There’s something weird all the professional sports teams that exist in Denver. Denver isn’t exactly an unpopular place, but its professional sports teams – save for the Broncos – are all relatively young. The NBA’s Nuggets were an ABA survivor with little to their name. The Avalanche were moved in from Quebec City in the mid-90’s. Then there are the Rockies, who started in 1993 and have little to note except a hell of a winning streak in 2007. It’s incredible that major professional sports all took so long to show up in the Mile High City; Denver had been a major city because of its role in the agricultural industry, but it seems like the country as a whole just didn’t realize it was there. Even the Broncos had to be created as an AFL team.
The Rockies are the youngest team in Denver if you don’t want to split the timeline of the Avalanche. (The Avs came along in 1995, but had lived in Quebec City since the 70’s.) Now to be fair, attempts at bringing pro sports to Denver start as far back as 1961, when William Shea announced that he was going to create the Continental League in Major League Baseball but failed to tell future Denver club owner Bob Howsam that he was bluffing just to get the National League back to New York City. Later, the Pittsburgh Pirates were said to be relocating to Denver. Then it was the Oakland Athletics. But it wasn’t until the late 80’s that a group of rich people called the Colorado Baseball Commission finally convinced the people of Denver that they needed to hike their taxes in order to pay for a stadium that would bring baseball to Denver. The was also an Advisory Committee, formed by the Governor of Colorado, which included local and regional companies like the Rocky Mountain News, KOA Radio, and the Phar-Mor drugstore chain. In 1990, MLB approved, and Denver got its team. The new team’s first pick in the Expansion Draft was pitcher David Nied, of the Atlanta Braves.
It was as early as 1992 that ownership issues threatened to move the team to Tampa. Phar-Mor was hit with an accounting and embezzlement scandal, and two of the owners were forced to sell their stakes in the team. For awhile, a credible buyer couldn’t be found, and it looked like the poor Rockies were going to be out the door before even taking the field for the first time. (This, kids, is why public money should NEVER be used to fund professional sports facilities.) Trucking company executive Jerry McMorris came along and saved the team, though, and the Rockies were able to start the 1993 MLB season right in Denver, just as promised. Their first game was against the New York Mets, and Nied was the starting pitcher. They lost 3-0. Their home opener happened four days later against the Montreal Expos. Not only did they win 11-4, but since the game was played at Mile High Stadium, it set a record for the largest crowd to ever see a Major League Baseball game. There were over 80,000 people at the stadium.
Being an expansion team, the Rockies struggled, and they didn’t post a winning record in a single month until September that year, when they won 17 games and made themselves a contender for the playoffs for about a second. Their 67 victories on the season was a record for a National League expansion team. The Rockies also set a record for home attendance at over four million, which may not ever be broken. Despite the nice start, the first time that Rockies had any sort of winning record whatsoever was at the start of the following season, when they started 6-5 after a victory over Montreal. Unfortunately, in the first years of the Colorado Rockies, that would prove to be the only time the team compiled any sort of record over .500. Every other day, they were either at .500 or below it.
Before 1995, the Rockies went out and grabbed Larry Walker. When the season started, Walker and his teammates Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, and Vinny Castilla formed the core of a dangerous hitting lineup that came to be known as the Blake Street Bombers. The four of them combined to smack 139 home runs; they all hit 30 or more. The Rockies’ relievers also went above and beyond; Darren Holmes, Curt Leskanic, Steve Reed, and Bruce Ruffin all had EPA’s of 3.4 and under, and the Rockies ran off to a 77-67 record in the strike season. That was good for second place, which in turn was good for the Wild Card spot in the playoffs! And THAT was more than good enough for the Rockies to get destroyed by the eventual World Series Champion Braves in the first round!
A season in which a team comes out of the blue like that, of course, comes with that terrible sports curse known as “expectations.” And like every other sports team that was ever afflicted with expectations after a weird one-off season, the Rockies spent the next season also getting afflicted with that other terrible sports curse, “bad luck.” Walker got hurt and only played in about half of the games that season. Ellis Burks picked up his slack and was even invited to the All-Star Game, and Burks and Bichette became the first pair of teammates since Darryl Strawberry and Howard Johnson of the 1987 Mets to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases. So with all this going for them, what hurt the Rockies? Their pitching receded. Starter Bill Swift, a big part of the previous years’ success, got hurt and only started three games. Meanwhile, the team pitching staff saw its ERA blow up to 5.60. The team eventually posted a record of 83-79, which was good enough for third.
