Thursday, April 11, 2013

How to Be a Met Fan in Colorado -- 2013 Edition


That's one way to cool off the Yankee bats: A rainout.  Last night, both in Cleveland and here in New Jersey, the rain came fast and furious.

Also coming fast and furious are these updates of the "How to Be a Yankee/Met/New York Fan In... " series.  Next up, the Colorado Rockies, as the Mets head out to Denver next week.

Disclaimer: I have only been to Denver twice, and that was to change planes going to and from Las Vegas many years ago. I have never set foot outside the old Stapleton Airport, much less visited Coors Field. But it does look like one of the best ballparks, so I would like to visit and recommend it.

Before You Go. The Denver Post is predicting rain and snow for each of the 4 days of the series, Monday through Thursday, April 15 to 18.  Temperatures should be in the high 40s during the day, the high 20s at night.  That's on top of weather that could lead to postponements.  So unless you're doing the All 30 Ballparks thing, you may want to skip this series, and stay home and watch it on television.

The Post is a good paper, but don't bother looking for the Rocky Mountain News: It went out of business in 2009.

Denver is in the Mountain Time Zone, so you’ll be 2 hours behind New York time. And there’s a reason it’s called the Mile High City: The elevation means the air will be thinner. Although the Rocky Mountain region is renowned for outdoor recreation, if you’re not used to it, try not to exert yourself too much. Cheering at a sporting event shouldn’t bother you too much, but even if the weather is good, don’t go rock-climbing or any other such activity unless you’ve done it before and know what you’re doing.

Getting There. It’s 1,779 miles from Times Square in New York to the Denver plaza that contains the State House and the City-County complex, and 1,790 miles from Citi Field to Coors Field. You’re probably thinking that you should be flying.

The good news: Flying to Denver, considering how far it is, is relatively cheap. You can get a round-trip flight for Monday morning, and buy it today, for $522. The bad news: It won’t be nonstop. While the old Stapleton International Airport was a major change-planes-here spot for going to the West Coast and Las Vegas, the new Denver International Airport isn’t. You want to fly there, you’ll have to change planes, most likely in either Chicago or Dallas.

Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited leaves Penn Station at 3:40 PM Friday, arrives at Union Station in Chicago at 9:45 AM Saturday (that’s Central Time). The California Zephyr leaves Chicago at 2:00 PM Saturday and arrives at Denver’s Union Station at 7:15 PM Sunday. The return trip would leave Denver at 7:10 PM Thursday (after the series' afternoon finale), arrive in Chicago at 2:50 PM Friday, leave Chicago at 9:30 PM Friday, and get back to New York at 6:35 PM Saturday. The round-trip fare is $512.

Conveniently, Union Station is at 20th Street & Delgany Street, right across from Coors Field.  The front of the building is topped by a clock, framed by an old sign saying UNION STATION on top and TRAVEL by TRAIN on the bottom.

Greyhound allows you to leave Port Authority Bus Terminal at 4:00 PM Saturday, and arrive at Denver at 11:15 AM on Monday, a trip of 45 hours and 15 minutes, without having to change buses. That 45:15 does, however, include layovers of 40 minutes in Philadelphia, an hour and a half in Pittsburgh, an hour in Columbus, an hour in Indianapolis, 2 hours in St. Louis, half an hour in Salina, Kansas, and another half-hour in Burlington, Colorado; plus half-hour meal stops in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Kansas. Round-trip fare is $316. You can get a bus back at 8:40 AM Friday and be back in New York at 5:50 AM Sunday. The Denver Bus Center is at 1055 19th Street, 5 blocks from Coors Field.

If you actually think it’s worth it to drive, get someone to go with you so you’ll have someone to talk to and one of you can drive while the other sleeps. You’ll be taking Interstate 80 most of the way, through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, before taking Interstate 76 from Nebraska to Colorado, and then Interstate 25 into Denver. (An alternate route: Take the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Turnpikes to Interstate 70 and then I-70 through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado into downtown Denver. It won’t save you an appreciable amount of time over the I-80 route, though.)

