DENVER -- The ’96 Rockies rounded the bases at two paces -- at a leisurely trot 221 times, and at breakneck speeds on 201 occasions. That’s right, those Rox became the first team in Major League history to reach 200 in home runs and stolen bases in the same season.
The best example of the power-speed philosophy fostered by manager Don Baylor came on June 30, 1996. Eric Young tied a Major League record with six steals, and teammates parked four home runs. There was no vanity or running up the score in any of it. The Rockies needed every stride and every swing in a 16-15, walk-off win over the Dodgers at Coors Field.
The Rockies trailed, 5-1, in the bottom of the third, and the Dodgers seemed in good shape with Hideo Nomo on the mound. Just 2 1/2 months later, Nomo would throw a no-hitter -- a feat that hasn’t been repeated at Coors Field.
But on this sun-splashed June Sunday, Young flipped the game with his own two feet. Young beat out a single, and Nomo and future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza were powerless on steals of second and third. Ellis Burks drew a one-out walk and goaded Nomo into a pickoff throw.
Young stole home during the rundown, and he and the Rockies were off and running. Dante Bichette homered for two more runs, and the wild game was on.
Breaks between innings?
Pit stops, more like it.
“It was amazing,” said Burks, now in a scouting role with the Giants. “I was bringing him a wet towel, giving him water.”
Young, now the Braves' first-base coach, recalls fondly, "The day was very exhausting but exciting at the same time. I knew if I had great at-bats to get on, it was my day to run. ... Ellis kept me going all day long, keeping me engaged on the possibility of making history."
The Rockies finished that day with 10 steals, seven off Nomo, all with Piazza having an awful time. Quinton McCracken stole two, and Burks and Bichette added two apiece.
Oh, yeah, Vinny Castilla, Bichette, Burks and John Vander Wal went deep. The oddity was there were no homers or steals by the Rockies in the ninth.
It was the finest form of Baylor Ball.
The numbers in ’96:
• Burks, who finished third in National League Most Valuable Player voting (Piazza finished second, despite the day the Rockies ran wild on him), batted .344 with 40 home runs, 32 steals and 211 hits – the first player to reach 40-30-200 in those categories since Hank Aaron. Burks, who still cherishes a phone call from Aaron after the season, also topped the Majors with 142 runs and tied for second in the NL with 45 doubles.
• Young, a fast and knowledgeable leadoff man, led the running game with 53 steals in 72 attempts -- a solid rate -- and batted .324 with a .393 on-base percentage.
• Bichette knocked 31 homers and finished with 31 steals.
• Even Andres Galarraga, who was known as “The Big Cat” for his defensive nimbleness at first base but was no speedster, stole 18 bases to go with a team-high 47 homers.
The crazy part is eventual Hall of Famer Larry Walker, whose power and speed defined the club of that era, made just 83 appearances because of a broken left clavicle. He finished with 18 homers, 18 steals. Also strange was this potent team was no-hit not only by Nomo, but by the Marlins’ Al Leiter in Miami.
Coming off a postseason appearance in 1995, the Rockies took a step back -- 83-79. But it sure wasn’t the fault of an offense that scored 961 runs -- 183 more than the Reds, who were second in the NL.
Baylor, who died from cancer in 2017, transferred his playing identity to his students.
From 1972 to 1979, Baylor knocked 167 home runs and stole 239 bases. This included 36 homers and 22 steals to go with his league-leading 139 RBIs in ’79 en route to the American League MVP Award. A big man for that period -- listed at 6-1 and 190 pounds -- Baylor was the prototype for athletes like Burks and Bichette, who could put their muscles in motion.
“I played with Don the latter part of his career,” Burks said. “He just gave us the reins to do whatever. He knew the kind of talent we had on that team. But I don’t think even he knew what we had in store that season.”
Well, if Baylor didn’t know beforehand, he gently began nudging the team toward statistical history.
“All of a sudden, Baylor started talking around the cage about, ‘We’re going to be the only team in history to go 200-200,” said Bichette, now a Major League coach with the Blue Jays. “It was a month, maybe three weeks, left in the season, where it started to be a big deal.”
In the final 25 games, the Rockies hit 25 homers and stole 33 bases. Everyone was getting into the act. Galarraga took off seven times and was successful four. Even Castilla -- Burks recalled fondly, “Vinny used to say, ‘They don’t pay me to run, dog,’” -- stole the final two of his seven.
Managers often offer players the green light, but these days few players press the gas pedal. Why were the Rockies so willing?
Not to fall into amateur psychology, but could advancements in technology, training programs and even nutrition that are individualized be standing in the way of the information sharing that encourages basestealing? The ’96 Rockies had communication throughout the lineup. Burks recalls massive card games that eventually led to baseball talk, which meant even power hitters who didn’t run at least heard the pointers.
In-game, Young's presence forced pitchers to use their fastballs and employ their pickoff moves, acting as a one-man reconnaissance team.
"I was a student of the game, concentrating on the pitcher’s movement, and knowing I had great hitters behind me meant pressure at all times," said Young, who was generous at filling in others with information that they may not have seen from the dugout -- and he had teammates willing to learn.
Burks and Bichette formed an ambitious power-speed pair behind Young. Both were in their prime as hitters. Finally healed from early-career injuries with the Red Sox, Burks employed a personal trainer in the offseason and was at top speed. Bichette, trying to establish himself, played on a torn left ACL from before the ’92 season until finally undergoing surgery after his big year, but he felt he had straightaway speed and instincts.
Baylor also used each man’s competitiveness for the good.
“He said, ‘Which one of you guys is going to be the first in Coors history to go 30-30?’” Burks said. “That kind of pushed us.”
Baylor managed from the inaugural season of 1993 through 1998, and returned as hitting coach in 2009 and 2010. While home runs have been long associated with the club, the running that Baylor preached has faded from the Rockies’ DNA. They have not exceeded 100 steals since 2012. The ’95 team’s rate of 125 steals in a labor dispute-shortened 144-game season has been surpassed just twice since.
While the Rockies have had some stolen-base threats since -- Juan Pierre, Willy Taveras and Charlie Blackmon earlier in his career -- the philosophy that runners must be successful around three-quarters of the time has taken root so deeply that the move is discouraged. But the ’96 Rockies passed that standard -- 201 of 267, or a .752 percentage.
While the 2002 decision to store baseballs in a so-called humidor has normalized the game somewhat, the atmosphere and the park are still hitter-friendly in the extreme. It might be the best place to play the old-fashioned way, since pitchers tend to be uncomfortable and motion increases the potential for defensive mistakes. Burks said the stolen base was part of an aggressive mindset -- run hard on infield balls, take a hard turn on a single and think double, or think triple on a double.
“If you make the defense make plays, something is going to happen,” Burks said. “Either they’re going to make a great play or make a mistake.”
Teams spend time and money seeking strength, speed and diverse skills. Bichette believes special athletes, aided by a manager and a front office willing to trust them, possibly tailored to a ballpark, will overcome data-based conventions of the modern game.
“It’s going to come back,” Bichette said. “Baseball is going to come back.”