Rocky Mountain Fever

Bitten by the baseball bug, Coloradans turn out in enormous numbers to cheer their puny Rockies
June 13, 1993

Maybe that's it. Maybe the people of Colorado are addicted to turnstiles. You get a state this big without subways, and you've got to get your fix somewhere.

Why else would Coloradans keep cramming themselves into Mile High Stadium to watch the worst team in the big leagues? The 1993 Colorado Rockies are hanging loss-for-loss with the 1962 New York Mets in expansion-team futility, and their new fans are treating them like freed hostages. The fans aren't sure yet about what to do at a baseball game, but they come just the same. Some of them yell "Balk!" every time an opposing pitcher throws to first base. They wear suits and ties, and they bring baseball gloves even when they're sitting under the stadium overhangs. They chant "Dee-fense!" They do (gasp!) the Wave.

The other day a middle-aged couple came trundling down the aisle of section 105, blankets and binoculars hanging off one set of arms, thermos and grocery bag off the other. Their heads were down, trying to decipher row numbers and watch their step at the same time. Finally, when they saw their seats, they took a moment to look up. The portly wife smiled a big smile. "Look, honey!" she said. "We're right on the goal line!"

O.K., so Coloradans are a little new at this. The point is, they are showing up in numbers that would make an accountant's horn-rims melt. Through last week the Rockies had already had one crowd of more than 80,000, two of more than 70,000 and four of more than 60,000. Their average attendance of 57,074 equaled the total draw for a typical San Diego Padre three-game series. After its first 21 home dates, Colorado had topped the Cleveland Indians' entire 1992 attendance. In two months the Rockies have already broken four major league attendance records: largest crowd ever to watch an Opening Day baseball game (80,227), attendance for a three-game series (212,475) and a four-game series (251,447), and fewest games needed to draw a million (17).

If the Rockies don't sell another ticket, they will still draw 3.4 million for the year. They're on pace to smash the Toronto Blue Jays' single-season attendance record of 4,028,318 without breathing hard. And summer hasn't even started yet. "We have a saying around here," says Rocky ticket czar Bernie Mullin. " 'When school gets out, attendance ought to pick up.' "

Oh, maybe that's it. Maybe the fans are afraid if they don't warm every seat every night, baseball will start repossession procedures. After all, this is a city that has loved and been jilted by baseball before. For 30 years, teams like the Seattle Mariners, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants flirted with Denver but never moved there. Even at the end, Colorado got dissed when the National League almost awarded the expansion team to Washington, D.C., instead. "There aren't even enough people there to fill the stadium," groused Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser. "They'll have to truck in every bighorn sheep from Salt Lake to Laramie to make it look good."

Baaaaaaaad guess.

"Looks like baseball made a very big mistake [by not coming here sooner]," says the Rockies' owner Jerry McMorris, who has the only living, breathing big league team in the mountain time zone, an area that evidently was famished for the game. "It's unbelievable," says 62-year-old baseball creature Don Zimmer, a Colorado coach. "We finally win a game the other night, and these people are cheering us like we're in first place."

Manager Don Baylor could put nine toaster ovens on the field and attendance might not be different. Come to think of it, neither might the results. At week's end, the Rockies had a 16-40 record, the worst in the big leagues (the Mets had an identical record at the same point in their inaugural season), and a death grip on last place in the National League West. They also ranked at the bottom of the majors in team ERA, shutouts pitched, hits allowed, runs allowed, walks allowed and fielding. National League hitters are sending stretch limos for Colorado pitchers. Opponents had hit .312 against them—21 points higher than the average against the next worst team.

The Giants got 42 hits in three games against the Rockies. The Atlanta Braves scored 46 runs in four. In a three-game series from May 28 to May 30, the Philadelphia Phillies, front-runners in the National League East, beat Colorado 15-9, 6-0 and 18-1. Philly got 47 hits, including eight home runs, for a team batting average of .382. "The Rockies may be the first team in history," says Denver Post columnist Woody Paige, "to draw four million fans and give up four million runs."

Doesn't matter to Colorado fans. In the opener of the Philadelphia series, with the Rockies trailing 11-3 in the fifth, second baseman Eric Young singled to right—and got a standing ovation. In the press box a grizzled baseball writer held his head in his hands and muttered, "God forbid that this team should start winning."

After Colorado's 18-1 loss two days later, one woman, who had yelled from the start of the game to the very end, smiled bravely as she began to pack up her belongings. "I'm still glad they're here," she said, "and not somewhere else."

Five thousand people showed up to watch the Rockies' first workout the day before the home opener. Four thousand people bought tickets during a rain delay in a game with the New York Mets on April 12, and by the time that game was postponed the Rockies had sold $70,000 worth of team merchandise. In fact, you could wrap up compost in a Rockies' purple Glad bag and get $4.95 for it.

