Many of the new ballparks that have sprung up over the last few years are ornamented and almost encrusted with the past, architectural nods to the great lost stadiums of baseball's antiquity. Yet Coors Field in Denver seems really to be old, to have been lifted up whole out of some long-ago-rotted urban center and plopped down in Denver's hopping Lower Downtown neigh-borhood--LoDo, pronounced "low-dough," to locals. Like Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, its exterior mixes red brick with cast-iron latticework to attain that antiquated look; but Oriole Park seems new, merely hyperaware of the past, where Coors Field is the past, simply spruced up and given a new coat of paint--hunter green, in fact, which gives it a dark, seasoned appearance.
Inside, the upper decks press down upon the lower in much the same way as at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, giving the field a claustrophobic atmosphere. As at Camden Yards, the middle of the three decks has seats in front and skyboxes to the rear, putting the corporate elites in their proper place. The upper deck is open and inviting, although without much of a roof to offer protection from the elements. Above, the lighting standards are boxy and rectangular, adding to the antique appearance. One of the park's unique Denver signatures is a row of purple seats, six rows down from the top, that breaks up the otherwise dark-green color scheme and encircles the uppermost deck; it signifies the height exactly one mile above sea level. The view of the surrounding area isn't so elegant from up there--to left and center field the park looks out on a barren industrial area, with a super-highway coiling its way through-- but there is an impressive big scoreboard to left field to block that out. And the center-field bleachers warm a Chicago fan's heart, as the section has the same deep, high arc as the bleachers at the old Comiskey Park.
Still, the one element that most gives Coors Field the feel of the past is that, well, there are people there. The Colorado Rockies, like all baseball teams, have seen a decline in attendance this season in the wake of last year's strike. Yet fan bitterness has nothing to do with it. The Rockies played last year in Mile High Stadium, Denver's football field for the Broncos, where they routinely crammed 70,000 people into the stands. The capacity of comparatively intimate Coors Field is just over 50,000, and night in, night out the place is jammed. Plainly put, the people love their baseball team, mainly because big-league baseball came to Denver only a few years ago. Denver's fans aren't quite as vocal or as knowledgeable as Chicago's, but mass enthusiasm makes up for a lot; the atmosphere at Coors Field is about as far removed from Comiskey Park as one can imagine.
And the first thing that needs to be pointed out about Denver is that the atmosphere is, quite literally, different. The ball travels farther, at the high altitude, a phenomenon that has turned Coors Field into a launching pad to rival Wrigley Field when the wind blows out. We first saw Coors Field last month on a trip out to visit our transplanted parents in Denver, and as if to demonstrate, the leadoff batter, the Saint Louis Cardinals' Bernard Gilkey, hit the very first pitch from Colorado starter Bryan Rekar into the left-field seats. In the bottom of the inning, the Rockies' rookie leadoff man Trenidad Hubbard responded in kind. Then the Rockies' Dante Bichette hit an off-speed pitch one-handed off the end of his bat--and even that almost made the warning track in left.
This is arena baseball, and while it strikes terror into every pitcher who visits Coors Field--and the Rockies themselves have a pitching staff suffering from shell shock--the hitters and the fans love it. In only their third season of existence the Rockies have established themselves as pennant contenders--an unheard-of rate of development in baseball--mainly by assembling a bashing bunch of hitters through the expansion draft and free agency. Outfielder Bichette came in a draft-day trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, and third baseman Vinny Castilla was plucked from the talent-rich Atlanta Braves. First baseman Andres Galarraga was lured away from the Cardinals by money and the promise of easy homers, and Larry Walker followed him to town from the Montreal Expos this season for the same reasons.
The four of them have become known as the Blake Street Bombers--after the LoDo main drag that runs just outside the ballpark--and there have been times this season when they held the top four spots in the majors in home runs. At the start of the week, only the Cubs' Sammy Sosa's recent hot streak had managed to break up their dominance of the National League home-run derby: Bichette had 34, Sosa 33, Castilla 30, and Walker and Galarraga 29, alongside the Cincinnati Reds' Ron Gant.
Baseball purists might blanch, but the Rockies' fans adore it. To visit Denver now is to see a city in love with its baseball team, the way things used to be here in Chicago and elsewhere around the majors before the strike. Much of the attention has gone to Bichette, a broad-shouldered outfielder with a round, elfin face. Our old man was recently discussing his Rotisserie League team with a few coworkers around the watercooler when one woman came up and asked what in the world they were talking about. One fellow explained this was one of those, you know, fantasy-league teams, and the woman deadpanned, "Dante Bichette is on my fantasy-league team." When we took our seats in the upper deck for the game last month, a woman who sat down right in front of us wore a T-shirt that read "Bichette happens" across the back. And the Rockies' public-address team plays up all this excitement. When Bichette came to the plate, Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" came over the loudspeakers. Janet Jackson's feisty "Black Cat" greeted Galarraga, whose nickname is the Big Cat, and Castilla prompted a lively Tex-Mex number we weren't familiar with. Walker, unfortunately, was out for the night with an injury.
The Coors Field crowd was attentive if not overly vocal, though Rekar's shaky performance probably had something to do with it. He gave up another run in the first inning in addition to the homer, then another in the third with all the action coming after two were out, and finally two more in the sixth before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the inning. The Rockies had fought back with a couple of runs in the fourth to tie it at three, but after that they were shut down. Our six-year-old daughter and the young neighborhood boy who had been invited along by the grandparents to keep her company drew a few curious glances when they became restless and started chattering some baseball gibberish midway through the game. One nearby young woman, however, got in the spirit and showed off her baseball acumen by turning around and advising them, "No, no, that's not how you do it. You say, 'Hey batter, hey batter, hey batter, swing!'" That kept them occupied for about a half inning. When they grew weary of the action, after singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch, grandma took them down to the stadium's small playlot located just beyond the left-field seats.
While Coors Field has classic looks, it also has all the amenities, that playground being one of them. While the name is sort of annoying, the park tries to make up for it-- and keep pace with the burgeoning LoDo brew-pub scene in the surrounding neighborhood--by offering a craft-brewed wheat beer made right on the premises and pumped into the concession stands. Coors also has the wide concourses that are the best design quality brought to baseball by the new Comiskey Park.
The unfortunate thing about the old Comiskey was that it was built at the beginning of a rush of new ballparks, so that it was soon overshadowed, aesthetically, by Fenway Park in Boston and Weeghman Park, later Wrigley Field, here in Chicago. That, unfortunately, is also what has happened with the new Comiskey. After Jerry Reinsdorf showed his fellow owners how to properly blackmail local governments into building new stadiums, others followed suit; but beginning with Camden Yards they all did it better, with more attention to the fine details. Coors is the latest of that new bunch, and it is a lovely addition to baseball. It really shocks a Chicago fan with how inviting it is, from the intimate grandstand to the playlot (a beehive of activity even as the game continued on through the late innings) to the way it is nestled into the neighborhood that is now growing up around it.
Unlike Comiskey, Coors offers an array of places outside the park to meet before, during, and after the game. After we picked up the kids at the playground and started the walk back to the car, we passed spots already bustling with postgame parties--win or lose. Coors and the surrounding neighborhood invite a fan to stick around, enjoy the ambience, the feel of summer, and the murmur of the summer game. We almost didn't want to go home.