If you do it right, you should spend about an hour and a half in New Jersey, 5 hours and 15 minutes in Pennsylvania, 4 hours in Ohio, 2 hours and 30 minutes in Indiana, 2 hours and 45 minutes in Illinois, 5 hours and 15 minutes in Iowa, 6 hours in Nebraska, and 3 hours and 15 minutes in Colorado. Including rest stops, and accounting for traffic (you’ll be bypassing Cleveland and Chicago, unless that’s where you want to make rest stops), we’re talking about a 40-hour trip.

Even if you’re only going for one game, no matter how you got there, get a hotel and spend a night. You’ll be exhausted otherwise. Trust me, I know: Trains and buses are not good ways to get sleep.

Tickets. When the Rockies began play in 1993, there had never been a major league team in the entire Mountain Time Zone, and the Denver Bears and their successors the Denver Zephyrs had been among the best-attended teams in the minor leagues. That, plus the huge capacity of Mile High Stadium, allowed Colorado fans to set several major league attendance records, including most fans for an Opening Day game (80,227), most fans for a single regular-season game (same), most fans in a single season (4,483,350 in that first season of 1993) and most fans per home game (56,094 in the strike-shortened 1994 season).

When Coors Field opened in 1995, with a capacity around 47,000 (now officially 50,480), every game was still sold out, until 1999. The Rockies have gone downhill since their last Playoff berth in 2009, but still averaged 32,474 for the 2012 season.  So tickets may not be easy to come by.

For tickets that are available: Infield Boxes are $62, Outfield Boxes are $38, Upper Reserved Infield seats are $25, Upper Reserved Outfield seats are $17, Pavilion (left field bleacher) seats are $25, Upper Rightfield Reserved are $17, and the center field "Rockpile" seats -- a holdover from the bleachers of that nickname at Mile High Stadium -- are the cheapest seats in Major League Baseball, just $2.  That's right: Two dollars.

Going In.  Founded in 1858 as a gold rush city, and named for James W. Denver, then Governor of Kansas Territory from which Colorado was separated, Denver is a city of 630,000 people, in a metro area of 2.6 million -- roughly the population of Brooklyn alone.  But it's easily the biggest city in, and thus the unofficial cultural capital of, the Rocky Mountain region.  Broadway is the main north-south drag, separate East addresses from West.  But the northwestern quadrant of the street grid is at roughly a 45-degree angle from the rest of the city, and this area includes the central business district, Union Station and the ballpark.

Coors Field is in the Lower Downtown, or LoDo, section of Denver, a mile and a half northwest of Civic Center Park, the government center which contains the City & County Building and the Colorado State House. The Number 60 bus will get you to within 3 blocks of the ballpark. Denver has a light rail system, RTD, but chances are your hotel will be downtown, and you’d have to change trains at least once, so the 60 bus is the way to go.  The fare on the light rail is $2.25.

The mailing address is 2001 Blake Street. Blake bounds the 1st base side, 20th Street the 3rd base side, 22nd Street the right field stands, and Wewatta Street and the light rail tracks the left field side.

Most likely, you’ll enter through the home plate gate, at 20th & Blake. I like that: All visits to the ballpark should make your first view of the field from behind home plate. This was rarely possible with the old New York ballparks: The stadiums pointed east, and both subway exits put you at the right field corner (if you entered Yankee Stadium from the 157th Street plaza, or the left field corner if you came down 161st Street). In the case of Coors, it’s just more convenient.

Outfield distances are 347 feet to left field, 390 to left-center, 415 to center, 375 to right-center, and 350 to right.  Why so far? To counteract the easy home runs that were hit at Mile High, due to the thin mountain air. A line of purple seats across Coors Field shows the exact point at which the elevation of the park is 5,280 feet above sea level, making it “a mile high.” After years of opposing teams complaining that the highest elevation in MLB history resulting in too many home runs, prior to the 2002 season the team ordered a study to determine if the elevation was the cause.