Rocky merchandise is already the No. 2 seller in baseball, behind only that of the Chicago White Sox. Demand for the Opening Day game program (with the built-in microchip that plays Take Me Out to the Ballgame) was so high that in the interest of public safety, the team stopped selling them after 220,000 had been moved. The forklifts bearing another 100,000 programs couldn't get through the people.

In Colorado's first four home Sunday games combined, the Rocky Horror Pitching Show gave up more runs than the Broncos did points in their first four Sunday home games against AFC West teams last season—19 to the Montreal Expos, 11 to the Florida Marlins, 12 to the Braves and 18 to Philly for a total of 60. The Broncos coughed up only 51. Slugging catcher Darren Daulton had three homers and eight RBIs in the Phillies' three-game blitz, and yet he couldn't wait to catch the first plane out. "This isn't a big league ball-yard," he said. "I'm not sure this is baseball."

Well, no wonder. Mile High is, at heart, a football stadium. The 76,000 seats are painted Bronco blue or Bronco orange. The heroic names in huge letters ringing the stadium are those of guys like Floyd Little and Haven Moses—and neither hit a home run there. The third tier of seats is so high and so packed with fans that outfielders are having trouble seeing fly balls day and night. One evening Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder Al Martin lost a ball in the crowd, leading to two unearned runs. The next night Pirate outfielder Andy Van Slyke never saw a ball that landed 15 feet from his cleats. "Tell them, in baseball, they've got to point some of the lights toward the sky," he muttered.

And if the balls aren't falling at outfielders' feet, they're dropping into patrons' laps. It is only 335 feet to the leftfield wall—though, as Atlanta's Sid Bream says, "it feels like 275." Bream should know. He hit perhaps the only check-swing grand slam in history here. It was a swing that wouldn't have bruised an overripe banana. "I thought that was a sacrifice fly," Bream said with a grin. The Braves' muscular menace, Mark Lemke, nearly 5'9" in stature, hit two home runs in one game here. Pirate manager Jim Leyland actually hit a fungo out.

Worse, centerfield and rightfield are just the opposite of left—great expanses. "I've seen herds of cattle with less room to roam," said Phillie reliever Larry Andersen. Plus, the grass is about the height of the rough at the U.S. Open. It is so long that one night Philadelphia hulk Pete Incaviglia slid into second with a double on a ball that never got past the outfielders. "Any ball that gets into the left-center alley is definitely a double," says Rocky centerfielder Alex Cole ruefully. "And any ball that gets into the right-center alley is definitely a triple."

Pitchers are learning to come down with a 96-hour flu when their team flies into Denver. In the thin mile-high air, baseballs fly farther and breaking pitches hang longer. The Braves' starting rotation left town with a Rocky Mountain high ERA of 7.97 for four games. "I feel real sorry for those guys over there," Atlanta starter Tom Glavine said, "having to pitch here all year long."

Still, if Colorado ever finds some pitchers who can keep the ball down and some lawn mowers that actually mow, playing the Rockies could be about as much fun for visitors as the gout. "Would somebody please tell me why I can't get any oxygen up here?" Natalie Merchant, lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, said one May night this year at a concert at the Red Rocks amphitheater. It's a question a lot of National League players are asking. Word is, if the batter ahead of you gets a double, you've got to take a pitch or two just to let him find his lungs again. "If I get on base," Incaviglia told his teammates before one game, "all of you hold your breath so I can get some air."

City officials are holding their breath waiting for the bottom to fall out of Rockymania, but it may never happen, just as it has never happened to Broncomania. The Broncos have had 23 years of consecutive sellouts, and there are 5,000 names on a waiting list for season tickets.

Maybe that's it. Maybe so many Coloradans spent so many years pining to get their own seat at Mile High Stadium that when some became available, they scarfed them up like free hams. In Denver a season ticket at Mile High became so scarce that owning one became a societal badge of honor. Now 28,627 more fans can say they have their own.

Actually, Rockymania extends beyond the borders of Colorado. The Rockies sold season tickets to residents of 36 states—tons of them in Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, some in California and Florida, a few in Canada—and one in Puerto Rico. (Puerto Rico?) For Rocky games the Mile High parking lot tends to look like the one at the Disneyworld Contemporary Hotel, with cars from hither and yon—Pagosa Springs and Ogallala, Santa Fe and Billings, Pueblo and the Oklahoma panhandle. When McMorris was asked by National League executives, "How far will you draw?" he replied, "I'd say up to 500,600 miles."

"No, no," said the National League suits. "We mean people who actually come to the games."

"That's what I mean," said McMorris.

But out here, in the land of the 76 MILES TO NEXT ROAD SERVICES sign, people think nothing of a 110-mile commute. At a Bronco game, the RVs are lined up as far as the eye can see for just one game. "We knew they'd drive 'em down for four games," says McMorris, a Colorado native.

