The Rockies will be celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2018. And that means that the entire baseball world will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of talking about baseball at altitude as if it exists in another dimension. Lately, and with the assistance of social media, “Coors” has become the shorthand to either dismiss accomplishments from Rockies players because of altitude or to ignore arguments about park effects in an attempt to pretend altitude doesn’t affect the game. It’s also become an ironic meme. However it’s used, “Coors” is less about a specific ballpark than it is about baseball at several thousand feet.
Major-league baseball at altitude was a novelty in 1993. People paid to talk about baseball were still becoming familiar with it. They knew it was different, but we were only beginning to understand how different and how to respond to it. It took the Rockies nearly a decade before they installed a humidor. “Coors” existed before Coors, and it wasn’t always used as an argumentative shortcut.
To get a small glimpse at “Coors” before Coors, I went to YouTube and watched the Rockies play the Marlins at Mile High Stadium on July 7, 1993. The feed is from the Sunshine Network. Jay Randolph had the play-by-play and Hall of Famer Gary Carter provided color commentary. Consider it a case study of one game and one broadcast booth at an early stage of Denver baseball.
The two expansion teams were decidedly uncompetitive when they met in July 1993. There were only two National League divisions then. The Rockies were in last place in the NL West with a 29-53 record. They were 26 games behind the first place Giants. The Marlins were able to stay out of the NL East cellar though. Their 36-46 record put them in sixth place in their division, ahead of the last place Mets but still 18 games behind the eventual pennant winners, the Philadelphia Phillies.
Chris Hammond, who had a long but unremarkable career, started for the Marlins. The Rockies started reliever Keith Shepherd as part of a bullpen game. It was the only major-league start in Shepherd’s career.
The position players were more memorable than the starters. Starting shortstop Walt Weiss was traded to the Marlins prior to their expansion season, and he played there for one season before signing as a free agent with the Rockies, where he played from 1994 to 1997. Weiss also served as the Rockies’ manager from 2013 to 2016. The Marlins also had one of the most feared hitters in the game, Gary Sheffield. The July 7th game was the 12th game Sheffield played for Florida. The team acquired him from San Diego during their 1993 fire sale. The Marlins sent Trevor Hoffman to San Diego in exchange for Sheffield. He was later part of the Marlins’ 1998 fire sale after they won the 1997 World Series.
The Rockies lineup consisted of mainstays and passers by. Dante Bichette started in right field, Andres Galarraga—the Rockies’ lone All-Star in 1993—started at first base, and Vinny Castilla started at shortstop. Play-by-play man Jay Randolph called Castilla a “star of the future” at shortstop for the Rockies. (Close!) As for the rest of the lineup, if you can fill in more than two of the five remaining first names, you’re either old enough to remember 1993 or have spent too much time looking at old lineups on Baseball Reference:
The park effect
The Rockies played some wild and high scoring games at home in 1993, but this game wasn’t one of them. There were 11 runs scored (spoiler, the Rockies won 6-5) and three home runs total. According to Baseball Reference, there were 332 three-home run games in 1993. It was a typical baseball game by any standards of elevation.
Still, there was a building view of baseball at altitude. While three home runs in a game isn’t very many, they did come in relatively quick succession in this game—from the second batter in the top of the second to the third batter in the top of the third. That made it easy to feel like a warped version of baseball was playing out. Jeff Conine hit the first home run. It came in the top of the second with a runner on first base, and the ball landed about 15 rows up in left center field.
That was no wall scraper. Although the ball was certainly bouncier at altitude before the installation of the humidor in 2002, that home run doesn’t look at all like a creation of altitude. And, indeed, neither Randolph nor Carter thought altitude was worth mentioning.
The Marlins were responsible for the second home run as well. In the top of the third, Henry Cotto hit his fourth home run of the season to roughly the same spot in left center. That only yielded “You got to love this ballpark” from the visiting broadcast team.
But they did mention the park after the next home run. Danny Sheaffer, a 31-year-old catcher who was getting playing time only because Joe Girardi was on the disabled list, led off the bottom of the third with a home run. Like the Marlins’ two dingers, this one went to left center.
Maybe it was because it was a Marlins broadcast team. Maybe it was because the 31-year-old Sheaffer had three career major-league home runs prior to that at bat. Maybe they were waiting for the right opportunity. But Sheaffer’s home run caused Carter to break his silence. “I must say it Jay,” Carter begins, “I wasn’t going to but I gotta say it: This place is a bandbox.” “Coors” before Coors.
But then something strange happened. Randolph didn’t echo Carter’s appeal to park effects, even though Carter’s description was completely accurate, and they didn’t sigh in frustration. Instead, Randolph responded in a light way that fit the context of them watching a baseball game that nobody should take all that seriously: “You’re just thinking about how much you would have enjoyed playing here.” After that, they continued calling the great game unfolding in front of them.
Altitude may or may not have helped those three home runs. Each one was well struck and went several rows deep. Notably, Randolph and Carter also mentioned that starting pitcher Charlie Hough kept saying that the ball in 1993 had “more bounce.” The 45-year-old Hough was in his 24th major-league season, so he did come with some experience to compare.
Still, the ballpark had a real effect on the outcome of the game. It just didn’t have anything to do with the altitude. Throughout the game, Randolph and Carter referenced the hard infield dirt in front of home plate and the poorly maintained infield grass. They especially took note of the high bounces and speedy groundballs. It was prelude to the seventh inning, when the Rockies scored two runs to tie the game at five all because of the ballpark.
It started with Danny Sheaffer, who took advantage of the dirt to single to center field:
The next batter was pinch-hitter Jim Tatum, whom Randolph referred to as Don Baylor’s “secret weapon” (presumably because he pinch-hit a lot). The nickname seems unearned, but Tatum delivered in this situation. He doubled to right field, which put runners on second and third with nobody out.
With the tying run in scoring position, second baseman Freddie Benavides took advantage of the ballpark and smashed the ball on the ground 18 inches in front of him to tie the game.
That drove starting pitcher Hammond from the game with an unstated number of pitches (pitch count wasn’t mentioned a single time during the game). The field conditions did him in.
The Rockies eventually won the game in the bottom of the ninth. Eric Young singled, stole second, advanced to third on a groundout, and scored on a well struck ground ball that didn’t quite make it out of the infield but was far enough in the hole to be an infield single.
★ ★ ★
“Park effects” in the plural exists because all parks play differently. To the extent that baseball at altitude plays different from than all others, it’s because of the degree. Somewhat ironically, baseball at thin air is a thicker form of baseball everywhere else. It’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise. At the same time, there are a lot of other smaller “park effects” that can influence games that don’t at all rely on altitude. Things like how hard the dirt is or how high the grass is cut stack upon one another to create something distinct. That really is one of the best things about baseball, and Rockies fans have more of it because of where the team plays.