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Entering a season decidedly short on optimism, the Colorado Rockies will have at least one thing to celebrate in 2023: a big birthday. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Rockies’ inaugural season, when Major League Baseball was greeted by a market eager to embrace a sport that hadn’t been played at the highest level between Dallas and San Diego.
The franchise was instantly popular, drawing a record 4,483,350 fans in its inaugural 1993 campaign. Three decades later, that’s still a single-season record in Major League Baseball and nearly 200,000 more than the second-highest figure (from the 2008 New York Yankees, who were playing their final season in the old Yankee Stadium). Critics will point out that the Rockies’ record attendance was likely aided by the ample seating offered at Mile High, the football stadium where the team played its first two seasons while Coors Field was being built, but it still reflects a larger passion.
The club’s arrival had been long-awaited. Professional baseball had been played in Denver since 1886, but despite the best attempts of civic and business leaders, the Mile High City never landed a Major League club. In 1991, that all changed when owners voted—unanimously!—to add two teams: the Florida (now Miami) Marlins and the Rockies, both of which had emerged from a six-team competition. “When we delivered the expansion application to the league in September [of 1990], we probably were the longest of all long shots,” John Antonucci, one of the club’s first managing partners, said in July 1991. “But we persevered.”
For starters, Denver had tried and failed to bring Major League Baseball to town previously, perhaps most famously when it attempted to lure the Pirates during the Pittsburgh drug trials in the mid-1980s. But Denver was a burgeoning potential market with no nearby clubs and an approved 0.1 percent sales tax—which would fund its brand-spanking-new ballpark downtown.
With the 1991 green light for a new team in Denver, the only pushback was in the name. Polls from both of Denver’s major newspapers at the time showed that fans wanted the franchise to be called the Denver Bears, the moniker of the city’s longtime minor league team that had been replaced (and eventually relocated) in 1955. To some, the “Colorado Rockies” name was tainted by the National Hockey League squad that turned in six forgettable seasons in the Mile High City before moving to New Jersey in 1982.
Eventually, such quibbles mattered little. Once the 1993 season began, the pent-up hunger of a great sports city yearning for its third Big Four team—to join the Broncos and Nuggets—was quickly apparent.
The Rockies’ first-ever home game drew 80,227 fans, with temporary bleachers expanding Mile High Stadium’s usual seating capacity of 76,000. At the time, it was a single-game Major League Baseball regular-season record.
And the throngs of fans didn’t have to wait long to cheer. In the first inning, the Rockies’ Eric Young and Charlie Hayes each swatted home runs to set the tone in an 11–4 victory over the Montreal Expos, in a game in which Colorado racked up 18 hits. A Boulder resident named Tom Savoth who was at Yankee Stadium in 1977 when Reggie Jackson famously hit three home runs in the World Series told the Associated Press that Young’s homer over the left-field fence matched the excitement of Jackson’s feat. “I’ve been to four or five home openers of the New York Yankees and nothing compares to this,” Savoth said. “I’ve been in Boulder 13 years waiting, and God almighty, two home runs—the first run ever scored was a home run—nothing could be greater.”
In preparation for his start that day, Rockies’ pitcher Bryn Smith called Rush lead singer Geddy Lee, a personal friend, for advice on dealing with the decibel levels awaiting him. Lee’s words weren’t particularly specific or helpful: “Have fun, good luck, and I wish I was there,” Smith recalled Lee telling him. The 37-year-old threw seven shutout innings to earn the win just six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
That year, the Rockies became the fastest team to ever reach 1 million, 2 million, 3 million, and 4 million fans in a season. They set records for highest attendance at both three- and four-game series. Such popularity was particularly impressive when compared with other clubs. For example, it took the storied New York Mets 26 years to draw 3 million fans in a season. The Rockies surpassed that mark it in just 53 games.
But for all the enthusiasm surrounding the club, things weren’t always so jubilant. As one might expect from an expansion franchise in its inaugural season, the Rockies often languished. The team finished 67–95 in 1993, 37 games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves. And foreshadowing a long-standing—perhaps unavoidable—issue, Colorado finished with the worst team-wide earned-run average among pitchers in Major League Baseball: 5.41, more than a half-run worse than the next-closest club.
Still, there were signs of hope, which kept fans coming out to the ballpark (much like today). Andrés Galarraga led all Major Leaguers with an absurd batting average of .370, helping him earn an All-Star Game selection that year. And after starting 43–77, Colorado won 24 of its final 42 games.
Two years later, playing in newly opened Coors Field and with several more notable players like Vinny Castilla, Dante Bichette, and Larry Walker, the Rockies made the playoffs as a wild card team in the first year of the format. It marked the only postseason appearance in the franchise’s first 14 seasons, a skid eventually snapped in 2007, when the Rockies rattled off 21 wins in a 22-game stretch en route to their first (and only) World Series appearance.
In the years that immediately followed, the club’s following barely faded. In 1994, it averaged more fans per game than it did the previous year before a players’ strike ended the season in mid-August. The Rockies still claim four of the top 20 most-attended seasons in Major League Baseball history, all of which came between 1993 and 1998.
The Rockies enter the 2023 season in a drastically different position, with only 2,597,428 fans coming out last season to watch a team that finished last in its division. Baseball is waning in popularity overall, but here’s what doesn’t help: In their first 30 years, the Rockies have pieced together only nine winning seasons. The team has played postseason ball just five times and has never come close to matching the magic of 2007—or the mid-’90s for that matter.
But if nothing else, the club’s 30th anniversary serves as a reminder that better, more joyous days are at least possible.