When walker returned in 1997, he became the first player in Rockies history to be named MVP, sporting an incredible .366 batting average to go with 49 home runs and 130 RBI. The Blake Street Bombers hit the shit off every baseball that came sailing through the strike zone again, and the pitching receded again. That was the last time the Blake Street Bombers were there to provide fans with a shot of spectacle, because Galarraga left for the Braves as a free agent the next season. From there on out, the Rockies didn’t have a whole lot worth talking about, but the one thing they DID have was Todd Helton. Helton was originally drafted by the San Diego Padres in the second round of the 1992 Draft, but he opted to go to college. So after a few years at the University of Tennessee, the Rockies drafted him, this time in the first round, eighth overall, in 1995. Of course, he spent his years bumming around in the minors, but the Rockies finally called him up to The Show in 1997, and from there he was the one they should call Mr. Rocky. He went on to a 17-season career entirely for Colorado.
Good as Helton was, though, he wasn’t enough, and the Rockies continued to struggle. Pitcher Darryl Kile went 13-17. Kile, who was signed as a free agent from the Houston Astros, had gone 19-7 the year before and became another pitcher in a long line of free agent pitchers who seemed helpless in Denver’s thin Rocky Mountain air. At least they had manager Jim Leyland by 1999 to lead them back to contention and eventually to the promised land, right? Leyland had led the unexpected 1997 surge of the Florida Marlins to a World Series title, and the Marlins had started play the same year the Rockies did! Too bad they didn’t have anything close to the talent the 1997 Marlins were packing as well! Yeah, the Leland experiment was finished after the 1999 season, after the team finished 72-90, in last place, when he walked off. General manager Bob Gebhard also resigned that year, which was a brutal loss because he had been the only general manager the Rockies ever had at that point.
Buddy Bell became the next manager, and Dan O’Dowd became the new general manager. The first thing O’Dowd did was break up the Blake Street Bombers. Three of them were dealt in trades, and Walker was the only one left. Kile got traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite that, the team did improve – they finished with a winning record for the first time since 1997. Helton won the batting title, led the league in RBI, and hit 42 home runs. The pitching staff also got better, and the Rockies went 82-80. Pitchers signed through free agency continued to struggle; Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton were both signed to ultra-contracts because hey, numbers! They both ended up sucking. It wasn’t until the team drafted Jason Jennings in the first round of the 1999 Draft that a pitcher looked like it would pan out. Jennings was the Rookie of the Year in 2002. But guess what? That didn’t go great, either. Jennings became one of those promise-showing casualties. 2003 to 2005, he had losing records every season.
Walker spent a lot of 2004 on the DL, so the team had to play Matt Holliday. Since Walker had been with the team since the beginning, he was widely regarded as their best player, but by now he was also an injury-prone 37-year-old. So he was traded to the Cardinals, and that started a big overhaul of the team roster. Although the Rockies had set several attendance records, the people of Denver had gotten weary of losing by now, so attendance started to decline. That meant the team’s usual method of going out and spending the big bucks on the old vets wasn’t going to work anymore. Fortunately, O’Dowd had shaped up a farm system that was prepared to bring a score of talent up to the Show: Garrett Atkins. Brad Hawpe. Clint Barmes. JD Closser. Only two players on the entire roster were 30 or older. In 2006, the team ended up in fourth place, but it turned out to be one of those growing years. Holliday was an All-Star and Atkins hit .329 with 29 home runs. The pitching staff managed to reverse its usual course and had a year that was GOOD! It posted a team ERA of 4.66, which was the best in Rockies history. Jennings managed to deliver on his promise, while Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis also shined.
In 2007, the Los Angeles Dodgers led the AL West for most of the season while the Rockies played keep-up with them, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the San Diego Padres. Baseball season, however, is a long marathon, and so by August, something funny started to happen: The Dodgers began to struggle. The Rockies started to ebb and flow and win a long stream of games, and by September, the Dodgers had been knocked out of playoff contention by the Rockies. The Diamondbacks were still expected to take the division, though, with the Padres firmly in the Wild Card spot. And yes, the Diamondbacks did manage to win the division. The Rockies, though, shot up the standings with one of the great hot comebacks in baseball history. Trailing the Wild Card spot at the beginning of September by six games, they proceeded to storm the National League, going 20-6 and grabbing the Wild Card right out of San Diego’s scuzzy little hands. Going 90-73, they set a team-best record for wins and an MLB-best for fielding percentage in a single season.
