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In April 1994, the Colorado Rockies unveiled their team mascot -- appropriately named Dinger, after the most prominent characteristic of the mile-high franchise. The Rockies have always been built to bury their opponents with power and take advantage of the Colorado's thin air; as a result, the team's short history is replete with awesome offensive displays and battle-scarred pitchers.
The single factor most responsible for the power surge in Colorado is the extreme altitude of Coors Field and its predecessor, Mile High Stadium. (It certainly isn't due to any stability in the coaching, since the Rockies went through five hitting coaches in their first five years.) The very thin air in Denver (5,280 feet above sea level) affects the game in two ways: batted balls travel further, and curveballs tend to flatten out. This results in more hittable pitches, more double-digit scores, and more long days for pitchers.
The ripple effect of this phenomenon is profound. The team has so far done worse on the road, since the hitters cannot sustain the level of high-octane performance away from Denver. (A notable exception was Larry Walker's 1997 season, when his home/away splits were fairly even. He actually showed more power away from Coors Field, which makes his MVP campaign all the more remarkable.)
Twenty-one pitchers and twenty-one position players started the 1993 season as Rockies. Only thirteen of those position players were still around to see Coors Field open in 1995, while only six pitchers lasted as long as two seasons, presumably unable to cope with Denver's extreme pitching conditions. The Rockies' early frustration with the pitching staff was evident; ten of the aforementioned 21 hurlers started five or more games that first year, and the team led the league in relievers' innings pitched for its first three years.
It is no surprise that of the five pitchers who lasted in Colorado from 1993 through 1997, none of them were full-time starters: Curt Leskanic, Steve Reed, Mike Munoz, Darren Holmes, and Bruce Ruffin. (Kevin Ritz, one of the three expansion draft picks still with the team, missed all of 1993 with an injury.) The Rockies' unstable pitching has led them to use five of their last six first round draft picks on pitchers and prompted the team to invest heavily in imports such as Pedro Astacio and Darryl Kile.
The Rockies' history can be traced back to August 1985, when baseball's new Basic Agreement allowed the National League to expand by two teams, eventually named the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins in July 1991. A hint of things to come was provided in the Rockies' first minor league game on June 16, 1992; losing 4-1 to the Boise Hawks in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Bend Rockies stormed back to win 6-4 on the strength of Will Scalzitti's dramatic grand slam.
The team began to materialize in late 1992. In October, former AL MVP Don Baylor was appointed the Rockies' first manager and in November the team signed slugger Andres Galarraga, their first major league free agent. One day after signing the veteran first baseman, Colorado added 36 players through the expansion draft and two subsequent trades. David Nied -- the Rockies' first pick from Atlanta and the first selection overall -- was a highly touted prospect, but although he won the Rockies' spring training debut in March 1993 and had the distinction of authoring the first franchise shutouts (team and complete game) in 1994, he succumbed to injuries early in his career.
Colorado was shut out by Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets in their first-ever regular-season contest on April 5, 1993 at Shea Stadium, but Rockies fans were treated to a win in the first home game four days later. A crowd of 80,227 saw the Rockies rout the Montreal Expos 11-4 at Mile-High Stadium. Bryn Smith got the first franchise win with seven scoreless innings against his former team, and Eric Young hit the first franchise homer leading off the bottom of the first inning. (Ironically, Young would hit only two more homers that year, both in the last home game of the season.)
As is customary for expansion teams, the Rockies suffered a long losing streak, dropping 13 straight games from July 25 to August 8. They immediately followed that slump, however, with the third-best record in the league over the last 52 games (31-21). That stretch helped them set a record for expansion team wins (67), escaping the NL West basement in the process.
As the Rockies' historic inaugural year came to a close, Galarraga had emerged as the team's first franchise player. He resuscitated his career by batting a league-leading .370, striking only 73 times while piling up 35 doubles, 22 homers, and 98 RBI. By winning the NL batting title, he became the first expansion team player -- as well as the first Venezuelan -- to accomplish the feat.
Even more impressive, however, were the fans who flocked to Mile-High in record-breaking numbers. In addition to the crowd at the first Rockies home game, the club set total attendance records of fewest home games to reach one million (17 games), two million (36 games), and three million (53 games); all three standards were previously held by the Toronto Blue Jays at SkyDome the previous season. The four millionth fan arrived at the 71st home game on September 17, and the final tally of 4,483,350 became the highest total season attendance in all of sports history. Three more attendance records were set the following season: most fans over a three-game series (212,009, vs. San Francisco in June), most fans over a four-game series (259,113, vs. St. Louis in July), and fewest games to reach three million fans (52 home games, August 7, five days before the season-ending strike).
