Sunday, February 21, 2016

Rocky Mountain Baseball

Coors Field
Denver, CO
July 24, 2015
Cincinnati Reds vs. Colorado Rockies

July 23: Leavin' On A Jet Plane

We had been home from Toronto less than a month - twenty-five days to be exact - and it was already time to hit the road again. I felt as if we barely had time to unpack and now we were out the door again, but I loved it. This trip was going to be our most adventurous yet, flying from New Jersey to Colorado and driving back home. We would cover 2,400 miles, see eight baseball games in eight cities, (as well as seeing historical sights, eating and drinking at some famous spots and hearing three distinctly different types of music and learning the history of each) spanning ten states, all in eleven days. It was an exhausting schedule, but I knew we were going to enjoy every minute of it.

By now everyone who has read this blog knows I do not like to fly. When we started this journey I HATED that mode of travel (it dates back to my first ever flight, from New Jersey to Arizona, when I was 12, which was horrendous), but now it didn't bother me nearly as much as it once had. I do still get a little anxious, but just until we're in the air and then I can relax and read; sometimes I'll even fall asleep. Today, however, was going to be the longest plane ride I had taken since 1997 and Ryan, Nick, Rob and Tony were trying to crank me up.

"You know where the life jackets are, in case we go down over water, right?" Ryan wanted to know.
"The seats turn into floats," I told him, yawning.
"What if we hit a mountain?" Nick chimed in.
"I'll say goodbye to you, 'cause you're in the row in front of me and will go first," I told him.
"What if the landing gear won't come down?" Tony laughed.
"We'll see how far this bird can slide," I said, giving him a dirty look for getting involved.
"What if this flight runs out of beer?" Rob wanted to know.
"That's not funny! That can't be a possibility; find out now or get me off this plane," I half-jokingly told him.

We all had a good laugh and settled in to await take-off. Once in the air Tony ordered a round of beers for the three of us, to toast a new adventure as well as prove there was plenty of beer on the flight.

Everyone made themselves comfortable, knowing it would be about a four-hour flight, and I decided this would be the perfect time to brush up on the history of the Rockies, which wouldn't take up too much of the flight because the team was only 20 years old this year.

Rockies History

In 1991, Major League Baseball granted the city of Denver an expansion franchise, but that was not the first attempt to bring an MLB team there. Baseball was not new to Denver; in fact it had a history of being a successful minor league outpost from the mid-1880s on. Originally just called "Denver" a franchise played ball in the city starting in 1885 and the names kept changing every few years. From 1886-1887 they were the Mountain Lions, in 1888 the Mountaineers, in 1889 they changed the name yet again to the Solis, in 1890 they were the Grizzlies, from 1891-1894 they were the Mountaineers again, and then it was back to "Denver" for the 1895 season. From 1896-1897 they were the Gulfs and then back to the Grizzlies from 1898-1912, rounding out a decade-and-a-half of constant name changing and not knowing who they really were.

Denver Bears Baseball
Some stability arrived in 1913 when the team became the Bears and stayed with that name until the team disbanded after 1954. In 1955 the team was replaced by another, the Kansas City Blues, who were forced out of their home and set up shop in the spot vacated by the Bears. The Blues changed their name to Bears and the lineage continued until that team left in 1992, moving to New Orleans and becoming the Zephyrs. While the team was a minor league franchise it was affiliated, over the years, with many MLB teams, including the Yankees, Pirates, White Sox, Senators, Twins, Rangers, Reds, Brewers, and quite a few others. They had won 14 league titles, dating back to 1929, and have had some notable players, such as Graig Nettles, Andre Dawson, Warren Cromartie, Tim Raines and Terry Francona, as well as managers Billy Martin, Ralph Houk and Felipe Alou, who all led teams there.

As far back as 1958 there were rumors that Major League Baseball would expand into the Rocky Mountain State. In fact a new league, the Continental League, was proposed by a New York-based player, William Shea, in the winter of that year, which would compete with the two existing major leagues and have a team based in Denver. These plans, however, fell apart when, in 1960, the National League awarded two new franchises to play in Houston and New York and the dream died without a game ever being played.

