Falling Into Place
On March 26, 1991, several helicopters borrowed from local TV stations lifted from the tarmac at Stapleton Airport and roared toward downtown Denver, the Front Range looming so brilliantly in the sunshine that it seemed like passengers could reach out the window and touch snow-capped Pikes Peak. Inside the choppers, an elite group that included members of Major League Baseball's expansion committee and their hosts, the Denver Baseball Commission (DBC), began its tour of the Mile-High City. A bat-shaped key to the city in hand, the expansion committee was careful not to betray the skepticism that would have revealed this as little more than a courtesy visit. Baseball was keen to break into the Florida market, and in Miami and Tampa it had two cities much further along in the process; Miami had a strong ownership group, and Tampa already had a new stadium. Denver's bid, essentially, was toast.
The helicopters buzzed over East High School, where students had gathered on the playground in the shape of a baseball. Over the future site of Coors Field, they saw a group playing softball on an oversized diamond marked off with white paint. The choppers finally landed at Mile High Stadium, where the new team would play for two years while Coors was being built. It wasn't the baseball-only stadium the league had begun to insist upon for new teams, but contemplating full houses of 80,000 fans made some of the committee members begin to rethink Denver's bid.
The group had lunch at Governor Roy Romer's mansion and then moved onto the business meeting. At the "cash register" building at 17th and Lincolnnow the Wells Fargo Centerthe group emerged from the buses to see about 3,500 baseball fans crowded inside the building's huge atrium, and the baseball officials weren't thrilled about the welcome. "We had 'miraculously, spontaneously' discovered a few thousand people there waiting for us," says Tom Clark, now the executive vice president for the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (MDEDC) and part of the group that wrote the application for the expansion franchise. "[League official] Katie Feeney walked around the corner of the bus, saw the crowd, and gave me a look that could've freeze-dried coffee." Inside, the crowd broke into a rousing rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" that left some of the visitors visibly misty eyed. In a bathroom before the business meeting, Paul Jacobs, a tour organizer and now a partner at the Jacobs Chase law firm, encountered New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon. "He poked a finger into my chest and said, 'We told you not to do that,'" he says. "Before I could think of how to respond, he broke into a smile and said, 'That was the smartest thing anyone's done in this process.'"
The DBC's tour de force apparently did the trick, and Denver was awarded one of the two expansion teams (Miami got the other) in July 1991. The city's decades-long thirst for major-league baseball, combined with the fact that the team played its home games in a football stadium, helped the Rockies shatter attendance records during their first two years: The team drew almost 4.5 million fans in 1993 and almost 3.3 million in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Don Hinchey, part of the original baseball commission and now vice president of communications for Greenwood Village-based sports and entertainment marketing firm The Bonham Group, says the DBC had caused some scoffing among the expansion committee by projecting attendance in the low two millions during the Rockies' first few seasons. "They asked how we thought we could do that when established baseball towns like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh couldn't do it," he says. "We were wrong," he adds, but instead of overestimating, the DBC had massively underestimated Denver's appetite for baseball.
Though it was about 30,000 seats smaller than Mile High, Coors Field still packed in record crowds for most of the next five years, catalyzing the transformation of the surrounding LoDo neighborhood from a virtual skid row to a downtown destination filled with trendy restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. The team thrilled the locals with a playoff appearance in 1995, the quickest an expansion team had ever made the postseason. It would be the franchise's last shining moment for many years. By the end of the decade, the locals began to realize that Rockies baseball, while entertaining, wouldn't win many games. It took a few more years, and a couple of egregious miscalculations, for the Monforts to figure out the same thing.