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Rockies Origin Stories, Part 3: Rocky road to Denver

Colorado Rockies news and links for Friday, March 18. 2021

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This is the third article in four-part series looking back at the people and events that helped the Rockies come into existence and call Denver home. Part 1 was on Linda Alvarado. Part 2 was on the ownership scandal.

While being a sports fan is usually akin to riding a roller coaster of highs and lows, it seems like the Colorado Rockies might be the king architect of the fan roller-coaster experience in the last five years.

We went from cheering for a star-studded roster with back-to-back playoff appearances in 2017 and 2018 to a mass exodus, front office gridlock, and three straight losing seasons.

Just when it looked like the Rockies were going to keep the streak going and settle for another offseason of small deals and Minor League contracts, GM Bill Schmidt pulled off one of the biggest free agent acquisitions in the history of the organization on Wednesday when they signed Kris Bryant to a six-year, $182 million deal.

For fans, while there still might be confusion about a master plan, or a lack thereof, there is more reason to be excited for 2022 than there was earlier this week. The yo-yo of emotions isn’t just unique to the Rockies front office and on-field performance; it’s also rooted in their origin story.

Taking the long way

For decades, the mission to bring an MLB team to Denver was a journey of twists and dips in optimism and pessimism. Founder of the Denver Broncos and former president and GM of the Denver Bears, Bob Howsam, who was also responsible for building Bears Stadium (later Mile High Stadium), tried and failed, while oil and real estate tycoon Marvin Davis almost orchestrated the Denver Athletics.

After decades of building a foundation and with countless people contributing to the effort, things finally started picking up momentum in the 1980s. At a national level, politicians like Congresswoman Pat Schroeder and Senator Tim Wirth were pressuring MLB to expand. Wirth even threatened to end MLBs federal anti-trust immunity protection if they didn’t add teams.

Locally, in 1982, Federico Peña launched his campaign for Denver mayor. Peña’s friend and lawyer Steve Katich joined the team to help him get elected and pitched an idea.

“You should make getting a Major League baseball team an economic development issue,” Katich said he told Peña.

Peña was onboard. They arranged a press conference at Mile High Stadium before a Denver Bears game. The announcement to make baseball a key piece of his campaign went well and Peña’s message was covered by TV stations.

In 1983, Peña won the election and assembled the grant-funded Denver Baseball Commission, naming Katich the executive director. Katich was so dedicated to bringing baseball to the Rocky Mountains that he quit practicing law and never went back to it.

The commission’s purpose was to land an MLB expansion team. Their main job was proving that baseball would have a following. The small population and meager media market were working against them.

“We were pushing something that MLB absolutely did not want to do,” Katich said. “They had no interest.”

Denver on deck

The DBC started hosting events to prove Denver deserved a big league team. They put on two baseball symposiums with baseball executives to talk with them about baseball and how it could work in Denver. In 1985, the DBC paid the Seattle Mariners and Chicago Cubs to play exhibition games at Mile High over Easter weekend.

A bumper sticker and program from an exhibition MLB game at Mile High Stadium in 1985.
Photo courtesy of Steve Katich

Surprising no one who currently attends Rockies-Cubs games, the Cubs drove ticket sales. The DBC even used Harry Carey’s famous catchphrase “Holy Cow” in advertisements. The two games drew over 76,000 fans, despite a 38-degree day on Saturday and the Easter holiday on Sunday. Denver was ready for baseball and proved it.

By this time, MLB had committed to an expansion, but to not how many teams or where they would be located. Denver was in the mix, but so was a few cities in Florida, Buffalo, and Washington, D.C., among others.

Following the Mile High success, MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth made comments to the press that no city was “close to being qualified for an expansion team.” He also mentioned that Colorado had turned down the Olympics in 1976, which Ueberroth’s tone seemed to suggest made them unworthy of a baseball team.

Colorado won the bid to host the Olympics in 1976, but voters turned down the change to host the games, a move that was slightly ahead of its time as many cities have since faced economic shortfalls after hosting the Olympics.

After a step forward, Denver now appeared to take two steps back.

“The process frustrated me,” Peña said in his book “…Not Bad for a South Texas Boy.” “It was sluggish and had many blind alleys.”