Things seemed to go dormant until the 1980s when there were multiple rumors that the Pittsburgh Pirates, or the Oakland A's, would be relocating to Colorado, but nothing would come of those rumors either. By the late 1980s, however, the movement again began to pick up steam and on July 5, 1991, Major League Baseball awarded new franchises to Denver and South Florida. The Denver group was hand-picked by then-Governor Roy Romer and was led by an Ohio beverage distributor named John Antonucci and the head of the Phar-Mor drugstore chain, Michael Monus. There were also other investors in the project (Hensel Phelps Construction,  KOA Radio and the Rocky Mountain News), but Antonucci and Monus were the lead investors.

The project was almost scuttled before it even got off the ground, as an accounting and embezzlement scandal at Phar-Mor forced both Monus and Anonucci to sell their stakes in the project. For a while no local investor could be found and the team was rumored to be heading to Tampa, Florida, until Denver-based trucking executive Jerry Morris stepped up and took control. It was then that the deal was finalized and the team was assuredly staying in Denver.

Rockies Logo
The team would become known as the Rockies, due to the proximity to the world-famous  mountain range, and their colors were black, purple and white. They would play their home games for the 1993 and 1994 seasons at Mile High Stadium, which they would share with the Denver Broncos until their own facility could be completed. The franchise was set to begin play in the spring of 1993, but first they would have to piece together a team in the 1992 Expansion draft, which was to be held on November 17, 1992.

The Rockies chose David Neid, a right-handed pitcher from the Atlanta Braves, with their first selection and found a few other "golden nuggets" later on in the draft. Charlie Hayes (Yankees), Joe Girardi (Cubs), Eric Young (Dodgers), Andy Ashby (Phillies), Vinny Castilla (Braves) and Brad Ausmus (Yankees) were all chosen to round out Colorado's inaugural season lineup. Dante Bichette was later added, through a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers. Opening Day 1993 was less than four months away and the team was now ready to take the field.

While the team awaited completion of their permanent home, which would be ready for 1995, they would play in Denver's multi-purpose venue, Mile High Stadium, which was originally a baseball venue for the city's minor league franchise, the original Bears.

A Temporary Home

Mile High Stadium

Constructed in the 1940s, Mile High Stadium served as the home to Denver's baseball franchises, the Bears, the Zephyrs and the Rockies from 1948 until 1995. The stadium would also serve the AFL/NFL's Denver Broncos (1960-2000), the NASL's Dynamos (1974-1975) and Caribous (1978), the USFL's Gold (1983-1985) and the MSL's Rapids (1996-2000).

Since it was originally built for baseball, the dimensions reverted back to those of the Bears once the Rockies moved in. It was 333 feet to left field, 366 to left-center, 423 to center, 400 to right-center and 370 to right. The capacity, however, was increased for football, to 76,273, in 1968 and never wavered until the stadium closed. This, along with very low ticket prices, allowed the Rockies to play in front of MLB-record crowds until they moved to Coors Field, in 1995. In fact the club almost reached 4.5 million fans in 1993 and was on record to surpass that in 1994 when the strike caused the cancellation of the last two months of the season.
Mile High Stadium's acoustics also gave the Rockies a "home field advantage" in that it was so loud. The sounds of fans, who were yelling, screaming, clapping and stomping their feet, would echo throughout the stadium because the horseshoe-shaped design would hold the sound in. This was especially problematic for visiting teams who found it next to impossible to communicate with one another over the din.

Inaugural Season Logo

The first-year Rockies were led onto the field by manager Don Baylor, on April 5, 1993, against the New York Mets, at Shea Stadium. Unfortunately the team didn't give it's fans much to cheer about back home, getting shut out 3-0 in their inaugural game. They did, however, bounce back and win their first-ever-home-game, four days later, by a score of 11-4, over the Montreal Expos. Second baseman Eric Young started things off with a bang, hitting a lead-off home run in the bottom of the first inning, and Bryn Smith went seven innings, giving up no runs on six hits, for the win. The attendance shattered MLB's previous record, coming in at 80,227, which still stands today.

