Denver Forgives Rockies' Start

A last-place team has droves of eager fans

THE sky is a brilliant azure after the benevolent afternoon rain shower. The last-place Colorado Rockies are about to play the first-place Philadelphia Phillies in Mile High Stadium, and local fans are wildly merry with anticipation: The majors have come to Denver and Denver is so grateful that it keeps filling the stadium with record numbers.

The Rockies lost, 15-9 - no surprise. Of 53 games, they have lost 38 as of June 2. No other team in the majors has lost so many. They make terrible mistakes. They are short on pitching talent. It doesn't seem to matter. Denver is in love. It forgives every mistake almost instantly. There's so much excitement, so much jolly, skeptical camaraderie in the stands, you'd think everyone was a proud parent who just wanted to see the kids play, no matter how badly.

Already, Mile High has racked up 1.5 million paying attendees. Local newspapers are as ecstatic as the fans and literally hundreds of stories have been written since the season opened in April. Many of these reports have been critical, naturally, but critical reviews hardly dampen the enthusiasm of fans or newspapers.

"They have succeeded at the box office beyond their wildest expectations," says Rocky Mountain News columnist and sports fan Mark Wolf. "Nobody expected these continuing crowds of 60,000 to 48,000 on a weekday.... People seem to be supporting them way out of proportion to their performance on the field. They are the worst team in baseball by far. Yet they are drawing fans at a record pace - a pace to break the all-time attendance records."

This first season, fans are coming out to witness the beginnings of major league ball in Denver, Mr. Wolf says. If the home team doesn't play particularly well, that's OK: The fans are getting a chance to see the games and players they've never seen before. Chance to see other teams

"The fans love it whether the Rockies win or lose," says Tony Garva, a star pitcher for South High School here. "It's just having the team here in Colorado and being able to go to a major league game. I think the fans go more to see the other teams...."

"I think it's surprising even to the Rockies how big the crowd is," says sports fan Bob Denerstein. "I think people have the sense that they are witnessing something historic.

"I've been to more baseball games this season than in any season growing up in New York, where there was plenty of major league baseball. At the most, I would have seen 20 games in a season. I've already seen that many."

Denerstein finds Denver fans incomprehensibly polite. A Rockies player could make a ferocious error in the field and then come up to bat and be greeted by polite applause. In other towns, fans would be calling for him to be run out of town on a rail.

"It's as if the gods looked down on Denver and bestowed this team on us," Denerstein says. "I mean, that's how people seem to respond to it emotionally. And if one were to say something too critical, the team might be swept away, and 50,000 people sitting in Mile High Stadium would wonder, `Where did we go wrong?' " Team problems obvious

So Denver is forgiving, though everyone knows what the problems are: lousy pitching and a poor defense. The Rockies can hit - and at this high altitude, the ball goes farther, faster than it does at sea level - and they can run, bunt, and steal bases. But pitching and catching seem to be a bit out of their league, at least for now.

But then, nobody expects too much from an expansion team. After all, most of the players were cut loose from other teams because they weren't all that great. Still, the other expansion team, the Florida Marlins, are doing better and their fans are not nearly as supportive as Rockies' fans.

Its geographical isolation is part of what makes Denver what it is. The city is not very near anything else. If you go up the East or West Coast, says Denerstein, you trip over baseball teams. But Denver is in the middle of nowhere; there's not another large city for hundreds of miles. Having a major league team, Denerstein says, lessens that feeling of isolation - here's Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Philadelphia coming to Denver. Moreover, a new major league team helps define Denver as a nationally signi ficant city. Even the name Colorado Rockies is meant to have a regional impact. Tourists already have flocked to games, and the Rockies' overall economic impact on Denver this year is projected at $175 million.

"You know what the fun of it is?" Denerstein asks. "You do feel a sense of excitement.... You are participating in something novel and fresh - and also communal."

It's true. The atmosphere at the Phillies-Rockies game was a community atmosphere. There is a frenzy surrounding the pro-football Broncos that is absent here. Maybe it's because more people can afford to take their kids to a baseball game while relatively few can afford Broncos tickets: The best seat for a Rockies game is $14, but that same seat sells for $30 at a Broncos game.

The Rockies allow a wider range of patrons to enjoy that community spirit, to share in something that belongs to the whole town.

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