In the playoffs, the Rockies managed to sweep the Philadelphia Phillies. What’s incredible about the sweep is that the Rockies had to win the first two games on the road, which meant fighting the vicious fans in Philadelphia. In the NLCS, the inevitable happened: The Rockies faced the Diamondbacks. The hottest team in the NL playing against the best team in the NL West didn’t have a whole lot of drama, though, because the Rockies swept this one too. And upon making their first World Series, the Rockies faced the Boston Red Sox, who were the pegged Team of Destiny for the whole season. This series, like the Rockies’ previous two playoff series, ended in a sweep! And it was the Rockies, who were some 20-1 in the games previous to the World Series, who were swept! This sweep was worse than a sweep, if that’s possible; the Rockies weren’t playing the baseball that had gotten them so far – they were on the short end of a wholesale beating. Part of it was just how powerful the Red Sox were that year. Part of it was the Rockies just plain choking.
The 2007 Rockies turned out to be a one-year-wonder team. After falling back to their traditional patsy role in 2008, manager Clint Hurdle was fired in 2009 during a lousy start to the season. Their new manager, Jim Tracy, got the Rockies back on track. Brad Hawpe and pitcher Jason Marquis were invited to the All-Star Game, and the Rockies pulled together for 92 victories, a Wild Card slot, and a divisionals loss to the Phillies.
An 83-79 season in 2010 started a stretch of not-good-not-bad years by the Rockies, which in turn fell into years of mediocrity. At least until this season, when the Rockies started strong and led the division until the Dodgers turned into the league-beaters. At least they’re doing well this year, though, and are in prime position to contend for the Wild Card spot. They do seem to have one of those mostly-down-except-when-they’re-up wild identities, though, at least on the baseball diamond. And I don’t mean that in the elevation way. This current season is almost definitely going to stay one of the up years, barring some sort of horrid, unprecedented collapse. For a good long part of the season, they looked almost like a surefire candidate to represent the NL in a possible World Series between them and the Houston Astros. Then the Dodgers sprang to life and are looking to set the all-time wins record.
Aside from Jackie Robinson and former team president Keli McGregor, the Rockies have one number honored: Todd Helton’s number 17. He deserves it too. He played 17 years in MLB, all for the Rockies, and was a huge part of the team through its best and worst. Five All-Star invitations, three Gold Gloves, four Silver Sluggers, a batting champion and RBI leader. He was a top candidate for an MVP Award for a few years, but never actually received it. The best player in the history of the team as voted on by fans, however, is Larry Walker, and there’s a powerful case for him as well. Like Helton, he played for 17 years, and ten of them were for Colorado after he got his start in Montreal. His most significant accomplishments were all for Colorado: An MVP Award, four of his five All-Star invitations, five of his seven Gold Gloves, two of his three Silver Sluggers, all three of his batting championships, and his home run leader one year were all with the Rockies.
Pitchers have seemed to have trouble playing for the Rockies, though, and one of the reasons for that probably has something to do with Denver’s famous elevation. The Mile High City isn’t called the Mile High City just because of all the hippies who are moving there these days. The team’s home stadium, Coors Field, is known as one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball, and that’s strictly because of how thin the air is in Denver. When the park was designed, everyone knew early on that a park in Denver was going to give up a lot of home runs, so they compensated by pushing the fences back. The Fences at Coors Field are unusually far from home plate, so the stadium has the largest outfield in Major League Baseball, but in spite of that, in a lot of year, it gave up more home runs than any other field in baseball. In fact, Coors Field gave up more doubles and triples than any other field as well. In addition, the thin air also means the ball doesn’t curve or slip or slide the way it’s able to in most other parks. The elevation has contributed to a few other events too. The coldest game ever played in MLB history was in Denver, in April 2013. It was 23 degrees, or six below if we’re using the Celsius scale. Only nine games played there have ever ended with a 1-0 score.
Being a young team, the Rockies are still pretty short on defining memories or traditions, but they did come up with a pretty innocuous tradition in 2012 that seems to have some staying power: Purple Mondays. It’s a simple concept with a plain execution, but like I said, the fans seem to like it because it gives the Rockies a signature. The team colors are purple, black, silver, and white. The color people associate with the Rockies in that bunch is, of course, the purple. So the team naturally decided that, when the baseball gods started handing out third jersey designations, there would be purple third jerseys. And the fans saw them, and they were good. So in 2012, the team decided that every Monday, the Rockies would take the field in their purple togs.
You have to look at that 2007 World Series run and wonder how much of a role the thin Denver air played in it. Other than that, the Rockies are one of those teams that people don’t seem to remember a whole lot of. But the thing is, they’re a pretty solid rooting interest. They have a fun park, and their location itself makes them stand out. Just don’t expect people to ogle and envy the Colorado Rockies’ accomplishments, and you’ll have a grand time cheering them on.
Location is distinctive; great team if you like offense in baseball; have a quirkiness about them and their fans which few teams can claim
Don’t expect big things from the pitchers; pitchers will probably bolt from Denver first chance they get; were once identified with a set of religious rules set by a manager
Should you be a fan?
If you dig the long ball, go for it.