Though the Rockies did struggle in their first year, there were a few bright spots. While they would finish 37 games back, the Rocks would garner 67 wins (which was a National League expansion team record), first baseman Andres Galerraga would win the batting title (.370) and the franchise would set an MLB attendance record, bringing in 4,483,350 fans, which may never be broken in a single

In April of 1994 the team would find itself 6-5 on the young season, which would be the first time the franchise could ever boast a record over .500. Unfortunately it would also be the last time that season this would happen. Though the team did moderately better, 53-64, that stat is skewed a bit as the strike forced the cancellation of the season from August on.

What the franchise was becoming known for, however, was its exploits in the batter's box. Balls were flying all over, and out of, Mile High Stadium that year. In fact Galarraga and teammate Dante Bichette hit 31 and 27 home runs, respectively, which would have translated into 43 and 37 in a non-shortened year. Critics pointed to the thin air, a mile above sea level, but that didn't stop the fans from coming to see the home team, which was on pace to outdraw its first season record when the strike hit.

The Blake Street Bombers
Though the strike cut short the 1994 season the Rockies weren't standing pat in the off-season. Their most notable acquisition was free-agent Larry Walker, who was signed away from the Montreal Expos and provided an exciting addition to the "Big Three" of Galarraga, Bichette and third baseman Vinny Castilla. The four would come to be known as "The Blake Street Bombers", named after the street the team's new ballpark, Coors Field, would be on, starting in 1995.

Coors Field

Coors Field, From Our Camera Lens (7/24/15)

Mile High Stadium was never meant to be more than a temporary home for the Rockies and ground was broken on Coors Field in April of 1992. The ballpark was to be built two blocks from Union Station, which could provide easy access to public transportation, on Blake Street, and would also be right off I-25, which would provide easy motor vehicle access as well. It would be the first baseball-only stadium built in the National League since Dodger Stadium was constructed in 1962, and would become the NL's third-oldest ball-field when Marlins Park opened in 2012.

Dante Bichette Home Run
The Rockies opened their new ballpark on April 26, 1995, against the New York Mets. The game turned out to be a memorable debut for Coors Field, as the Rockies won 11-9 in 14 innings. The Rockies' first hit in their new home came in the bottom of the first (a Walt Weiss single), as did their first run, when Larry Walker doubled Weiss home. The Rox took a 5-1 lead into the top of the sixth, but allowed the Mets to score four and tie the game, before going ahead again in the bottom of the inning. The Mets would then score in the top of the seventh, to once again tie the game, and again in the top of the ninth to take the lead. The Rockies, however, came back to tie the score on another Larry Walker double, sending the game into extra innings. The Mets again took the lead in the top of the 13th and 14th, but each time the Rockies fought back. Colorado finally won the game, in the bottom of the 14th, on a Dante Bichette three-run home run, sending the 47,228 fans home happy on Opening Day.

If the fans were thrilled with Opening Day they would be ecstatic with the rest of the season. They battled all year long and finished with a record of 77-67, which was good for second place in the newly-created National League Western Division, but more importantly they secured one of the two first-ever National League Wild Card berths and took on the Atlanta Braves.

The Rockies would put up a valiant fight in the NLDS, but they would lose 3-1 in the best-of-five series, dropping Games 1 and 2 at Coors Field, while the Braves would go on to defeat the Indians in the World Series. Though they didn't advance to the NLCS everyone considered the season a success and expected big things from the team in the future.

1996 was expected to be a breakout year for Colorado; unfortunately, injuries derailed the campaign from the get-go. Walker, who had been so instrumental in the success of the 1995 team, injured himself early on and was never quite right all season. He managed to finish with a .276 average and 18 home runs, but only managed to play in 83 games. The offense was buoyed by outfielder Ellis Burkes, who had an All Star season (.344, 40, 128), as well as Galarraga and Castilla, who hit over forty homers and Bichete, who hit over 30. Unfortunately the pitching staff was bitten by the injury bug and the team fell to third place in the NL West, with a record of 83-79.

