DENVER — The woman making my sandwich at the Subway shop in Laramie did her best to look interested.
“We’re going to see the Rockies,” I’d told her.
It dawned on me that statement could be confusing, so I clarified.
“Not the mountains. The big league baseball team.”
• • •
Ever since the major leagues gave a franchise to Denver in 1993, creating the Colorado Rockies Baseball Club, I’d wondered what it would be like to do this: leave Salt Lake after a late breakfast or an early lunch and drive to downtown Denver in time for that night’s ballgame.
Twenty-five years later I finally found out. Two weeks ago I made the trip with my son Eric, who agreed to supply his minivan, and my grandsons Ben, 13, and Jack, almost 6, because those boys know how to road trip.
I don't know what took me so long.
For Wasatch Front baseball fans, Coors Field, a mere 520 miles away, is by far the closest big league option. Next closest is Chase Field in Phoenix at 660 miles. Dodger Stadium clocks in at 690 miles, AT&T Park in San Francisco at 730 miles. Those are all-day journeys. You can be to Denver in eight hours. Less than that with no construction across Wyoming.
That didn’t happen to us, and probably has never happened to anyone, but we were still at the ballpark in a little over nine hours, counting the Subway stop in Laramie and having to negotiate bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-25 outside Denver.
One could presume all the traffic may have been due to the hordes of Salt Lake fans going to the game, but the fact we didn’t see another Utah license plate suggests it may just have been rush hour.
From what I could see, the relationship between Utah and the baseball Rockies hovers somewhere between scant and nonexistent. In two games at Coors Field, I saw one person wearing a Salt Lake City T-shirt. When I asked if he was from Utah, he said, “Nope. Sorry, somebody gave me the shirt.”
It’s true, the Rockies are owned by an ex-Ute — Colorado businessman Charlie Monfort, who got his bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah in 1982 — so there is a Utah Night at Coors Field every summer. (This year’s is Aug. 9). But Kevin Stoker of the U. of U. Alumni Association, who is in charge of setting up the event, said the usual crowd of about 300 is mostly alumni from the Denver area. Last year they had one person make the trip from Utah.
But if the Salt Lake-to-Denver pilgrimage is the road less traveled, it does exist and it can be magical. That’s certainly true for Bryan Kilpatrick, who, until proven otherwise, qualifies as Utah’s biggest Colorado Rockies fan.
Bryan was 10 years old in the summer of 1993 when the Rockies came into being. His dad Randy and his uncle Rodger loaded Bryan and his older brother Ian in a red Nissan pickup, backed out of their driveway in Kearns and pointed toward Denver. They stayed in a Super 8 and saw two games at Mile High Stadium — the Rockies’ home for their first two seasons while Coors Field was being built. The visiting Philadelphia Phillies won both games by a combined score of 24-1, but in the second game, when the Rocks were down 18-0, Andrés Galarraga hit a home run and the stadium went nuts.
“That’s stayed with me forever,” says Bryan. “I’ve been a fan ever since.”
Fan is understating it. For several years, out of his house in Sandy, Brian managed the Purple Row blog for SB Nation, responsible for all Rockies content. He’s made more trips to Coors Field than he can count.
I called Brian before our road trip. At 35, he retains the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old. “Coors Field’s got to be the best ballpark in baseball,” he proclaimed. “The views, the sunsets, the cloud formations, the party atmosphere, the green chili nachos.”
But it wasn’t all gush. “You have to keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak, if you’re taking the Wyoming way,” he cautioned. “That’s a pretty awful drive. As long as you make it, it’s definitely worth it.”
Turned out that Kilpatrick, who remains befuddled why Utah doesn’t have a Rockies fan club and a radio station that carries the team’s games, knows his stuff. With Wyoming behind us, we turned a corner and Coors Field in all its downtown glory appeared like a mirage in the desert.
First thing we did, after receiving our complimentary foam rubber Dinger the Dinosaur masks at the gate, was walk down to field level to look at the perfectly trimmed grass. A groundskeeper hustled over. I thought it might be to tell us we weren’t allowed down there. But he didn’t do that. He reached in the pocket of his khakis and produced a baseball that had just been used in warmups and handed it to Jack.
Nothing to do after that but kick back in the stands and inhale Denver’s legendary mile-high air.
Between games we had a Saturday to kill, and there are plenty of worse places to kill a day than Denver. I suggested first walking the 16th Street Mall and checking out the Nike Town store I remembered from when I spent a week in Denver in 2008 covering the Democratic National Convention that nominated Barack Obama for the presidency.
The only problem with that idea was Nike Town closed — in 2011. We went instead to the Denver REI flagship store next to the South Platte River, where on a hot day Denverites ride inner tubes and play in the water like water buffaloes and hope they don’t catch E coli.
We rented bike-share bikes next to the river. I recalled that it was during that same Democratic Convention that the low-cost, eco-friendly bike-share concept was first introduced to the public. Hundreds of bikes were set up at locations around Denver (and after that at Minneapolis-St. Paul for the Republican Presidential Convention) in an effort to capitalize on all the media being in town and to see if the notion might actually work.
I rented a bike back then and rode it on the Denver area bike trails, enjoying the ride but skeptically thinking this was an idea that would never fly once all the convention visitors were gone.
Ten years later, I reflected on that brilliant prediction as we rode along the Cherry Creek Parkway all the way to our hotel.
If Utah hasn’t exactly embraced the Rockies, Colorado sure has. Year-in, year-out, Coors Field is one of MLB’s best-attended ballparks. (The franchise still holds the season record of 4.5 million fans from their inaugural season when they played at cavernous Mile High Stadium). And this in spite of the fact that in their first 25 seasons, the Rockies can point to just eight winning records and four playoff appearances — highlighted by the magical 2007 season when they won 14 of their last 15 regular-season games and six straight postseason contests to make it all the way to the World Series, where, alas, they were shut out by the Red Sox, four games to none.
Looking around the stands, it’s obvious the icon of Rockies icons remains Todd Helton, the first baseman who played all 17 of his big league seasons (1997-2013) in Colorado, holds 15 of the franchise’s 22 batting records, and in 2000 took a .400 average all the way to Aug. 21 (he finished at .372, best in the majors). Helton jerseys are still ubiquitous at Coors Field, but there are also plenty of third baseman Nolan Arenado, who has spent all six seasons of his big league career at Colorado, four of them, including this year, as an All-Star.2 comments on this story
Arenado had two big hits in the two games we watched, both Rockies wins over the Seattle Mariners.
The team was impressive on the field. More impressive were the crowds. Thirty-eight thousand attended Friday, and Saturday, at 47,789, was a near sellout. We successfully bought scalper’s tickets at a discount for Friday’s game, but tickets for Saturday’s game, employing the same advance planning as we did for the Nike Town excursion, wound up costing a tad more than face value.
OK, more than a tad more.
How were we to know it was Nolan Arenado Bobblehead Night? We’re from Utah.