Colorado Rockies Thank 'The Best Fans in Baseball'

NO one had seen anything like it. Two hours after beating the San Francisco Giants 10-9 to clinch their first playoff appearance in only their third season of existence, the Colorado Rockies weren't just celebrating with each other, but with their fans.

Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Bret Saberhagen and others gathered on a balcony at Coors Field and autographed balls, gloves, their jerseys, undershirts, and shoes. Then they threw them 30 feet down to a throng of adoring fans.

Superstars and scrubs were laughing and playing with their fans. The setting sun lit the old bricks of lower downtown Denver and the new bricks of Coors Field in the same alpenglow usually reserved for the Rocky Mountains.

These Rockies were having so much fun they started throwing socks, belts, and pants. They were giving back to what each of them in turn called, ''the best fans in baseball.''

Walt Weiss, the Rockies' sterling shortstop, has won a world championship with the Oakland A's and played in both leagues, but he's never seen anything like this.

''When an opposing player makes it to second base, they look around at this beautiful new stadium and 50,000 enthusiastic fans,'' Weiss says. '' 'Man,' they'll say to me, 'What a great place to play baseball.' ''

Jerry McMorris, the president and CEO of the Rockies, credits the fans with the Rockies rapid rise to success. ''We had people waiting 30 years for baseball to come to Denver,'' McMorris says. ''So they were ready for major-league baseball when they finally got it.''

The first official major-league game ever played between Kansas City, Mo., and the coast was on April 9, 1993. Eric Young was the first Rockies player to bat in a home game, and the crowd of 80,227 cheered wildly as he walked to the plate. Young hit a home run - only the second of his career - and Mile High stadium literally shook.

The Rockies had typical expansion team blues their first year, when their goal was not to lose 100 games. The gap in right center was 430 feet, and balls hit two years ago might still be rolling there. The left-field fence was only 333 feet away, and Atlanta's Sid Bream once hit a grand-slam home run on what looked like a checked swing.

The Rockies' pitching was the worst in baseball. When Rockies Manager Don Baylor complained about the condition of the city-owned field, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb shot back that the field wasn't walking batters with the bases loaded. Baylor never complained again.

The most impressive record that year was how many fans came to watch the Rockies play. They set the all-time attendance record, drawing 4,483,350 fans, an average of more than 55,000 per game.

Last year they averaged 58,598 a game before the strike hit.

The Rockies used the income from all those tickets to sign free agent Billy Swift and Bret Saberhagen, and - perhaps most notably - right-fielder Larry Walker. Walker hit .306 with 36 home runs and 101 runs batted in this year. Those statistics would lead most teams, especially in this strike-shortened year, when they played 144 instead of the usual 162 games.

But Vinny Castilla replaced Charlie Hayes at third base and in his first full season hit .309 with 32 home runs and 90 runs batted in.

Andres Galarraga had another great year, with 31 home runs and 106 RBIs. But the most impressive offensive player in the league was Dante Bichette, who hit .340 with 40 home runs and 128 RBIs, making the Rockies the only team in addition to the 1977 Dodgers to have four players hit 30 or more home runs in one season.

HIS teammates think Bichette should be the league's Most Valuable Player, but are concerned that he won't because of prejudice against the Rockies' offensive explosiveness. The ball is thought to carry anywhere from 9 to 11 percent farther at Denver's mile-high altitude. Even though Coors Field has almost the deepest dimensions of any major- league ballpark, many say that doesn't compensate for the way the ball carries.

''You still have to hit the ball,'' Galarraga says, ''And nobody's hit it better than Dante.'' While it's true the majority of his hits, home runs, and RBIs have come at home, Bichette says his special relationship with the 50,000 fans who have come to make each of the last 51 consecutive games a sell-out is an even bigger factor.

''They get me pumped up,'' Bichette says.

In the Rockies' inaugural game in Coors Field last April, the New York Mets went ahead by one run in the ninth, 13th, and 14th innings. The Rockies matched them with single runs in the ninth and 13th, and then Bichette hit a monstrous three-run homer to win the game in the bottom of the 14th. The tone for the year was set.

The Rockies are a baseball purist's worst nightmare. A pitching duel at Coors Field means both teams are kept out of double digits. Not only do baseballs travel farther than many commuter flights here, but pitchers insist their breaking balls don't break as sharply, giving an even greater advantage to hitters.

The Rockies battled the Dodgers all year for the division lead in a division with only four teams. When they lost that race Saturday, they were still able to make the playoffs as a wild-card team on Sunday.

Today and tomorrow the Rockies play the Atlanta Braves in Coors Field. The Braves bring a 90-54 record and the best starting pitching staff in the National League to the five-game series, while the Rockies have a 77-67 record and beleaguered and injured starting pitchers.

Purists say that good pitching beats good hitting, but if they try saying that at Coors Field, they'll likely not be heard over the roar of the crowd.

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