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PEAK PRODUCTION In third season, Rockies climb to top, crank out loyal fans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Denver -- They have been an anomaly nearly from the start. A mediocre expansion team that shattered major-league attendance records in each of its first two seasons. A small-market franchise that paid out huge sums to attract two of the game's biggest free agents last winter.

In baseball's vast and fast-deteriorating wasteland, the Colorado Rockies have become an oasis. Unhappy fans? Not here. Unappreciated players? Hardly any. Uncaring management? Try some other town. This is baseball's version of "Back to the Future."

"They told me when I took the job that I wouldn't believe the support," said Don Baylor, the team's first and only manager. "I've been here three years, and I still don't."

In those three years, Baylor's team has gone from being the Rockies Horror Show to one of the most entertaining in the game. Despite a shortage of starting pitching, the Rockies also are threatening to become the most successful expansion team in history.

With a three-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West, the 48-39 Rockies could make it to the postseason quicker than any other start-up franchise. But the team's quick rise could trigger the inevitable response from its fans: great expectations.

"Right now, it's a honeymoon," said Bob Gebhard, the team's general manager.

But there have been signs that the fans will adopt the same what-have-you-done-for-us-lately attitude toward the Rockies that they historically have applied to the now-beleaguered Broncos. That's if they haven't already.

Evidence of it came when fans booed the Rockies during a recent 12-1 loss to the New York Mets. Or when they started second-guessing Baylor a couple of weeks ago the way they did former Broncos coach Dan Reeves on the sports talk-radio shows.

Yet: "Things are so new here. There's no history of struggling in a pennant race like there is in other cities," said left fielder Dante Bichette. "It's been one big positive thing. There haven't been any negatives. But the expectations are going to be there as soon as we get close."

Bichette has become the people's choice, and that says something when nearly 50,000 people are showing up at the team's new ballpark, Coors Field, every game. It was the biggest reason for the team's re-signing Bichette after signing free-agent right fielder Larry Walker in April to a four-year, $20 million contract.

"If not for them, I wouldn't be here," said Bichette, who moved from right to left when Walker arrived. "I think the fans put pressure on management to sign me even though they had the right fielder they wanted."

One of the few teams to get involved after the strike with pricey free agents, the Rockies also signed right-handed pitcher Bill Swift to a three-year, $13 million deal. The fans and atmosphere certainly were part of the lure.

"To come here as a visiting player, the first thing you notice is the 50,000 in the park cheering every night," said Walker, a Canadian who already has season tickets for the city's new NHL team. "That was one of the biggest reasons I signed. Now, guys on other teams tell me how lucky I am to be here."

Coors Field, a 50,200-seat, fan-friendly stadium designed by the same architectural firm (HOK Sports) behind Camden Yards, also has touches of Tiger Stadium and Wrigley Field to it. The crowds seem to be transplanted from college football and golf, mixing passion with politeness.

Since coming over this season from Mile High Stadium, the original home of Rockiesmania, where there were often crowds of 70,000 and where the team averaged 57,000 its first two years, the Rockies continue to be the hottest ticket in town.

And the hottest topic of conversation, though many fans still don't understand why Baylor might give shortstop Walt Weiss an occasional day off or why he might go to his bullpen early and often. Forget asking them about the intricacies of the double-switch.

"People don't appreciate some of the nuances of the game yet," said Paul Seligman, a physician who has lived in Denver the past 17 years and shares a season-ticket plan with friends. "I hope the expectations don't get so high that they start treating this team like they do the others here. If you win, you're a hero, and if you lose, you're a bum."

There have been 25 straight sellouts, and the Rockies lead the major leagues with an average attendance of better than 46,000, which is nearly 4,500 a game better than the Orioles.

Not that they don't get a pretty decent return on their dollar. With the help of the altitude, the addition of Walker and the development of third baseman Vinny Castilla, the Rockies should break the team's record for home runs. They lead the National League in hitting (.282, including .342 at home) and home runs (117, 78 at home)

"But the difference has been our bullpen and defense," said Bichette, whose .324 batting average leads the Rockies and whose first 17 home runs came at home. The bullpen remains the most overworked in either league. It took until last week for a starting pitcher, rookie Bryan Rekar, to record the team's first complete game this season. The team's overall ERA is 4.75, next-to-last in the league, but the bullpen has proved to have a collective rubber arm.

"Everyone's tired," said reliever Curtis Leskanic, who has worked in 46 games, tied with teammate Mike Munoz for the league lead. "But we want to win it, so you do whatever it takes. This year, it takes 144 games, so that's how long we'll go."

Walker and Swift have added a maturity that wasn't apparent before. Walker, formerly of the Montreal Expos, leads the league in home runs. Swift, who came here after three years in San Francisco, seemingly has overcome the arm problems that hindered him early in the season and periodically through his career. Since coming off the disabled list June 6, Swift is 5-1, the only blip a 2-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

While the fans are starting to get their first taste of a pennant race, Baylor is trying to keep his players on an even keel. His team is improved from last year, when the Rockies were within four games of .500 when Andres Galarraga got hurt (they went 3-10 without him to finish the strike-shortened season 53-64).

"Last year at times, we were not consistent enough to do the job," said Baylor, 46, who credits his first big-league manager, Earl Weaver, as well as former Orioles teammate Frank Robinson, with shaping much of his philosophy. "We'd play four or five games one way and then play four or five games the other way. We still have a ways to go."

How far?

"When these guys start believing they can beat Atlanta, the fans and players will know this team has arrived," Baylor said.

ON THE FAST ROAD

In only their third season, the Colorado Rockies are leading the NL West. Of the 12 expansion teams added since 1961, the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals won division titles the fastest, capturing crowns in their eighth seasons.

Team, First year -- Washington Senators, 1961

W-L -- 61-100

Pos. -- 9th of 10

GB -- 47 1/2

First division title -- Never

Team, First year -- Los Angeles Angels, 1961

W-L -- 70-91

Pos. -- 8th of 10

GB -- 38 1/2

First division title -- 1979

Team, First year -- New York Mets, 1962

W-L -- 40-120

Pos. -- 10th of 10

GB -- 60 1/2

First division title -- 1969

Team, First year -- Houston Colt .45s, 1962

W-L -- 64-96

Pos. -- 8th of 10

GB -- 36

First division title -- 1980

Team, First year -- Montreal Expos, 1969

W-L -- 52-110

Pos. -- 6th of 6

GB -- 48

First division title -- 1981-x

Team, First year -- San Diego Padres, 1969

W-L -- 52-110

Pos. -- 6th of 6

GB -- 41

First division title -- 1984

Team, First year -- Kansas City Royals, 1969

W-L -- 69-93

Pos. -- 4th of 6

GB -- 28

First division title -- 1976

Team, First year -- Seattle Pilots, 1969

W-L -- 64-98

Pos. -- 6th of 6

GB -- 33

First division title -- 1981-y

Team, First year -- Toronto Blue Jays, 1977

W-L -- 54-107

Pos. -- 7th of 7

GB -- 45 1/2

First division title -- 1985

Team, First year -- Seattle Mariners, 1977

W-L -- 64-98

Pos. -- 6th of 7

GB -- 38

First division title -- Never

Team, First year -- Colorado Rockies, 1993

W-L -- 67-95

Pos. -- 6th of 7

GB -- 37

First division title -- Never

Team, First year -- Florida Marlins, 1993

W-L -- 64-98

Pos. -- 6th of 7

GB -- 33

First division title -- Never

x-second-half title in strike season

y-second-half title in strike season as Milwaukee Brewers

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