Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Coors Field
HOME TEAM: Colorado Rockies
VISITED: August 17. 1995
CHRONOLOGY: 14th of 34
RANKING: 10th of 34
I’m flying high over Denver, Colorado, with America’s hottest team and we’re all about to soar…
Now we’re talking! Coors Field — Top 10, baby! Excitement! Excitement not just that we’ve reached rarefied air in our countdown (figuratively and literally), but we are at the center of the action! It’s the summer of 1995, and no place in baseball is more happening than LoDo.
LoDo, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is Lower Downtown Denver, perfectly chosen spot for Coors Field, the National League’s first legitimately new ballpark since 1977, maybe since 1962. I say “legitimately” in deference to the inauguration of two expansion teams in 1993 and the introduction to the senior circuit of two retrofitted football stadia to our National pastime, absurdly large Mile High Stadium and simply absurd Joe Robbie Stadium (a name with the staying power of a minute steak).
Mile High played a huge role in the development of the Rockies their two seasons, allowing the club to introduce itself to the region with authority. The Rockies drew 4,483,350 fans in 1993, a record that will absolutely never be broken. If novelty and size didn’t come with expiration dates, the Rockies might have never wanted to leave the Broncos’ old paddock. But that arrangement was just temporary. Baseball was coming to Denver and it was going to have a ballpark to make it feel at home.
And boy did it. Coors Field felt perfect on contact. The National League needed Coors Field. We were down 0-3 in the ballpark department by the mid-’90s, getting our ass kicked in the architectural All-Star Game. The American League had Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, the Ballpark in Arlington.
The National League had like six variations of Veterans Stadium.
If you skip back over where the Rockies squatted (and the Marlins continue to squat until 2012), the last new place any N.L. team opened was frigging Olympic Stadium. Before that, the spate of Vets. Before that, Shea, and before that, Dodger Stadium, the only thing in the league besides Wrigley actually built for baseball.
Ohmigod how we needed Coors Field. Denver needed it, too. My first trip there was in 1990, pre-Rockies. You know what the locals were campaigning for? Baseball! They wanted it. I can still see the t-shirt I brought home for a friend: If We Build It, Major League Baseball Will Come. “It” was a beautifully illustrated classic ballpark. That t-shirt combined a clumsy slogan and a busy design, but I loved darling sentiment. As extra large as the Broncos were out there, they wanted more than football.
And they got it. The Rockies came to town in the first National League expansion since 1969, drawing those unbelievable crowds (1993 Home Opener: 80,227) in unbelievably gruesome weather, but the Coloradoans didn’t care. First a ballclub. Then a field to match their dreams. They couldn’t and wouldn’t stay away.
Most major league cities weren’t enamored of their home team when the 1995 season commenced given that it was opening late because of the longest strike in the sport’s history. The pox on both their houses sentiment ran strong. Me, I was easy — the second replacement baseball was replaced by the real thing, I conjured short-term memory loss regarding labor vs. management and salivated for the Mets’ return as if conditioned by Doc Pavlov himself. Rockies fans were even easier. They waited two years for Coors Field to open, then another three weeks while a truncated Spring Training scrambled to completion and then blew off the aftereffects of a snowstorm to fill more than 47,000 seats in LoDo. The Rockies did not let their loving patrons down, winning a dramatic Opening Night in 14 innings, 11-9
Which sucked from our perspective, since the Mets were the opposition that long, cold evening, but otherwise it was hard not to get caught up in what was going on in LoDo. The Rockies brought bricks to the National League for the first time in the age of concrete. They strove to evoke Ebbets Field (but weren’t nuts about it like some owners I could mention). And they put their new ballpark to great use, racing out to a 7-1 start and, for a while, putting a stranglehold on first place — all in their third year.
These were the days of the Blake Street Bombers, when everybody admired the ballpark and marveled at the thin air and asked no questions about whether anything else was fueling that fusillade of home runs. It was simply a great if slightly aberrational story: Dante Bichette (who beat us in the opener; bastard), Larry Walker, Vinny Castilla and Andres Galarraga were in the midst of combining for 139 home runs. Altogether, the Rockies hit .282 in 1995, best in the league. Altogether, the Rockies pitched to a 4.97 ERA, worst in the league. Yet unfathomable hitting was making up for wretched pitching. The Rockies were hot — the hottest thing baseball had to offer.
In the middle of August, I donned my oven mitts and reached in to grab a slice for myself.
Synergy was the buzzword of that trip. The name of the ballpark: Coors Field. The locally based company that bought the naming rights: Coors Brewing. Product marketed by company: beer. Industry I covered like a tarpaulin in 1995: beverages.