In 1997 Walker rebounded, hitting .376, 49 and 130 (almost winning the Triple Crown), and becoming the first Rockies' player to win the league MVP award. He was one of three Rockies to again hit over forty home runs (Castilla and Galarraga were the other two), but once again the pitchers struggled and the team replicated its 83-79, third-place finish.

Todd Helton
After 1997 the Rockies decided to go in a different direction; Andres Galarraga was allowed to walk away
as a free agent, which allowed the club's 1995 first-round pick, Todd Helton, to come in and be the everyday first baseman and  Darryl Kile was brought in to help strengthen to pitching staff. Unfortunately, Kile struggled mightily in 1998 (13-17, 5.20 ERA) and the team once again failed to live up to their 1995 record, finishing 77-85, ahead of only the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West. After the season Don Baylor was replaced in the manager's office by Jim Leyland.

The front office was hoping Leyland would lead the Rockies back to respectability, but even he couldn't help as the team finished with a 72-90 record, in dead last place. Leyland retired, rather than stay on board, and he was replaced for the 2000 season by Buddy Bell, while GM Bob Gebhard resigned in August of 1999 and was replaced by Dan O'Dowd.

O'Dowd was determined to turn the club around, as well as put his own stamp on it, and he started making trades in an attempt to jump start the club. Bichette was traded to the Cincinnati Reds (for Stan Belina and Jeffrey Hammonds), Kile was then sent packing to St. Louis (for Manny Aybar, Brent Butler, Rich Croushore and Jose Jiminez), where he rebounded with the Cardinals, and, finally, Castilla was sent to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (in return for Rolando Arroyo and Aaron Ledesma).

The 2000 team certainly had a new look to it; unfortunately it didn't translate into a playoff berth, though the team did improve to 82-80, finishing in fourth place. This brought about more tinkering from O'Dowd, who added pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle in the off-season, only to have the team slip further back (73-89, fifth place) in the 2001 season, after which Hampton demanded a trade.

The good news was that Helton had blossomed into a true star during this time period, winning a batting title, an RBI title, making the All Star team on multiple occasions and qualifying for the MVP Award. Unfortunately he was only one player and could not carry the team all on his own.

The Future: Troy Tulowitzki
Between 1998 and 2006 the team never climbed higher than 4th place, finishing with a record of 662-796. They had gone through two GMs (Gebhard and O'Dowd), four managers (Baylor, Leyland, Bell and Clint Hurdle) and a slew of players but were not really getting any better. This, of course, brought about a decrease in attendance, which in turn caused a need to trim payroll and the costlier players had to be moved. The first to go was Walker, who was traded to St. Louis during the 2004 season. Following him out the door were Vinny Castilla, Charles Johnson, Jeremy Burnitz and Royce Clayton, being replaced, over the next few seasons, with kids from the farm, such as Garrett Atkins, Brad Hawpe, Clint Barnes, Joe Kennedy, Byung-Hyun Kim, Matt Holiday, Troy Tulowitzki and Jeff Francis, who were now marketed as "Generation R."

A Magical Run

Rockies Fans Enjoy October Baseball

By 2007 manager Clint Hurdle hadn't been doing any better than his predecessors, but something "clicked" late in the season. The club trailed LA, Arizona and San Diego for most of the season, but beginning in mid-September they caught fire, winning 14 of their remaining 15 games and tying them with San Diego for the Wild Card berth, which would take place on October 1, in Colorado.

The Rockies would jump out to a 3-0 lead, after two innings, on a Tulowitzki single, a Matt Holliday sacrifice fly and a Yorvit Torrealba home run. The Padres answered back with a five-run third inning, but the Rockies again took the lead, scoring runs in the third, fifth and sixth, before allowing San Diego to tie it again in the eighth. The game stayed tied until the thirteenth inning, when Scott Hairston hit a two-run home run to put the Padres three outs away from moving on.

