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Love on the Rockies: Colorado fans still Mile High over team

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Denver--The thunderheads were everywhere, and the forecast was bleak. The Denver metropolitan area was bracing for the possibility of five inches of rain, and Route 25, which passes within a few hundred feet of Mile High Stadium, was under water in some outlying areas.

In other words, a perfect night for baseball. More than 40,000 fans filed into a reconfigured football stadium to watch the Colorado Rockies.

It was a light crowd by the standards of the Rockies, who destroyed virtually every major-league attendance record in their first year. They have averaged nearly 56,000 in home attendance since Day One -- more than the total seating capacity of all but seven of the other 27 major-league parks -- so what's a little cloudburst among friends?

Baseball has come to a new frontier, one with its own pioneer mentality. These are the same people who sit knee deep in snow to cheer the Denver Broncos. Now, they have someplace to go in the summer.

"It's unbelievable to come back here every single night and see 58,000 people," said Rockies manager Don Baylor, who spent portions of his playing career in several of baseball's traditional attendance strongholds. "And this isn't like Southern California, where they are heading to the exits in the seventh inning. They stay to the end."

Though the Rockies are in second place in the National League West, it could be years before the playoffs come to Denver. But that doesn't seem to be a matter of particular concern to Colorado fans.

"Amazing," said Rockies first baseman Andres Galarraga, who has done as much as anyone to pack them in. "I've played in a lot of places, and it was never like this. I just hope it continues. People love it here, and they understand not to expect too much right away."

Perhaps not, but on this stormy night the skies would clear long enough for the Rockies to deliver a third straight defeat to the visiting Cincinnati Reds. And a message.

Expansion was never like this.

Camden Yards in Colorado

They are building a new stadium in Denver, and the first thing you need to know about it is that it's not big enough. The original design called for 43,800 seats, which would leave about 13,000 people standing in the street on an average night. The Rockies came to that realization quickly enough to increase capacity to about 50,000 -- at the team's expense -- but it still won't be big enough to accommodate everyone.

"Three weeks into last season," said general manager Bob Gebhard, "we had not had a crowd that would have fit in the new stadium. What is the right number? Obviously, this was new to us. We wanted a stadium that was big enough, but wasn't too big. Fifty thousand seemed like the right number."

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because seating capacity has been an issue at Camden Yards since Oriole Park opened in 1992. The Orioles chose to cut off season ticket sales at about 27,000 to maintain a walk-up crowd. The Rockies sold more than 32,000 season tickets this year, so individual game tickets figure to be as hard to get as they are in Baltimore.

The similarities to Camden Yards do not end there. Coors Field was designed by the same architectural firm (HOK Sports of Kansas City, Mo.), and the new home of the Rockies is expected to have the same kind of new-as-old ambience. The club could have gone for a vast, Robo-dome stadium, but felt it would be better served in a more traditional setting.

"We took a survey, and the fans voted for a 43,000-seat stadium," said public relations director Mike Swanson, "but we felt we had to increase the capacity. We did in right field what Camden Yards did in left field."

If you build it . . .

The fans come in droves, but it is not entirely an accident of geography. The Rockies -- like their expansion counterpart Florida Marlins -- managed to put together an entertaining team in their first season.

The new economics of baseball made the 1992 expansion draft more than just a clearinghouse for fringe Triple-A prospects. The Rockies already had struck gold with the signing of Galarraga (though they didn't know it at the time), and Gebhard pulled enough talent out of the draft to acquire All-Star outfielder Dante Bichette in trade.

Galarraga went on to win the National League batting title, and Bichette turned in a career year, which was enough to outdistance the modest expectations of the local populace. The Rockies played nearly .500 (39-42) at home and drew almost 4.5 million fans, which set them up for bigger and better things this year.

Conventional wisdom dictated a deliberate approach to building an expansion team, but the Rockies moved aggressively into the free-agent market last winter and added big hitters Ellis Burks and Howard Johnson. Gebhard also solidified the defense with free-agent infielder Walt Weiss and augmented the pitching staff with right-handers Marvin Freeman and Mike Harkey.