As it turned out, the study suggested it was not thin air, but dry air that was doing it. So a giant humidor – a room-sized version of the kind of box where a smoker would store his cigars – was put into the ballpark, and the baseballs were stored there. As a result, the ball is no longer going as far as it once did, although the thin air does make it go farther. The thin air also makes curveballs curve less, which means it’s still not a good park for pitchers. Nevertheless, the team’s pitching staff can no longer be called, as it once was, “the Rocky Horror Pitching Show.” The longest home run was by Andres Galarraga, a 529-footer in 1997.

Food. Being a “Wild West” city, you might expect Denver to have Western-themed stands with “real American food” at its ballpark. Being in a State with a Spanish name, in a land that used to belong to Mexico, you might also expect to have Mexican food. And you would be right on both counts. A stand called Buckaroos is at Section 148, Burritos is at 134, the Helton Burger Shack (named for Rockies star Todd Helton) at 153, a full-service bar called the Camarena Loft behind 201, another called Margaritas at 330, 3 Monster Nacho stands, and, for club-seaters, the Mountain Ranch Club Bar.

There’s also stands with baseball-themed names, including several Fan Fare stands, Fair Territory in 106, and Yard Ball Yogurt at 330. There’s a Starbucks-type place called Madeline’s at 151, a pair of sandwich bars called the Club Carvery behind 219 and 238, a coffee bar call Java City at 223, a Chinese-themed Wok in the Park at 150, and a Blue Moon Brewing Co. outlet at 111.

Buckaroos has “Dinger Nuggets,” which I’m hoping is standard chicken nuggets, not dinosaur meat. (I’ll get to that in “During the Game.”)

Team History Displays. The Rockies’ history is short. They have made the Playoffs 3 times, won just one Pennant, and have won a grand total of zero World Series games. As yet, they have no members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, or even the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. And while Larry Walker’s Number 33 has not been reissued, officially, their only retired number is the universally-retired 42 for Jackie Robinson, who died over 20 years before the Rockies ever played a game.

That number and the 2007 Pennant are displayed on the outfield wall. The 1995 NL Wild Card banner used to be on the wall, but once a Pennant was won, it seemed a bit silly. There is no mention, anywhere in the stadium, of the Pennants won by the Rockies' minor-league predecessors, the Denver Bears (also briefly known as the Denver Zephyrs).

Stuff. Coors Field has the standard team stores to sell Rockies gear. But don’t look for old Rockies videos on DVD – there aren’t any. Unless you want to find the official highlight film of the 2007 World Series, in which the Rockies got swept by the Boston Red Sox. You’d think that, having won 14 of their last 15 regular-season games, making it 21 out of 22 counting the Playoffs, winning their first-ever Pennant, and setting a major league record for highest team fielding percentage (.989), there would be a commemorative DVD. But there isn’t.

There are, however, a few books about the team, including A Magical Season: Colorado’s Incredible 2007 Championship Season, by the staff of the Denver Post. You can also pick up Colorado Rockies: The Inaugural Season, by Rich Clarkson, which came out right after that 1993 season ended. The first-year Rockies probably got more respect than any 67-95 team ever.

To compare, the 1969 Seattle Pilots went 64-98.  They also played in a stadium that was inappropriate for the major leagues – albeit because it was an expanded 1930s Triple-A park, not a 1940s Triple-A park converted into a 1970s football stadium like Mile High.  They got fewer fans in a homestand than the ’93 Rox got in their home opener, got moved to Milwaukee right before their second season started, and today are remembered only for being in Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four.  Even Seattle fans would prefer to believe their major league history started with the Mariners in 1977.