With Trevor Hoffman, the Padres' unbeatable closer, on the mound in the bottom of the inning, it looked like the Rockies had finally met their match, but they refused to yield. Doubles to Kaz Matsui and Tulowitzki, followed by a triple off the bat of Holliday, tied the game. San Diego then intentionally walked Helton, putting runners on the corners, to face Jamey Carroll. Carroll promptly hit a shallow drive to Brian Giles, in right, and Holliday slid under the tag at home, completing the improbable comeback. The Rockies had won the right to face the Phillies in the NLDS, starting two days later in Philly.

The Phils were led by Charlie Manuel and had some very good players, such as Cole Hamels, Aaron Rowand, Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz, and they would win the World Series the following year, but they were not prepared for the Rockies in 2007. Colorado swept the series, 3-0, winning the first two games in Philadelphia by the scores of 4-2 and 10-5, before coming back to Coors Field and winning Game 3, 2-1. It was the Rockies first-ever playoff win and moved them into the NLCS, against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

On paper the teams were very evenly matched; the Rockies had finished the year 90-73, while the Diamondbacks sported a record of 90-72, but games are won on the field, not on paper and this series turned out to be a big mismatch.

The Rox captured the first two games, 5-1 and 3-2 (in 11 innings), behind solid pitching from Jeff Francis in Game 1 and a walk-off walk in Game 2, before heading home to Coors Field. The fans were whipped into a fevered pitch from watching the team in the last three weeks and were ready to do their part in finishing off Arizona.

The Rockies sent the crowd into a frenzy when Holliday connected for a two-out, solo, home run in the bottom of the first, but the Diamondbacks answered back with a Mark Reynolds shot in the fourth. Yorvit Torrealba broke the game open with a three-run homer in the sixth and that was all the Rockies would need in a 4-1 victory, moving them one game closer to the club's first-ever World Series appearance.

NL Champs

Arizona took an early 1-0 lead, with a run in the third, but Matt Holliday hit a three run blast, capping off a six-run inning in the fourth to break the game wide open...or so the Rockies' fans thought.

The Diamondbacks made things interesting with a three-run blast, off the bat of Chris Snyder, in the eighth, but they could get no closer. When Troy Tulowitzki fielded a grounder and threw out a sliding Eric Byrnes at first base, the Rockies were the National League Champions and set to play for a World Championship.

The Rockies had to wait eight days before they were able to again take the field. This was due to the fact that the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians were in the midst of an epic battle that would take all seven games to decide. In the end Boston prevailed and would become Colorado's opponent.

The Sox were three years removed from breaking "The Curse of The Bambino," an 86-year World Series Championship drought, and were powered by an offense led by David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury. The pitching staff was formidable as well, being anchored by Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and closer Jonathan Papelbon. This was not a team to take lightly and they quickly demonstrated why.

Boston took game one easily, 13-1,  powered by 17 hits, including Dustin Pedroia's first inning home run. They scored three in the first, one in the second, two in the fourth and seven in the fifth, leaving the Rockies to wonder if anyone got the number of the truck that had hit them. In fact the game was so lopsided the Sox had twice as many runs as the Rockies had hits.

Game 2 was a much closer affair, 2-1, but the result was the same - another Boston win. This time Curt Schilling stifled the Colorado bats, giving up a run in the first and then nothing more, and only allowing five hits all game. The Rockies were headed home disappointed, but not dejected. They felt they had gotten their legs back under them in Game 2 and could very easily climb back into the series.

Games 3 and 4 went the same way Games 1 and 2 had in Boston, with the Red Sox blowing the Rockies out in Game 3 (10-5) and then winning another close one in Game 4 (4-3). In doing so they swept Colorado, something no one had anticipated after watching the Rockies play for the previous month, and took home their second World Championship since 2004. The team and its fans were upset, but pointed to the fact that the Rox had played well down the stretch and would likely be back, as soon as next year. They were sadly mistaken.

The Bottom Falls Out

2008 turned out to be a down year for the team; they finished 16 games worse (74-88) than the year before and fell to third place in the NL West, out of a playoff spot. After the disappointing season the team traded Holliday to Oakland (for Huston Street, Carlos Gomez and Greg Smith) and fired coaches Jamie Quirk, Mike Gallego and Alan Cockrell.

