You bat in a lineup surrounded by three hitters who have already
crushed 55 home runs, giving you the kind of protection that is
the envy of federal witnesses. You relax before games by
sprawling on an oversized green leather sectional sofa, your
feet propped on a retractable footrest while you watch
SportsCenter on a big-screen TV. You have not one, but two
lockers spacious enough to rent as apartments for a grand a
month, were they in Manhattan. Right now they are so crammed
with fan mail, plaques, pictures and assorted other trappings
that you have determined it will take two days to clean them.
You are so loved by the fans, in fact, that at the start of
every game they greet you with high fives as you run to your
position in rightfield. And in the top of the ninth inning,
whether winning or losing, you always throw them a baseball, an
event that sends thousands of hopeful people squealing and has
the delightful kitschiness of a lounge singer tossing his room
key into the crowd after his encore.
You are Larry Walker, the 28-year-old star of the Colorado
Rockies, and you play in front of a full house every night at
home, have $22.5 million coming to you over four years and are
hitting more home runs than you've ever hit in your life. And if
that isn't enough, your team is in first place. Impossible?
It seems that way only because the Rockies did not even exist
three years ago. Their pitching staff is so bad that when a
rookie actually lasted into the seventh inning recently, it was
page one news in the local paper. And the Rockies are baseball's
most agoraphobic team, with a 28-15 record at their dazzling new
home, Coors Field, but a 17-20 mark on the road. And still,
there was Colorado, five games up on the Los Angeles Dodgers at
week's end and sporting the only winning record in the National
League West. Believe it or not, the Rockies' front-office staff
met last week to begin making plans for the postseason.
For Walker, who last year toiled for the attendance-poor
Montreal Expos, this has been nearly too good to be true. Walker
is so grateful, he has become almost a branch office of the
Denver Chamber of Commerce. "Did you know there are 42 miles of
cable under the field to keep it always at least 58 degrees?"
he asks a visitor to Coors. "It's a treat to play here. That's
why you see people getting here at 10 o'clock in the morning for
a seven o'clock night game."
About the worst thing Vancouver native Walker has to endure is
his teammates' razzing about his Canadian accent, especially the
way he says "oowt" for the opposite of in. But he has come to
like even the ribbing so much that he has turned it into his
rallying cry, writing get on his lefthanded batting gloves and
out on his righthanded ones. Sometimes even the baseball will,
as he says, get oowt. At week's end he had hit 22 home runs,
more than anybody else in the league and one fewer than his best
for an entire season.
"I've got a great ball club to play on and 50,000 people to play
in front of,'' Walker says. "I played in Montreal, so this is
definitely not something I'm used to. Plus, the ball does travel
better here. There's no better place to play. We don't ever want
to leave for a road trip, especially Dante.''
That would be Dante Bichette, who has hit all 17 of his home
runs this season at Coors Field. "It's a fluke thing," Bichette
says. "I've hit for a good average on the road [.293], but for
some reason I don't hit for power. When I get home, I go for
home runs. You've got those 50,000 people screaming, and I know
what they want. Hey, this team was built for this park."
Indeed, the Rockies have bludgeoned 78 dingers in 43 games at
Coors Field, which even in a strike-shortened, 144-game season
puts them on pace to equal the league record for home field
homers, set by the 1947 New York Giants (131). They have hit 75
points higher at home (.317 to .242) than on the road, homered
more than twice as frequently (every 19 at bats as opposed to
every 43) and scored almost twice as many runs (6.7 per game
compared with 3.7).
Third baseman Vinny Castilla, who had 12 career home runs in 488
at bats before this year, has cranked out 14 at Coors Field
alone this season, including two in a 5-4 victory over the New
York Mets last Saturday night and another in the Rockies' 8-5
win on Sunday. (He has six more at or near sea level.) Castilla,
who is batting .391 at home and .248 on the road, also scored
the deciding run in the eighth inning Saturday night on a single
by the Rockie second baseman with the horror-movie-twin-bill
name, Jason Bates.
Says manager Don Baylor, "We've had a comfort level at home ever
since Opening Day. Not playing well on the road has become a
mental thing for some guys, like Dante. I think they're aware of
it, and that's why we have some of the numbers we have on the
road. It should be relaxing to play on the road, but it hasn't
Relaxing? Not in New York, where two weeks ago Colorado lost
three out of four to start the season's second half. Pitcher
Mike Munoz was awakened one day by a telephone call from someone
repeatedly saying only, "Petey? Petey?'' He later figured the
caller was looking for Pedro Munoz of the Minnesota Twins, who
were staying at the same hotel as the Rockies. Castilla didn't
enjoy his time in the Big Apple either--"Too dirty and too
dangerous," he said--while coming away with a bagel in eight New
York at bats.
No wonder the Rockies were eager to come home last week to face
the Philadelphia Phillies and the Mets. Colorado took three from
the Phils in a four-game series that featured three home-cooked
Bichette blasts, including one that prompted Phillie manager Jim
Fregosi to scoff, "It was a Denver, Colorado, home run."
"I get tired of hearing managers rip this ballpark, the thin air
and all that," says Walker. "Their guys have the same damn
thing. It may help our individual numbers over the course of the
season because we play here more often, but the conditions are
the same for both sides. So go get yourself some weightlifters
and big guys like we have."