During the Game. Coloradans love their sports, but they’re not known as antagonistic. Although the Jets came within a half of derailing a Bronco Super Bowl in 1999 (1998 season), and the Devils came within a game of short-circuiting their Stanley Cup run in 2001, the people of the Centennial State don’t have an ingrained hatred of New Yorkers. As long as you don’t wear Kansas City Chiefs or Oakland Raiders gear, you’ll probably be completely safe. (But, as always, watch out for obnoxious drunks, who know no State Lines.)

When construction workers were excavating to build Coors Field, they found dinosaur bones. So the Rockies’ mascot was made a dinosaur. In honor of the thin air’s propensity for allowing home runs, the mascot was named Dinger the Dinosaur. Great idea, right? Well, a Tyrannosaurus Rex (or even a “Tyrannosaurus Rox”) would probably scare kids, so Dinger is a purple triceratops. Think of him as Barney’s cousin from the weird side of the family.

The Rockies play Bruce Channel’s song “Hey! Baby” after “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch. Why? I have no idea. Channel isn’t from Colorado, or any other Rocky Mountain State (he’s from Texas). Why not a Colorado singer’s song? You got me. I guess “Rocky Mountain High” – whose singer used the stage name John Denver, for crying out loud – isn’t particularly rousing. Nor is “How to Save a Life” by The Fray, who are from Denver. Sometimes the Rockies play "Get Free" by the Australian rock band The Vines, but they do not have a postgame victory song.

After the Game. Denver has had crime issues, and just 3 blocks from Coors Field is Larimer Street, immortalized as a dingy, bohemian-tinged, hobo-strewn street in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. But that scene was written in 1947, and LoDo has become, with the building of Coors Field and the revitalization of Union Station, a sort of mountain Wrigleyville. So you’ll probably be safe.

LoDo is loaded with bars that will be open after the game, including Scruffy Murphy’s at Larimer & 20th, and an outlet of the Fado Irish Pub chain at Wynkoop & 19th. But the only baseball-named place I can find anywhere near Coors is Sandlot Brewery, at 22nd & Blake, outside the park’s right-field corner.

Perhaps the most famous sports-themed restaurant near Denver is Elway’s Cherry Creek, a steakhouse at 2500 E. 1st Avenue in the southern suburb of Cherry Creek. Bus 83L. It’s owned by the same guy who owns John Elway Chevrolet in another southern suburb, Englewood.

About a mile southeast of Coors Field, at 538 E. 17th Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood (not sure why a southern, rather than northern, neighborhood is called “Uptown”), is The Tavern, home of the local New York Giants fan club. I can find no corresponding place for Jets fans, but if you’re a Met fan, you can probably find some New Yorkers at The Tavern.

Sidelights. Sports Authority Field at Mile High, formerly Invesco Field at Mile High, has been the home of the NFL's Denver Broncos since 2001. Everyone just gives in the same name as the old facility: Mile High Stadium. It includes the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, and the Broncos’ Ring of Fame.

It was built on the site of the McNichols Sports Arena, home to the NBA’s Denver Nuggets from 1975 to 1999, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche from 1995 to 1999, and the first major league team called the Colorado Rockies, the NHL team that became the Devils, from 1976 to 1982. It hosted the NCAA Final Four in 1990, with UNLV (University of Nevada-Las Vegas) clobbering Duke.  (The University of Colorado, in Boulder, made the Final Four in 1942 and 1955, although it wasn't yet called the Final Four.  No other Colorado-based school has made it.)

When the time came to play the final concert there, the act that played the first was brought back: ZZ Top. This fact was mentioned on a Monday Night Football broadcast, leading Dan Dierdorf to note the alphabetic distinction of the long red-bearded men, and say, “The first one should have been ABBA.” (Which would have been possible, as they were nearly big in the U.S. at the time.)