All the while, the DBC had to walk a fine line.

“We had to really try and balance people’s desire for a Major League Baseball team and not overpromise because we didn’t have anything yet,” Katich said. “We had to try to keep enthusiasm for the effort while tempering expectations.”

Darkest before the dawn

Katich frequented MLB winter meetings to not only show the continued interest, but to also try to gain insight into MLB’s thinking process. One year, in Houston, MLB officials and representatives of possible bid cities met. Katich, who describes himself as polite, kindly asked if Ueberroth could share a timetable for announcing a decision.

Ueberroth replied, “Why should I? Next question.”

Later, Katich was formerly introduced to Ueberroth by American League president Bobby Brown. Ueberroth, known for his hostile temperament and bluntness, said, “I had a chance to meet that smart ass this morning.”

Katich was terrified.

“I am thinking I just blew our chances of getting Major League Baseball,” Katich said.

Katich couldn’t risk not getting a team. During the talks with MLB, they also talked with other teams about relocating. They had secret negotiations with the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s, and San Francisco Giants. For the most part, the teams were using Denver as leverage to threaten moving if they didn’t get new stadiums.

“I knew we were being used … I felt like as long as we are being constantly mentioned as a city that seems worthy of a baseball team moving here, I was fine with that,” Katich said. “The Giants came closer than I think most people appreciate. Their staff was ready to roll with it. The GM had close ties to Denver, but the owner [Bob Lurie] was a San Francisco native and to his credit, he said, ‘I just can’t do it.’”

Luckily, the MLB process moved forward, selecting Denver as one of six finalists for an NL team in 1990. An ownership group came together and the final pieces fell into place. On July 5, 1991, five days after Peña left office having termed out, the decision was announced – Colorado would get a team. Nine years after Katich and Peña made a campaign promise, they delivered.

“It was incredible. It was so fun. I had so many great experiences during that period,” Katich said. “There is no book that tells you how to put together an effort to try to bring a Major League Baseball team to a city. It was really fantastic, especially since it ended well.”

Part 4 will be on the collaborative and pivotal effort to fund and build Coors Field to help Colorado earn an MLB team.

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Keeler: If Kris Bryant would take Rockies’ $182 million, why wouldn’t Trevor Story? Or Jon Gray? | Denver Post ($)

It is a really good question. It’s one we’ve all been wondering. This is all post-Jeff Bridich, so he can’t be blamed. Kris Bryant brings a bat. But as Sean Keeler says, “the Rockies shelled out ‘great’ money for what’s likely to be only a ‘very good’ return.” Bryant is an All-Star and former MVP. Are his best days behind him? Does he really make the offense better if he’s in left and Charlie Blackmon is in right? So many questions.

In a Keith Law article from The Athletic, he calls the Rockies signing of Bryant “curious.” He joins Keeler’s questioning by saying, “I have no objection to owners spending money on players, but the Rockies are going to pay Bryant a lot of money to make them a more watchable last-place team. That’s not nothing, I guess, but if you’re trying to build a winner in Denver, would focusing on, say, premium defenders, or players up the middle, or starting pitching make more sense?”

Not to pile on or anything, but Jay Jaffe’s article “Kris Bryant’s Enormous Payday Highlights Questions about the Rockies” is also scratching his head at the front office’s actions.

MLB free agency: Top 10 remaining free agents as Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, more remain unsigned | CBSsports.com

Trevor Story is ranked No. 2 behind Carlos Correa. The Twins and Red Sox are rumored to have interest in the former Rockie.

Rockies 5, Diamondbacks 3: Blach solid, MacIver and Boswell homer | MLB.com

The Rockies have officially started Cactus League action and Ty Blach started it with a bang. The former Regis Jesuit High School star, who the Rockies signed to a Minor League contract after he was cut by the Orioles after the 2021 season, struck out four D-backs in two hitless innings. Catcher Willie MacIver (no. 28 PuRP) and DH Bret Boswell each added solo homers. Jameson Hannah (no. 33 PuRP) went 2-for-2 with an RBI and run scored after replacing an 0-for-2 Garrett Hampson in center field. Alan Trejo and Connor Joe each got a hit and scored a run.

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