The Rockies' other gusher of fans has been Hispanics. The team has a Hispanic minority partner in Denver lawyer Linda Alvarado and a Hispanic superstar in Andres (Big Cat) Galarraga, who has been among the National League's leading hitters this season. Denver proper is 23% Hispanic, so signing Galarraga made a lot of sense. "The Hispanic community loves the Broncos," says Alvarado, "but this is a game at which we excel."

Galarraga is getting the picture, too. "Are you as big in this town as John Elway?" he is asked.

"I think so," he says with a big-cat grin.

Of course he is not, but Elway might occasionally like to trade fans with him anyway. The fans who go to Rocky games are much different from those that go to Bronco games. Basically, the Broncos draw the same 76,000 people who have been going to their games the last 20-some years. "It's the same faces every Sunday," says one off-duty cop, who works security for both teams. "You can't tell a Bronco fan anything." No wonder. After being left at the Super Bowl altar three times, the average Bronco fan is about as cuddly as a dyspeptic rattler.

On the other hand, a Rocky game is essentially a kegger. There is a lot of evidence that (thank goodness) the fans aren't even paying attention. When they asked the millionth-through-the-turn-stiles, Lydia McKee of Littleton, Colo., to name some players she liked, she said, "The first baseman, whatshisname? Oh, yeah, Andre Scalarraga."

It's being there that counts. During one Thursday afternoon game at Mile High, the local cellular-phone network reported a 300% increase from the same period in the previous week. "I'm calling from the Rockies' game" has replaced "Meet me at my Vail condo" as the coolest overheard sentence in town. Of course, an orange-underweared Bronco fan would no sooner pull out his cellular phone during a game than have his nails done in the fourth quarter.

Bronco fans come to Mile High to have their souls saved. Rocky fans come to get a cappuccino and a foul ball. The Rockies are not a part of the emotional fabric of Denver the way the Broncos are, and they likely never will be. One is a pastime and the other is a passion. It is like the difference between tickling a baby and having one. One enjoys the Rockies. One endures the Broncos.

But if the Rockies do not have live-or-die emotion on their side, they at least have sweet promise. And, yeah, it might take six Clydesdales and an International Harvester to drag some decent free-agent pitching into a park where routine fly balls end up in people's snow cones, but Baylor will have to change his home phone number to get away from all the righthanded power hitters who want to come. "Mark McGwire?" said Daulton. "He might hit 75 homers here."

And the best part for the Rockies is that when this honeymoon is done, they'll begin a second one with the opening of their own Camden Yards-like downtown ballpark, Coors Field, which was designed to hold 43,800 and will be ready for the 1995 season. Want to know something? Not a single Rocky crowd yet would have fit in Coors Field. It's a fact not unnoticed by McMorris.

"The newspapers say we're greedy for wanting to expand it," McMorris says of the team's decision to foot the bill for a redesign that will add another 1,500 seats to Coors Field. "But I get letters. 'Please, Mr. McMorris, be sure we can get into the new park.' It's simple. The working people have to get into that new park."

Let's see now.... McMorris has the lowest payroll in baseball, among the highest profits, some of the best TV ratings in the league, a new stadium that the six-county metropolitan area is building for him absolutely free (except for the extra seats), and fans who are begging him to make that stadium bigger so they can pay him many dollars to get in. Explain to him again: What's wrong with baseball?

No wonder there is the feeling in the West that there is something charmed about this franchise, something that makes you believe that even if the Rockies exceed the Mets' record of 120 losses this season, they could go on to unthinkably glorious things.

To wit: When the Rockies opened at home against the Expos on April 9 before that unprecedented throng, their first batter up, Young, drove a 3-2 pitch into deep left centerfield. "I hit it pretty good," says Young. "But I didn't really think it was going to go out. I think the fans took over and made it go out." It went out.

Even with all the come-from-behind, no-hope, AFC-championship-on-the-line miracles that have taken place on this field, Mile High Stadium shook that day as it had never shaken before. Longtime NBC broadcaster Charlie Jones, the Rockies' television broadcaster, calls it his biggest professional thrill. "This is the Broncos' yard," says Young. "But for just five minutes there, just for a little bit, it was our town."

And as Young came out of the dugout for the first curtain call in Rocky history, a fan sitting behind the Colorado dugout, a fan who played a little minor league ball himself, caught Young's eye and gave him a little wink.

Elway.

PHOTOMICHAEL LEWIS/RICH CLARKSON & ASSOCIATES THREE PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRAOn pace to draw four million fans, the Rockies expect crowds to "pick up" when school gets out; at Mile High Stadium (opposite) routine fly balls sail over the fence, and scores go through the roof. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIn Bronco country the football tradition of tailgating has its place in baseball, too. PHOTORONALD C. MODRARocky merchandise already ranks second—to White Sox paraphernalia—in the majors. PHOTORONALD C. MODRALike some of their fans, the young Rockies have a lot of growing to do.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)