You could see it like you could see the mountains all around you in Colorado. This was meant to be, me and Coors Field in its rookie year. It was destiny and a smart PR guy who put us together. What, you think they’d want to schedule a press visit to their brewery when the Rockies were out of town? You think I would go for that?
The beauty part was the Coors-Rockies relationship went beyond slapping a name atop the LoDo landmark. Coors Field was so of the moment that it came with its own microbrewery, SandLot Brewery. It was truly one of the great ideas of all-time, doubling as a ballpark attraction for the team and a working laboratory for the company (it’s where the Blue Moon brand was created). My gosh, just thinking of the name SandLot puts me back there, and I mean back there, because I got the insider’s tour: where they made the beer, how they made the beer and, most importantly, what the beer tasted like as it made its way from tank to tap handle.
I believe the technical term for the taste was “perfect”. I’m not a beer guy, really. I wrote about it, but not with any great aficionadoness if that’s a word…and after a few samples at SandLot, you can bet it was. I don’t know if it was simple thirst or the charge I got from being on the inside sipping from what the brewmasters call “the pigtail” after getting to enjoy the outside of Coors Field and witnessing LoDo come to life for a Rockies game, but I was so into that beer. Neither at a baseball game nor in a business situation had I ever gotten tipsy before. But here, at both, I definitely was.
And I didn’t mind.
After the finest and freshest beer I’ve ever savored — Squeeze Play Wheat, they called it — my handlers and I headed to our seats. What kind of seats do you suppose the folks from Coors rated at Coors Field? Damn good seats: eight rows behind the Rockies’ dugout. Pete Coors himself was four rows in front of us. Bret Saberhagen was four rows in front of him, leaning over the dugout railing and shooting the breeze with his new teammates. More center of the action stuff: Saberhagen was the big prize of the trading deadline, the kind of proven ace a serious contender reaches out to scoop up from some downtrodden team dying to shed payroll…which was us in 1995. We gave them Bret Saberhagen (for Juan Acevedo and the immortal Arnold Gooch). Saberhagen never much impressed me as a Met but seeing him as a Rockie, just eight rows away…wow!
That was probably the beer talking. But sobered up and settled in after a fashion, my wowness never dissipated as the night wore on. Coors Field felt as fresh as what SandLot was brewing. It was crisp and open and electric, like no place I’d been for baseball. The house was packed and engaged by its baseball team. Intelligently engaged. Three years in the bigs and these were major league fans. Not only did they cheer their Rockies as three-quarters of their Bombers lay waste to Cubs pitching, but they were savvy enough to scoreboard-watch. The Dodgers had edged ahead of the Rockies in the N.L. West, but they were losing in Cincinnati. When that game went final, a roar went forth that was as majestic as the Rocky Mountains.
Good idea building It. They came.
I could have fallen in serious like with the Rockies if I’d imbibed a little more. Rick Reilly had suggested (albeit fancifully) after the Opener that even a Mets fan just visiting Coors Field would be tempted to never leave the joint. I could see that. I wanted a piece of it to take home. I spent an inning in the team store picking out apparel and posters and postcards so I could remember Coors Field when I was back on Long Island wistfully remembering what it was like to be in the center of the action, caught up in a team that was instantly good, as opposed to the Mets who were relentlessly bad. And my hosts, who had probably treated a few guests to nights like these, presented me with parting gifts: a Rockies cap; a Coors Field baseball; an Inaugural Season beer glass with a Coors logo. I’m sure ethics would have told me to have graciously declined the goody bag. I’m sure I would have told ethics to have another Squeeze Play.
When my professional obligations were fulfilled the next day, I retired to my cozy room at the cozy hotel down the road from the brewery in Golden and watched the next Rockies game, which wasn’t going nearly as well for the home team as the one the night before. A brutal storm rolled through the area, causing a long rain delay at Coors Field. When play resumed, the park had lost most of its customers. One of the Rockie announcers hoped empty seats would never be so prevalent on any kind of regular basis. That, he said, would be a sad sight to behold.
The announcer’s fear eventually came to fruition. The 1995 Rockies rode their fab four sluggers to the Wild Card (they lost the division series to Atlanta, Bret Saberhagen getting clobbered in the finale), but they faded from contention immediately after that first magical season. Chronically piss-poor pitching, impossible altitude, diminished novelty…the Rockies crumbled into ordinariness almost immediately and Denver reverted to full-time football town for the next dozen years. Coors Field remained well-built, but fewer and fewer came. Across the National League, ballparks like it rose and nipped away at the uniqueness of it. Almost everybody has something like it now.
But Coors Field did it first, did it with style and showed me unprecedented hospitality in the process. I toast it still.