The old stadium was just to the north of the new stadium/old arena. The current address is Mile High Stadium Circle, but the old intersection was W. 20th Avenue & Bryant St. (2755 W. 17th Avenue was the mailing address.) It was built in 1948 as Bears Stadium, an 18,000-seat ballpark. When the American Football League was founded in 1960, it was expanded to 34,000 seats with the addition of outfield seating. The name was changed to Mile High Stadium in 1966, and by 1968 much of the stadium was triple-decked and seated 51,706. In 1977 – just in time for the Broncos to make their first Super Bowl run and start “Broncomania” – the former baseball park was transformed into a 76,273-seat horseshoe, whose east stands could be moved in to conform to the shape of a football field, or out to allow enough room for a regulation baseball field. The old-time ballpark had become, by the standards of the time, a modern football stadium.

The biggest complaint when the Rockies arrived in 1993 wasn’t the thin air, or the condition of the stadium (despite its age, it was not falling apart), but the positioning of the lights: Great for football fans, but terrible for outfielders tracking fly balls. But it was only meant to be a temporary ballpark for the Rockies, as a condition for Denver getting a team was a baseball-only stadium. What really led to the replacement of Mile High Stadium, and its demolition in 2002, was greed: The desire for luxury-box revenue.

At Bears/Mile High Stadium, the Broncos won AFC Championships in 1977, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1997 and 1998, winning the Super Bowl in the last 2 years after losing the first 4 in blowouts.  The Denver Bears won Pennants while playing there in 1957 (as a Yankee farm team), 1971, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1983 and 1991 (winning the last one under the Denver Zephyrs name). The Red Lion Hotel Denver and the Skybox Grill & Sports Bar are now on the site of the old stadium. At McNichols, the Nuggets reached the ABA Finals in 1976, and the Avalanche won the 1996 Stanley Cup (albeit clinching in Miami). Mile High Station on the light rail C-Line and E-Line.

The Pepsi Center, new home of the Nugs and Avs, is 6 blocks up Auraria Parkway and one stop away on the C-Line and E-Line. The intersection is 11th Street & Auraria Parkway, but the mailing address is 1000 Chopper Circle, named for Robert “Chopper” Travaglini, the longtime trainer (and amateur sports psychologist) of the Nuggets. He was actually a Jersey Boy, albeit from Woodbury on the Philly side. He died in 1999, age 77, right before the new arena opened. The Nuggets have usually made the Playoffs since moving in, but have never reached the NBA Finals. The Avs won the 2001 Stanley Cup on home ice (beating the Devils, rats). The Democratic Convention was held at the Pepsi Center in 2008, although Senator Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech outdoors in front of 80,000 people at New Mile High Stadium.

The Nuggets, known as the Denver Rockets until 1974, played at the Denver Auditorium Arena, at 13th & Champa Streets, from their 1967 inception until McNichols opened in 1975. It was also the home of the original Nuggets, who played in the NBA from 1948 to 1950. It opened in 1908, and its seating capacity of 12,500 made it the 2nd-largest in the country at the time, behind the version of Madison Square Garden then standing. It almost immediately hosted the Democratic National Convention that nominated William Jennings Bryan for President for the third time – although it’s probably just a coincidence that the Democrats waited exactly 100 years (give or take a few weeks) to go back (it’s not like Obama didn’t want to get it right the first time, as opposed 0-for-3 Bryan). It hosted Led Zeppelin’s first American concert on December 26, 1968. It was demolished in 1990 to make way for the Denver Performing Arts Complex, a.k.a. the Denver Center. Theatre District/Convention Center Station on the light rail’s D-Line, F-Line and H-Line.

Denver has some renowned museums, including the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (their version of the Museum of Natural History) at 2001 Colorado Boulevard at Montview Boulevard (in City Park, Number 20 bus), and the Denver Art Museum (their version of the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History), at 100 W. 14th Avenue Parkway at Colfax Avenue (across I-25 from Mile High Stadium, Auraria West station on the C-Line and E-Line).

Denver’s history only goes back to a gold rush in 1859 – not to be confused with the 1849 one that turned San Francisco from a Spanish Catholic mission into the first modern city in the American West.  The city was named for James William Denver (1817-1892), a Territorial Governor of Kansas and then a Union General in the Civil War.  He visited the city named for him in 1875 and 1882, but complained that he wasn't received well there.  A glimpse of early Denver life can be found at Auraria Campus, at 900 Auraria Parkway.  D, F and H lines to Colfax at Auraria Station.

