.

There was never a doubt about his slider, a pitch so nasty it earned Gray a $ 4.8 mil­lion signing bonus be­fore he won a sin­gle game in the big leagues. Whether Gray had the stuff to be an ace at Coors Field, a place wickedly un­fair to pitch­ers, was al­ways a ques­tion about his men­tal tough­ness.

Gray is 25 years old, with a scant 38 ca­reer starts. Where he has grown most as a pitcher is not as ob­vi­ous as his long, shaggy hair. The ma­tu­rity of Gray can be mea­sured by the cal­luses on his heart. Yes, his mind was ini­tially blown by the cheap home runs man­u­fac­tured at Coors. He nev­er­the­less learned to love the ball­park as his home.

“I had to take own­er­ship of every­thing that hap­pens. The neg­a­tiv­ity. The good things. Own it all,” said Gray, who re­al­ized that play­ing the vic­tim earned him nei­ther vic­to­ries nor sym­pa­thy. “I was in the pas­sen­ger seat. Now I’m in the driver’s seat.”

We all want to be­lieve this year will be the first time since 2010 the Rockies will en­joy a win­ning sea­son. The op­ti­mism be­gins with Gray.

With­out ques­tion, his shoul­ders are strong enough to han­dle the job. It’s the strength of the head on those shoul­ders that will de­ter­mine whether Gray thrives in the job.

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