"After last year, drawing 4.5 million people, there were two ways to go," Gebhard said. "We could have gone with the slow process and let our development people produce players, or we could try to speed it up a little bit. Our ownership felt we owed something to those fans."

Not every move has worked out. Johnson has struggled, Harkey has been in and out of the starting rotation and Burks has spent much of the first half on the disabled list, but Freeman has gone 7-1.

Of course, it's an explosive offensive club. At Mile High Stadium, the air is thin. The ball travels well. The stadium dimensions, particularly in left field, are comparable to the cozy Metrodome.

How else do you explain Galarraga's 22 homers and Bichette's 21 in the first half of the 1994 season, or the career performance turned in by Charlie Hayes (25 homers) last year? This is the same place where Milwaukee Brewers prospect Joey Meyers once hit a ball nearly 600 feet in a minor-league game.

But it isn't as clear-cut as that. Bichette only hit 11 of his 21 homers last year at home. The team hit 77 of its 142 home runs here in '93, or 54 percent, which doesn't make as strong a statistical case for the thin-air theory.

"I don't think that it's really that big a deal," said Bichette, "but in our minds, it is. It's a confidence thing for us, and I think it scares opposing pitchers when they come in here. It plays a lot like Fenway Park."

The "Rockpile"

The fans sitting in the "Rockpile" can only hope that the air is as thin as advertised, or they might never see the ball up close. The most distant sections in left-center field are sold on a first-come, first-served basis for a dollar apiece, which has created a hybrid version of the rowdy bleacher sections so popular in Wrigley Field and Fenway Park.

"It has proven to be a little rowdier than the rest of the stadium," said Gerry Schechter, a stadium security supervisor and a former Marylander, "but a $20 bill will buy you a ticket and eight beers out there, so you've got to expect that."

The fans in the bleachers occasionally break into a spontaneous interchange with the box-seat section on the first base side, chanting "Go" and "Rockies" back and forth the way they might at a college football game.

"Rockies fans are just football fans who go to baseball games," said Mike Urano, 21, an aerospace engineering student at the University of Colorado. "It's a livelier crowd, I think, than you find at other baseball parks. I've been to Kansas City, and it's a lot different kind of crowd. "They sort of just sit there and clap."

The players appreciate the show of unconditional acceptance, which has made the club's growing pains easier to endure. Seldom is heard a discouraging word from the stands, though the team won just 67 games last year and had only the horrible San Diego Padres to thank for keeping them out of the NL West cellar.

"Every night, you look up, and they are out there," Bichette said. "You strike out and then you go out to the outfield, and they are giving you the thumbs-up. There aren't a lot of boos out there. I'm sure there will be some day, but it's fun while it lasts."

The success of the Rockies and Marlins has become the main argument for further expansion, but the Rockies are a special case. They play in a relatively affluent metropolitan area and have little summertime competition for the area's entertainment dollars.

The Marlins drew well, but the relatively small capacity (44,500) of Joe Robbie Stadium and the transient nature of the population make it seem unlikely that they ever will match the success of the Rockies.

"This is Colorado's team," said Weiss, who played in Florida last year. "There was a lot of excitement there [in Florida] last year, but it is a situation where they are going to have to win fairly quickly to keep fan interest. There are a lot of other things to do in the summer."

How long will it last in Denver? The new stadium may produce a different kind of chemistry in the stands. The season-ticket base of more than 32,000, combined with group and advance sales, is going to leave the remaining tickets at a premium and some of the "real" fans out in the cold. It happened in Baltimore.

"It's going to be different," Weiss said. "It'll be interesting to see if the crowd changes at all."

Either way, the novelty of a new team and a new stadium figures to pack them in for at least the next few years, but the Rockies eventually will have to earn their attendance like everybody else.

"I think, with us going into a new yard, the people are going to be excited about that for a few years," said Bichette. "I think we've got a few years where we don't have to win to draw, but I think that our front office wants to win sooner than that. Hopefully, we'll never see that day when the natives get restless."

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