Colorado Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu (9) Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (28) Colorado Rockies first baseman Mark Reynolds (12) and Colorado Rockies right fielder Carlos Gonzalez (5) laugh in the dugout before their game against the Cleveland Indians on June 7, 2017 in Denver at Coors Field.
Is this how it happens? And did anyone see it coming? In the 25th season of the Rockies’ existence, at 3:44 on a warm, spring afternoon, a Colorado native walked from the mound at Coors Field toward the dugout, and Denver became a real baseball town.
“I got chills from that standing ovation,” Kyle Freeland said Wednesday.
Me, too. As Freeland received a standing ovation from the crowd of 36,909, I looked at my arms.
Total goose bumps.
I’ve been waiting for a quarter century, longer than Freeland has been alive, for Denver to take its baseball seriously, to live and die with the Rockies on an afternoon game in the middle of the week, the same way Broncomaniacs give their heart to the local NFL team 24/7.
Real baseball passion does not become part of the civic fabric overnight. But what happened when Freeland departed the mound after a fine outing that propelled Colorado to a 8-1 victory against Cleveland was organic and genuine and strong. It was a crashing tsunami of sound.
“It just built. … As I started walking to the dugout, it got louder and louder and louder,” said Feeland, letting the noise of the standing ovation wash over him. “It was almost to the point to where you couldn’t really think. And that’s when I got the chills.”
In the visitors’ clubhouse before the game, Cleveland manager Terry Francona was asked his impression of baseball in the rarefied air of 5,280 feet above sea level. Mind you, he has been here before, winning a championship as the skipper for Boston in 2007, when there was an unfriendly takeover of LoDo by those wicked passionate fans of the Red Sox.
But contemplating the challenge of playing every day at Coors, Francona dropped his head in his hand, and simply said this: “Yikes!”
Colorado pummeled the defending American League champions, with the Rockies beating Cleveland by the aggregate score of 19-4 to win their 14th series of the young season. After the second loss, Francona was asked to evaluate our gritty little ballclub, and his response was as grumpy as a bear awaken from a long nap by a bee sting.
Yes, our cuddly little ballclub is all grown up, and is a real pain in the rear. Playing the Rockies can put anybody in a foul mood, whether the foe happens to be the Indians or the Dodgers or the Cubs.
“What are they going to do, just pass on the series? They’ve got to play here,” outfielder Carlos Gonzalez said. “When you lose two games by a lot of runs, they’re going to be frustrated.
At 20th and Blake, baseball has always been more about the Dippin’ Dots and the sunshine, rather than the beauty found in the sweet subtleties of a double switch. Since those giddy old days of Rocktober, when the whole town was jumping on the bandwagon, the loudest noise made by local fans has often been an attempt to drown out the embarrassment of refugees from Midwest winters chanting: “Let’s go, Cubs!”
It bugged me. Heck, it has irked Colorado players. “You’ve seen how it is when we play the Cubs here. You get that feeling like, ‘What the hell?’ It’s messed up,” Gonzalez told me.
But could the Rockies of 2017 be good enough to capture the imagination and the attention of a Broncos town from now until October? If there’s a real baseball vibe in a ballpark, a real appreciation for the six hits Freeland scattered against the Indians, it makes a difference.
“It definitely gives you that little boost, especially when you get to that grind of July and August,” said Colorado first baseman Mark Reynolds, who has played in Baltimore and Chicago, where baseball has really mattered for generations.
As a legitimate World Series contender, are the Rockies for real? You tell me.
But this is what Gonzalez said: “They better start taking us seriously.”
There’s no arguing with Colorado’s 38-23 record, the first time the team has been 15 games over .500 since September 2010. Third baseman Nolan Arenado does something nearly every day that makes you, me and Todd Helton wonder if we’re all witnesses to the first Hall of Famer to wear purple pinstripes. But can the rookie quartet of Antonio Senzatela, Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez and Freeland possibly be as good as their aggregate 22 victories and 3.61 earned-run average suggest? Or is it just a dream? Nobody knows for certain.
But this much I do know. As Freeland walked off the mound, as the crowd stood as one and the noise of a spontaneous standing ovation swept through across Coors Field, it all seemed as real as the goose bumps on the back of a young pitcher’s neck.
After 25 years, Denver finally feels like a town where baseball really matters.