1995 was a year of several firsts. On April 26, the Rockies defeated the Mets 11-9 in the first game at Coors Field, thanks to Dante Bichette's dramatic 3-run homer in the 14th inning. Three days later, Colorado stood atop the NL West for the first time ever after downing the Astros. More than one player (OF Bichette and 3B Vinny Castilla) represented the team at the All-Star Game for the first time, with Castilla becoming the first Colorado starter in the Mid-Summer Classic. (Not voted in, Castilla got the call as a result of an injury to Matt Williams.)
That season saw some key players enjoying the altitude for the first time. Castilla hit .309 and slugged 32 homers, and 90 RBIs. Free-agent acquisition Larry Walker had 36 homers, 101 RBIs and a .306 batting average. Bichette scored 102 runs, hit .340 with 38 doubles, and led the league with 40 homers, 128 RBI and 359 total bases; for his efforts, he finished runner-up to NL MVP honors. Galarraga drove in over 100 runs for the first time as well. The first baseman also clouted 31 homers, three of which came in consecutive innings on June 25. He became only the fourth player in history to accomplish the feat.
All of these offensive achievements cumulated in the team's first postseason berth, clinched by beating the Giants 10-9 on October 1 to take the NL wild card. Though they fell to Atlanta three games to one in the first round of the playoffs, the year ended on a positive note when Don Baylor was named the NL Manager of the Year in November. He had led the youngest-ever playoff participant to a 77-67 record and a second-place finish in the NL West.
The team's offense achieved new heights in 1996, as exemplified in a four-game series against the Dodgers. Including the 4-hour, 20-minute series finale (won by Colorado, 16-15), the two teams scored 85 runs, blasted 25 homers, and had 122 hits in the four-day offensive smorgasbord. Even though Walker played only 83 games due to injury, the rest of the team more than made up for his absence. 2B Eric Young, after leading the NL in triples the year before, led the league with 53 stolen bases. Bichette hit .313 with 31 homers and set career highs in steals (31), RBIs (141), and runs (114). In addition, he became the first Rockie to be voted in as a starter in the All-Star Game.
Besides notching career highs in RBI and runs, Galarraga, Castilla, and Burks also hit at least 40 homers each. Burks had a career year: .344 batting average, 142 runs (tops in the NL), 211 hits (including 40 homers) as well as 128 RBIs and 32 stolen bases. He thus became only the second player in history (after Hank Aaron in 1963) with 40 homers, 30 steals, and 200 hits in the same season, and placed third in the NL MVP balloting.
On consecutive days in September, Bichette and Burks became the second set of teammates with 30/30 seasons, following Howard Johnson and Darryl Strawberry of the 1987 Mets. Burks' steal of second base on September 28 made the Rockies the first team to tally 200 homers and 200 steals in the same season. The Rockies hit 149 round-trippers (1.8 per game) and scored 658 runs (8.1 per game) at Coors Field, both records for home teams. Almost unbelievable against this backdrop was that two pitchers threw no-hitters against the Rockies in 1996: Al Leiter on May 11 in Florida, and Hideo Nomo of the visiting Dodgers on September 17.
Burks, Bichette, Galarraga and Castilla all enjoyed big seasons again the following year, as the team hit a NL-record 239 homers, but 1997 was the year of Larry Walker. After suffering through an injury-plagued 1996, Walker came back with a vengeance in 1997. Though he got laughs for his flippant at-bat against Randy Johnson in the All-Star Game, he was deadly serious in the regular season, ranking in the league's top three in at least eight offensive categories at year's end. In October, he won the Rockies' first Gold Glove, and on November 13, he became the first native Canadian to win the National League's Most Valuable Player award.
Neither Walker nor the Rockies, however, matched their previous year's success in 1998, and the Rockies slipped to fourth place. After the season, Baylor -- to that point, the only manager in club history -- was let go, with former Pirates and Marlins manager Jim Leyland taking his place in the Colorado dugout. Leyland retired after a disappointing season in 1999, leaving Buddy Bell to take the reins while the club overhauled their roster for the 2000 season. (AT)