The Rockies are so strong that they lose an average of 11 dozen
baseballs a day in batting practice. "On Sunday afternoons when
it's warm, we'll go through 18 dozen," says bullpen catcher Todd
Maulding. Most of them are right out of the box: Starters hit
new balls, reserves hit two-day-old balls and pitchers hit
three-day-old balls. What they need are range balls.
Walker, Castilla, Bichette and first baseman Andres Galarraga,
who has 19 home runs, give Colorado an outside shot at becoming
only the second team in history with four 30-home-run players.
(They would join the 1977 Dodger quartet of Ron Cey, Steve
Garvey, Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker.)
That kind of offensive support would seem to provide a generous
welcome wagon for a rookie pitcher like Bryan Rekar, a
23-year-old righthander who beat Philadelphia 5-3 in his major
league debut last week. Then again, when Rekar asked Walker how
to get from the clubhouse to the field, he was instructed, "Take
a left and then the second door on your right." He did as he was
told and ended up in the manager's office. And there was Walker,
laughing when he saw Rekar back in the clubhouse a minute later
still trying to find his way out.
Rekar is the kind of guy who is constantly nagged by his mother
to clean up his room. His parents think he looks like Bart
Simpson. His teammates call him Ralphie, after the goofy
character in the movie A Christmas Story. Rekar used to inscribe
the names of his friends, family and favorite movies on the
underside of his cap so that when he found himself in a jam, he
could remove his cap and calm himself by reading. "I don't do
that anymore," he says. "I've matured."
Not so much, though, that the bouncers at Denver's Blake Street
bars don't check his ID. "They see my name and go, 'Oh, good
game, kid,'" he says. Rekar wound up on the front of the Rocky
Mountain News (DAZZLING DEBUT FOR ROOKIE ROCKIE) for lasting
6-1/3 innings against Philadelphia.
Of course, no one seemed to notice that it happened to be yet
another incomplete game by a Colorado starter. No news there.
Only the day before, without fanfare, the Rockies had broken the
National League single-season record of 74 straight incomplete
games set by the 1977 Padres, a team that lost 93 games. Barring
some unforeseen event--a typhoon, a state of emergency or an
honest-to-goodness well-pitched game--the Rockies this month will
break the single-season major league record of 103 consecutive
games without a complete game, set by the '93 Twins, who lost 91
At week's end it had been 380 days and 110 games since a
Colorado starter had finished what he started. Rockie starters
had lasted an average of only 5-1/3 innings, leaving their
bullpen as the most overworked relief corps in baseball. Both
Munoz, who has worked a league-high 44 games, and Curtis
Leskanic, who has thrown 59-1/3 innings in 42 appearances,
complained of arm fatigue after weekend outings against New
York. "Everyone's tired," Leskanic says, "but we want to win it,
so you do it. We'll do it for as long as it takes."
Colorado has the worst ERA in the league (4.79 through Sunday),
excepting only the San Francisco Giants. "Bill Swift and Marvin
Freeman are the two keys for us in the second half," Baylor says
of his top two starters. The 33-year-old Swift, whose record at
week's end was 6-2, has pitched well lately-he had a club-record
five-game winning streak--but his history of arm trouble dictates
that he should be used judiciously. The 32-year-old Freeman, 3-6
through Sunday, has never pitched more than 113 innings in a
season or completed any of his 51 career starts. He left his
start Saturday with a strained muscle in his left side.
But baseball in 1995 is a forgiving sport. At week's end only 10
of the 28 clubs had winning records. It is in this new world
order that Colorado, even with its woeful pitching and troubles
on the road, can be a first-place team with a healthy lead and
just 64 games to play. Can there be a Coors Oktoberfest with
such an obviously flawed team?
"It's tough, but it can be done," says shortstop Walt Weiss.
"The '87 Twins did it."
Like Colorado, those Twins had weak pitching (they had a 4.63
ERA, 10th worst in the American League) and struggled on the
road (29-52, the worst road record ever for a division champ).
They were outscored on the season and won only seven
regular-season games on the road after the All-Star break. But
just as Colorado is doing, Minnesota found magic in a home
ballpark that was then the newest in baseball. The Twins won a
world championship while winning all four World Series games at
the Metrodome, with Baylor serving as designated hitter and Bob
Gebhard, now the Rockie general manager, as director of personnel.
"I remember thinking we just wanted to play .500 ball that
year," Gebhard says. "What's happened so far this year is a
little beyond our expectations. Who could have expected this?"
Well, maybe Walker did when he came to Denver back in April to
sign his new contract and people stopped him on the street to
wish him well. Or maybe it was an omen on Opening Night, when
Bichette hit one out in the bottom of the 14th to beat the Mets.
Or maybe the sign came under the Coors lights last Saturday, the
team's 21st straight sellout and 10th victory in its last at
bat, when Castilla scored to again beat New York.
The three-year-old Rockies are the team to beat. Come on.
Impossible. Get out.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Walloping Walker has gotten off to a Rockie start, meaning he's on pace for a career year in homers. [Larry Walker batting]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER On the bases or in the field, the spirited Bates (above) and Weiss aren't afraid to get down and dirty. [Jason Bates sliding head-first into base]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO [see caption above--Walt Weiss lunging on the infield dirt to make play]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO With 19 dingers already, Galarraga is one of four Colorado sluggers rocking the ball at a 40-homer clip. [Andres Galarraga batting]