The city isn’t exactly loaded with history. There’s no Presidential Library – although Mamie Doud, the eventual Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower, grew up there, and her house is now a historic site. Mamie and “Ike” were married there, their son John (a future General, Ambassador, military historian and now the oldest surviving Presidential child) was born there, and the Eisenhowers were staying there when Ike had his heart attack in 1955. The house is still in private ownership, and is not open to the public. However, if you’re a history buff, or if you just like Ike, and want to see it, it’s at 750 Lafayette Street, at 8th Avenue. The Number 6 bus will get you to 6th & Lafayette.

After his stroke, Ike was treated at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in nearby Aurora, 12 years after Senator John Kerry, nearly elected President in 2004 and now Secretary of State, was born there. It’s not a Presidential Birthplace, because Kerry narrowly lost. It is now the University of Colorado Hospital. The Fitzsimmons Golf Course is across Montview Boulevard – it figures that Ike would be hospitalized next to a golf course! 16th Avenue & Quentin Street. Number 20 bus from downtown.

Denver doesn't have as many tall buildings as the nation's bigger cities, nor are they as interesting, architecturally.  The tallest building in the State is Republic Plaza, 714 feet high, at 17th Street & Tremont Place downtown.

The University of Colorado is in Boulder, 30 miles to the northwest.  At Market Street Station, 16th & Market, take the BV Bus to the Boulder Transit Center, which is on campus.  The ride should take about an hour and 20 minutes.  Colorado State University is in Fort Collins, 65 miles up Interstate 25 north, and forget about public transportation.  The U.S. Air Force Academy is outside Colorado Springs, 60 miles down I-25.  As with Fort Collins, you'd need Greyhound.  Unlike CSU, you might not be able to just go: Some of the area is restricted.  It is, after all, a military base.

A few TV shows have been set in Denver, but you won't find their filming locations there.  The old-time Western Whispering Smith and the more recent one Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman were set in old Colorado but filmed in Southern California.  Probably the most famous show set in Colorado is South Park, and that's a cartoon, so forget seeing anything from that.  Not quite as cartoonish was Mork & Mindy, set in Boulder.  The McConnell house actually is in Boulder, at 1619 Pine Street.  But don't try to copy the opening-sequence scene with Robin Williams and Pam Dawber on the goalposts at the University of Colorado's Folsom Field.  You could fall, and end up saying, "Shazbot!"

The most famous show ever set in Colorado was Dynasty, ABC's Excessive Eighties counterpart to CBS' Dallas, starring John Forsythe as Blake Carrington, an oilman and a thinly-veiled version of Marvin Davis, who nearly bought the Oakland Athletics from Charlie Finley in 1978 with the idea of moving them to Denver, but the deal fell through.  Right, you don't care about Blake, all you care about is the catfights between the 2nd and 1st Mrs. Carrington's Krystle (Linda Evans) and Alexis (Joan Collins).  The Carrington mansion seen in the opening credits is in Beverly Hills, but the building that stood in for the headquarters of Denver Carrington is at 621 17th Street, while the one that stood in for Colbyco is at 1801 California Street.

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Denver had been considered a potential destination for Major League Baseball many times: The Continental League planned a team there for 1961, it was a finalist for expansion teams in 1969 and 1977, and, as I said, the A's came within inches of moving there for the 1978 season. When they finally got a team in 1993, they were embraced as perhaps no expansion team has ever been embraced -- perhaps, not even, the Mets themselves in 1962. And, the way it's worked out, the Rockies' first-ever game was against the Mets (a Met win at Shea), and their first game at Coors was against the Mets (a Rockies win in 11 innings).

The Rockies have seen the bloom come off the rose, but they've also seen some real success. The experience of Coors Field should be a good one. Have fun!

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