In 2009 the writing was on the wall for manager Clint Hurdle and after the team had a poor start to the season (19-28), he was fired in May and replaced with Jim Tracy. The team quickly rebounded, going 21-7 in the month of June and getting back into the pennant race. Tracy provided a calming hand; the players relaxed, enjoyed playing for him, and found themselves securing a playoff berth on October 1. They had finished the season 92-70, good for second place in the division and a Wild Card berth, where they would face the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies.

The Phils were not the same team the Rockies had swept in 2007; they were stronger, deeper and playoff-proven. They had just captured the first World Championship for the city of Philadelphia since 1980, and were hungry to repeat.

Philadelphia took Game 1, 5-1, but the Rockies bounced back the next night, 5-4, evening the series at one game each, before heading home to Colorado. Unfortunately, the magic ended there as the Phils took Games 3 and 4, by scores of 6-5 and 5-4, and moved on to the NLCS where they would face the Dodgers. Once again the team, and its fans, thought the ship had been rightened and that they would again return to the playoffs in 2010. Once again they were in for a let down.
Jimenez Throws a No-No

2010 saw Rockies star-pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez throw the franchise's first-ever no-hitter, but there was little else to cheer for as the team won nine games less than the year before (83-79) and finished in third place, nine games back, and out of the playoff picture.

The Rockies would not get to the playoffs again, finishing no higher than fourth place (2011) and posting a record of 277-371 between 2011 and 2014. After the 2011 season Tracy was fired and Walt Weiss was brought in to manage, but even he wasn't having the desired effect on the team. There were still some very good players (Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzales and Nolan Arenado), but long-time Rocky Helton retired after 2013 and injuries played a huge part in the team's decline.

In 2014 the Rockies would retire Helton's number, and after another disappointing season O'Dowd would resign his GM duties, being replaced by Jeff Bridich. By the time we were getting off the plane the Rockies were not a threat in the playoff picture, but we were hoping for a good game nonetheless.

Rocky Mountain High

Almost Heaven

Obviously the first thing you notice about any city, after flying in, is the airport and Denver was no exception.

It was huge.

"Okay," Rob tried to explain. "We need to get on a train to go get our luggage."
"Wait, what?" I asked quizzically.
"You'll see," he assured me.

He wasn't kidding, we had to take a subway-like vehicle to reach baggage claim and then hop a shuttle bus to get us to the rental car facility, where we grabbed the Ford Explorer we would call "home" for the next 11 days.

We were staying in Colorado Springs for the first night, which is about 90 minutes away from the airport, so we quickly packed the car and headed out to the highway. The first thing I noticed was the sky, which looked like it was right on top of us. The clouds seemed so low to the ground that we were driving through them, as opposed to how "high" they looked back home. We also became aware of the vast differential in landscapes right in front of us. We saw mountains, valleys, buttes, and lots of rock formations that jutted up from the ground and seemed to climb so high they pierced the clouds.

"Look, over there," Ryan called out. "The Rocky Mountains."

Sure enough, when I looked over to my right, there they stood, tall, majestic and proud.

"They even still have snow on them," I laughed.
"I want to go skiing," Ryan said, in a half-pleading tone.
"That's a trip for another time," I promised him.

The 90 minutes passed quickly, as we had open road and some good music blasting out of the radio. After being on the plane for about four hours everyone was looking forward to a bit of down time before we saw our first game, later that evening.

"You said the hotel has a pool, right?" Nick asked.
"That's what they said," Rob told him.
"Can we go swimming after we check in?" Ryan chimed in.
"That's the plan," Tony assured them.
"What's for dinner?" Ryan wanted to know.
"He's starting already," Nick laughed.
"We'll drive off that bridge when we come to it," I told him.
"Like Ted Kennedy?" Ryan finished my joke.
"Huh?" Nick questioned.
"We'll explain it to you later, Mary Jo," Rob told him.
"Whatever," was his response, as Tony laughed.

We pulled into the Homewood Suites and quickly piled out of the car. Everyone was ready to be moving, after a long day of sitting, and the kids were anxious to hit the pool.

