This is the fourth 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. Part 3 was on politicians and the Denver Baseball Commission.
The best ideas can come from the most unlikely places.
After decades of trying and failing to get an MLB team to come to Colorado, progress was coming along slowly in the 1980s.
Having a baseball-only stadium was a key requirement in securing the bid from the National League. Even though Mile High Stadium started as a Bears Stadium just for baseball in 1948, it had been converted to a football stadium for the Broncos. Its foundations were old and there was no way Denver would get a team unless they built a new stadium.
But the timing was bad. Much of 1980s were marked by economic hardship in Denver. The oil had busted. Industries were laying off employees. Commercial real estate businessman Neil Macey didn’t have much to do. So many buildings in downtown Denver and beyond were being foreclosed and no one was buying.
It was 1988 and Denver Mayor Federico Peña’s administration was trying to manage the crisis, in addition to continuing to fight to bring an MLB team to Colorado. Macey was a friend of Peña’s and also engaged in the baseball battle. One day, while he was running on the High Line Canal Trail, Macey was running and thinking about the recent election.
It was November and Denver metro area voters had just passed the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District sales tax. The funding for museums and the Denver Zoo had been slashed because of government cutbacks. Despite the tough times, voters from Denver, Boulder, Adams, Arapahoe, Jefferson, Douglas, and Broomfield Counties decided to help them by passing a 0.1% sales tax. The ballot measure won by securing almost 75% of the vote.
That’s when Macey had a running epiphany.
“That many people don’t agree on anything. If you were to ask people if the tree was green, most people wouldn’t agree,” Macey said. “I thought if that many people will vote for this, which is a very small percentage that is a penny on $10, then I can get 51 percent of the people to vote for a baseball stadium.”
He contacted his lawyer and drew up a plan. If they were going to follow the SCFD blueprint, they needed to get a bill approved by the Colorado General Assembly and the governor before being able to put the issue to the voters. Politician after politician wouldn’t sign on, even then state senator and future Governor Bill Owens, a big baseball fan.
That’s when someone directed him to Westminster Representative Kathi Williams. They met and Macey remembers Williams saying, “I’ve never been to a baseball game in my life, but this sounds like fun.”
The duo started the project and quickly became close friends, a bond they share to this day. They drafted a bill, which Williams sponsored, and it passed both the Colorado General Assembly before Governor Roy Romer signed it in 1989. That same year, the NL announced it would add two teams who would take the field in 1993.
The bill, marketed with slogans like “a penny on $10” and “a time zone without a team,” went to the voters in the six Denver metro area counties in a special election in August of 1994. Despite polling that showed the ballot measure failing, it won with 54% of the vote. (History side note: the same election also got voter support to increase taxes to build Denver Public Library’s Central Branch.) Macey credits the hard work of many to drive the baseball fans to the polls.
“If it was a general election, I am not sure if it would have passed,” Macey said. “That teed us up to go to Major League Baseball to say we can build a stadium as soon as you give us a team.”
The legislation also set up the Colorado Baseball Commission, where Macey became a founding member, and the Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District to work on the details and logistics of securing the MLB bid and finalizing plans for a stadium if Denver was selected.
Creating and passing the bill was the ultimate bipartisan effort in different levels of government and with businesspeople with various backgrounds.
“That was probably the last time that everyone got along. Everyone worked together,” Macey said. “I don’t remember any disagreements, or if we had any, we worked together to find the solution. That’s probably the last time that happened.”
Three spots were identified as possible locations for the future Coors Field: the current Lower Downtown (LoDo) location, another spot by Union Station, and one where Ball Arena is currently located. At the time, LoDo was desolate, known for drug use and crime. It also had the most promise and most advocates from former mayors, like Peña and future mayors/current brewery owners like John Hickenlooper, who’s now one of Colorado’s senators.
“I pushed for locating the baseball park in Lower Downtown Denver, believing the new stadium would accelerate LoDo’s development and help transform the rest of downtown,” Peña said in his book “…Not Bad for a South Texas Boy.”
By March 13, 1991, the 20th and Blake streets location was selected.
The voters approving the tax only solidified the population’s desire for a team and it helped the ownership team come together. Even though there were issues and changes in the ownership group, which led to Pete Coors joining the group and earning the naming rights for the stadium, momentum was building. By March 15, Coors Field had a name.
On June 10, the NL announced south Florida and Denver as its two cities. On July 5, the owners voted and approved the expansion. It was official. Denver was going to have an MLB team and things needed to move quickly.
Construction at 20th and Blake started on Oct. 16, 1992. The Rockies played their first two years at Mile High Stadium before christening Coors Field on April 26, 1995.
As the Rockies were born and grew, Denver’s economy rebounded. The sales tax that voters had approved was supposed to take 20 years to generate the $215 million needed for the stadium. With a stronger economy and with the population booming, the stadium was paid off 13 years early. Across town, the Denver Broncos seized on the good fortune, taking their own bill to the voters to approve another stadium tax since taxpayers thought they would be paying for one anyway. It worked and the Broncos got what is now Empower Field at Mile High.
“Denver basically got two stadiums for the price of one,” Macey said.
Flash forward to today, and Coors Field is approaching its 27th birthday. Shockingly, it is now the third-oldest stadium in the National League behind only Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium. Macey couldn’t be happier with how it all turned out and how well Coors Field has been maintained.
“Coors Field is fabulous,” Macey said. “You would never know it’s that old. It still looks brand new.”
The Rockies are forever linked to Coors Field with its massive outfield, thin air, humidor, beautiful sunsets over the Rocky Mountains, and reputation for destroying pitchers and becoming an asterisk for potential Hall of Famers. But their partnership goes deeper. Without Coors Field, there wouldn’t be the Colorado Rockies.
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