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The New York Times

June 14, 2005

Rockies' Fans and Revenues Are Vanishing Into Thin Air

By JOE LAPOINTE

 

In his big office at Coors Field in Denver, General Manager Dan O'Dowd of the Colorado Rockies keeps a sheet of paper covered in colored lines, most of them disconnected, some almost straight, others quite curved, a seemingly abstract impression of - what?

 

"Coors Field," O'Dowd said. His son drew the picture two seasons ago at age 2. "I always leave that on my desk," O'Dowd said. "It reminds me of the reality of life."

 

Indeed, the current reality of the franchise is a picture difficult to discern. The Rockies have the worst record in the National League. The team is rebuilding with a roster that is baseball's youngest and one of its lowest paid.

 

The Rockies play in a charming stadium at high altitude, making it a funhouse for hitters and a house of horror for pitchers. Born in the 1993 expansion, the Rockies have had their initial romance with fans fade. Attendance has plummeted along with their winning percentage, revenues and franchise valuation.

 

The team's principal owner, Charles K. Monfort, made an analogy to a dot-com company after the burst of the speculative bubble. He said the financial difficulties were being fixed, but he added: "You're not going to make a lot of money in this game. You're not going to make any money, in fact, from what I can understand."

 

O'Dowd, speaking of the skills mixture on the roster, said, "Quite honestly, we're not sure which formula completely works here yet." With a chuckle, he added, "We finally hit rock bottom around here, or are in the process of it."

 

The Colorado pitching coach, Bob Apodaca, said the team needed durable, determined pitchers who were not worried about earned run averages and were not afraid of hitters making contact, guys who could bounce back from adversity.

 

The Rockies work in a place where breaking balls do not always break in the mile-high air, and where fly balls sometimes land over the fences or in front of, or in between, outfielders on baseball's largest lawn. Shawn Chacon, a veteran Rockies pitcher, was asked how to build a pitching staff there. "Get as much offense as you can," he said.

 

Discussing Denver's peculiar challenges, the team's president, Keli S. McGregor, said, "There's a lot of experienced baseball people who come here and scratch their heads and say, 'You know, I'm not really sure what I'd do.' "

 

Others speak more harshly. Bud Selig, the commissioner, recently told of a phone call from an owner whose team endured a run-filled visit to Coors. "He was outraged," Selig said. "He said: 'Any ball hit up in the air is gone. You can't allow that. It's making a mockery of the game.' " Selig said he told the owner, "Well, I can either blow Coors Field up or move the team."

 

It would seem hasty to destroy or vacate a 10-year-old stadium that was part of the retro era that blended modern convenience with old-fashioned architecture. Coors Field spurred a business boom in its downtown neighborhood in a city where football, basketball and hockey have thrived.

 

From some seats, fans can gaze at the sun setting over the Rocky Mountains. Inside the stadium, behind the outfield fences, are rock gardens, evergreen trees and water jets bubbling in a pond. They spurt high to celebrate the home team's home runs.

 

There are plenty of them, even though the foul lines stretch 347 feet in left field and 350 feet in right, and the fence is 415 feet away in center field and 390 and 375 feet in the power alleys. Baseballs have been stored in a humidor since 2002 to counteract the drying effect of Denver's low humidity. That has subdued hitting somewhat, but balls here still seem more alive.

 

The Elias Sports Bureau says Rockies games at Coors Field lead the major leagues in runs a game this season (11.88) and since the stadium opened in 1995 (13.30). Colorado home games also lead in home runs a game since 1995 (3.05) and are 11th this season at 2.24. And home runs tend to increase in the warmer months.

 

Games at Coors Field have been called arena baseball and compared to slow-pitch softball. Tony Gwynn, the former batting champion for San Diego, said batting here was like hitting golf balls on the moon.

 

Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals won a game at Coors on May 30 with a three-run home run off Jay Witasick by pulling a slider, low and away, over the left-field fence with an awkward swing that looked as if it were one-handed in his follow-through.

 

"Nasty pitch," said Pujols, who called the 5-4 victory "a weird game."

 

Chacon said: "That was probably the most surprising home run I've ever seen here. And I've seen a few, man. I've seen some real far ones. I've seen a couple broken-bat ones. But that one was just mind-boggling."

 

Two nights later, Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris won an 8-6 game despite giving up 10 hits and 5 earned runs in six innings. During a four-run Colorado fourth, Morris said, he was "just spinning cutters up there" because his pitches stopped breaking.

 

"I lasted long enough to get the win, which I'm almost embarrassed about," Morris said with a sheepish smile. "They say there is no such thing as a cheap win, but this is pretty close. I'm lucky. This place just messes with your mind."

 

And Morris visits only once this season. Jason Jennings, in his fifth season with the Rockies, went seven innings in a 2-1 victory, his 25th victory at Coors Field, more than any other pitcher. Only three games here, which all ended 2-0, have had fewer runs.

 

Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle said playing a 2-1 game here was like "eating spaghetti in a white shirt."

 

When asked if he liked pitching at Coors Field, Jennings blinked and replied: "I don't think anybody would tell you they like pitching here. But I embrace the challenge."

 

Is Coors more difficult on pitchers physically or psychologically? "Both," Jennings said.

 

Going into last night's games, Colorado's earned run average of 5.68 was tied for last with Tampa Bay among the 30 major league teams. It has never been better than 24th. That was in 1994, when there were 28 teams.

 

When Colorado made its only playoff appearance, as a wild-card team in the strike-shortened 1995 season, its E.R.A. was 4.97, the third worst in baseball. Dave Duncan, the Cardinals' pitching coach, said curveballs at Coors had a different role.

