Anniversary of Coors Field opener brings back memories
Bichette's heroics set tone for Rockies in magical Wild Card season
Twenty years ago Sunday, the Rockies unveiled Coors Field and proclaimed their identity.
An expansion team heading into its third year of existence went from a roster of castoffs to a factor to be dealt with in the National League West.
"It was our coming-out party," said Eric Young, Colorado's original second baseman and now the team's first-base coach.
And Dante Bichette, who weeks earlier questioned if he would even return to the Rockies in 1995, had the final statement.
With the first of what was to become at the time a record 203 consecutive sellout crowds packed into Coors Field on a cold, damp evening, the Rockies had seen an early 5-1 lead disappear before they rallied in the bottom of the ninth and again in the 13th to tie the Mets. That set the stage for a final comeback in the bottom of the 14th.
After the Mets took a 9-8 lead in the top of the 14th, Rockies catcher Joe Girardi led off the bottom of the frame with a single. Andres Galarraga reached on a one-out error by Mets third baseman Tim Bogar, and Bichette drilled a 2-1 pitch from Mike Remlinger into the left-field stands.
"It was the coolest moment," said Bichette. "The first pitch, I swung out of my rear. I almost fell down. Jon Miller was doing the game for ESPN, and said to Joe Morgan, 'Is it me, Joe, or is Dante trying too hard to hit a home run?'"
Hey, it was Bichette at his best. During his time with Colorado, he had this knack for looking foolish on a pitch and then being aware enough to sit on that pitch, waiting for the pitcher to try to make him look like a fool again.
"That was a statement game," said Young. "Dante did the first pump and it was like, 'Yeah, the Blake Street bombers are here.'"
In claiming the first NL Wild Card in 1995, the Rockies had a .611 winning percentage at home, tied with Atlanta and Cincinnati for the best in the NL.
Colorado was 51-31 at home in 2007, including the Game 163 win against San Diego to earn the NL Wild Card en route to the only World Series appearance in franchise history. Only Milwaukee (51-30) had a better home record among NL teams.
And in 2009, the Rockies' third NL Wild Card ticket to the postseason, their 51-30 home-field record was second best in the NL, a game back of the Giants (52-29).
In the first 20 years of Coors Field, Colorado is a combined 1,521-1,702 (.472) overall, with a definite home-field difference -- 894-718 (.555) at Coors Field and 627-984 (.389) on the road.
And that first game in the first year at Coors created a special memory.
The players had gone on strike the previous August. The 1994 World Series was canceled, and replacement players were used in Spring Training. The week before the season was to open, the strike was settled, and after a hurry-up Spring Training to get players in shape, the season finally opened three weeks late and with an abbreviated 144-game schedule.
"We finally got the chance to play in the best ballpark in baseball," said manager Don Baylor. "It was a spectacular evening. Everybody wanted to be part of that game."
Nobody enjoyed it more than Bichette.
A mainstay of the franchise as its right fielder in the Rockies' first two years of existence, Bichette felt left out when Colorado signed free-agent outfielder Larry Walker to a multiyear deal, offering Bichette only one year of security. And then it was announced Walker would play right field, and Bichette would move to left.
When the strike settled and players reported to Spring Training, Bichette was missing.
Baylor stepped in.
"He called and told me he wanted me to be there, that I was a part of what was being built," said Bichette. "He was the guy you would run through a wall for. I couldn't say no to him. I decided to play one more year and see what happened."
On Opening Day, Bichette knew he belonged.
"It was cold, but we weren't cold," said Bichette. "Those fans warmed you up. I came out on the field for the start of the game, and I was stunned. It was such a great feeling."
The feeling got better as the season went on. The Rockies surprised the baseball world, advancing to the postseason quicker than any previous franchise.
"That game was our calling card," said outfielder Ellis Burks. "The whole team was excited about a new stadium and then the way we christened it. It was so exciting to be a part of it. And it got better as the season went on. It was the first year of the Wild Card, and we were the first National League Wild Card."
The foundation for that success, however, had begun a year earlier. Prior to the 1994 season, Colorado signed free agents Burks and shortstop Walt Weiss, both of whom had been teammates of Baylor.
And then, as soon as the strike was settled in the spring of 1995, the Rockies added free agents Walker and Billy Swift, the starting pitcher that first night at Coors Field.
"Everybody knew the type of player Walker was, the type of pitcher Billy Swift was," said Baylor. "That's when the magic first hit our club."
The Rockies' fan base got the first glimpse of that magic on that night at Coors Field 20 years ago.
"It reminded me a lot of my first Major League game as a player," said Baylor. "My stomach was churning. … We finally got the chance to play in the best ballpark in baseball. It was spectacular."