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

PEAK PRODUCTION

July 31, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

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)

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