 

"You have to use it more as a chase pitch rather than a strike pitch," he said.

 

Could Duncan work here? "I don't think there is any circumstance in which I would feel comfortable as a pitching coach in this ballpark," he said. "It would challenge me beyond my ability to accept the challenge."

 

Some who have accepted the challenge were broken by it. Mike Hampton came to the Rockies as a free agent in 2001 and started 9-2. After that, he was 12-26 and was moved in a three-team trade via Florida to Atlanta. On a recent visit to Boston, Hampton said Coors Field was harder on pitchers than Fenway Park.

 

"The feel of the ball is different," he said, referring to Coors Field. "It is by far the toughest place to build a pitching staff."

 

Leo Mazzone, the Braves' pitching coach, said Hampton was in a state similar to shell shock when he left Colorado after two seasons and joined the Braves.

 

"He was trying to make the ball do way more than what it could do," Mazzone said. "That's what happens when you go to that place, and it's the reason why a lot of guys struggle. They overexaggerate everything to try to make it work. I don't really think it ever will."

 

But there is hope for pitchers who grow up in Colorado's system and know no other home park. Jeff Francis, whom the Rockies chose ninth over all in the 2002 draft, was 6-0 in his first seven starts at Coors Field.

 

"I'm confident pitching here," Francis said. "I don't know what it could be. I'm sure I'll go through some troubles."

 

Days later, on June 8, Francis allowed 5 runs and 12 hits in a 15-6 loss to the Chicago White Sox at Coors.

 

After going through a hitting phase as the Blake Street Bombers, the Rockies tried hiring free-agent pitchers like Hampton and Denny Neagle, then emphasized speed and defense. Now, they want to build by drafting what they call character players who can be groomed.

 

Every two years, O'Dowd said, the best 25 prospects are brought to Denver in the winter to stay with local families and take seminars about the social and psychological skills they will need to cope.

 

"We are trying to let them know as an organization that we're going to try and love them as people first and performers second," O'Dowd said. "This is the hardest personnel model to figure out in all of professional sports."

 

O'Dowd said the park affected hitters as well as pitchers because hitters become greedy and try for extra-base hits instead of merely advancing runners.

 

St. Louis shortstop David Eckstein said his teammate Admin Walker, a former Colorado right fielder, told him the Rockies beat visiting teams in the mid-1990's by hitting line drives to the wide gaps in the outfield while visitors "would try and go big fly."

 

When asked about how his former team might fashion its pitching staff, Walker said, "They have to be the type of personalities who are not worried about personal statistics."

 

O'Dowd agreed, but he said that was a problem because baseball rewards personal statistics. He said pitching was 60 percent to 70 percent of the game at most parks but not at Coors Field, which creates a problem in building a roster because half the games are on the road.

 

Scott Boras, a top player agent, recently told The Denver Post that Coors Field first seemed like a Rubik's Cube, a solvable puzzle. "But now it's become a black hole," he said. "The baseball intellect that drives so many organizations doesn't serve this one marketplace, and it's to the detriment of the franchise."

 

O'Dowd added that the altitude wore down players physically so that they must be rested more, but that the fatigue on starting pitchers forced relievers to work more. He said all the sophisticated scouting reports and performance statistics were less valuable at Coors Field.

 

"You can take a lot of that here and open up the window and throw it out," O'Dowd said.

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The question should be how far off the norm is Coors or Dodgers' or Pro Players' or Ameriquest's or any field from the rest of the league. That's a mockery. Not that I like 16-13 ballgames, but where was this talk when Dodger Stadium was still brutal to hitters?

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How about they just play?

 

The Rockies made the playoffs in their first year at Coors in 1995. Good teams win once they get used to their home park. The killer for the Rox has been their road record.

 

BTW, the reason all the fans are gone now after 10 years is because the Seat Licenses have expired. Those licenses made people pay for seats in advanced and now that the licenses are up the Rox need normal season tix holders and walkups to fill Coors.

 

This is why the Marlins saw such a dump in attendance after 1998. Not because they sucked, not because of rain. Because the seat licenses expired in 1998 because Dolphins Stadium reached the 10-year date.

 

Same reason why Arizona is having attendance problems, seat licenses fill seats long-term.

 

This is why the Fish are looking for a new ballpark. The new facility will allow the sale of seat licenses which will fill the park up.

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The Rockies with all their young and inexperienced low paid players wouldn't do good anywhere, but Coors Field really helps them out. They're the worst team in the majors IMO, and they're only a half a game better than the Devil Rays currently in the majors. So even though they have the worst road record in the majors, they're keeping themselves away from the worst, and they've been keeping themselves from being the worst by Coors.

 

They're record on the year at Coors is 17-17, terrific considering their team. So I think for the most part they've figured out how you need to play to be successful at Coors.

 

When hitting at Coors, the last thing you should do is strikeout. The offense of course has an extreme advantage and you want to use every single out. Don't aim for homeruns, just try to get hits and get on base. You can get behind at Coors by a lot of runs in a hurry and the trick is to catch up little by little.

 

As far as pitching is considered, you have to keep the ball down. Pitchers who get a lot of ground balls or have the ability to just overpower hitters would be successful there. You can't let your opponent lift the ball, because once they do the outcome isn't going to be beneficial. You also have to be able to accept the fact that you're going to give up a lot of runs and have a big ERA and you can't let that put you down.

 

Stats concerning the Colorado Rockies can be easily misconstrued. The pitchers seem worse based on their stats than they actually are, and the hitters seem better based on their stats than they actually are.

 

Coors is the hitting paradise. I love that park...I wanna go check it out someday.

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