"Is there someplace we can run and get a six pack, for the room?" I asked the lady at the desk.
"You don't need to do that," she told us. "Our dinner bar comes with unlimited free beer and wine."
"Come again," I replied.
"You've had a breakfast buffet at other hotels, right?"
"Yes," I said, still not comprehending what she was getting at.
"Well we offer those for breakfast and dinner, and dinner comes with free beer and wine."

Tony, Rob and I shook our heads, as if the woman was speaking a foreign language.

"Did she say unlimited, free, beer and wine?" Tony asked Rob.
"That's what it sounded like," he replied.
"Is this Heaven?" I wanted to know.
"No, it's Colorado," Ryan laughed, finishing the line from Field of Dreams.
"Never let an opportunity pass to quote a great movie," Rob told him, tussling his hair.

The front desk lady smiled and laughed, but I couldn't tell if she was doing it to be polite, or because she thought we were crazy. Either way was okay, as we were going to go swimming AND get free dinner and beers. This was trip was starting out on a high note.

Pool Time

It took us less than ten minutes to walk into our room - or should I say rooms, since there was a bedroom and a living room with a pullout couch - toss the bags on the floor, put on some swim suits and head back downstairs to the pool. As we were walking through the lobby we noticed the staff opening up the lounge area.

"Detour," Tony laughed as he headed for the beer taps.
"You're kidding, right?" Nick chastised his father.
"We don't kid about three things on this trip," Rob told him. "Baseball, beer and food."
"What else is there?" Ryan laughed.
"Exactly," I told him.
Ryan and Nick Relaxing, Poolside

We quickly filled out two plastic cups each and headed outside.

Nick, Ryan, Tony and I quickly jumped in the pool, while Rob grabbed us a table. The boys swam laps, dunked one another and splashed all of us, while we sat back and enjoyed watching them be teenagers. Every now and then we would hop out of the pool, grab a shot of the beer and jump right back in, but after about an hour the kids were hungry.

"Food time," Ryan let us know, as he jogged past us and headed inside to fill a plate.

When he got back to the table I couldn't believe how much he had piled on.

"Dinner is Ceasar salad with chicken, and garlic bread," he informed me.

Quickly everyone else went in and grabbed a plate as well. We all knew how much Ryan could eat, so we wanted to make sure we all had something before he was going back for seconds, and the eventual thirds.
 Before long it was time to head to our first game, between the Colorado Sky Sox and the Nashville Sounds, who, interestingly enough, we were going to be seeing later in the trip, when we got to Nashville.

The ride to the park took about fifteen minutes, which was good because no one was thrilled to be travelling again and we were all looking forward to kicking back and watching a ballgame. The time change was doing a number on us; our bodies were saying it was two hours later than it was, and since we were headed to Kansas City, and another time zone, the following night we were trying to stay as close to Daylight Savings Time as possible.

The Sky Sox are the Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, which we found odd since they were located 90 minutes from the Colorado Rockies, in Denver. After asking around we found out that the Sky Sox have a history that dates back to 1950, when they were an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox (hence the name) in the old Western League. In 1958 the league folded and the team disbanded until the Pacific Coast League moved the Hawaiian Islanders to Colorado Springs in 1988 and reformed the Sky Sox. They were a Cleveland Indians farm team until 1992 and then it was arranged for them to become partners with the Rockies until 2014, when the Rockies moved their Triple-A club to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Brewers took them over starting in 2015.

Security Service Field
Security Service Field, the Sky Sox home since 1988, is a nice minor league park. It's non-descript, as most are, but it did have an open, airy, feel to it. It is nestled into the eastern edge of Colorado Springs and has a "suburban-feel" to it. In fact you can see a community of townhouses out past the outfield wall that stretch from left to right. Advertisements adorn the fences and the biggest "eye-catching" signage is the replica of the Rocky Mountains over the left-center field video scoreboard.

Game Time
We wandered around a bit, checking out the ballpark from a variety of different vantage points and hitting the team shop for some shirts, hats, a program and a scorecard, before heading to our seats, which were about 12 rows off the field, just above the Sky Sox dugout. The night was warm, but not overbearing, and we meandered slowly through the ballpark. The concourses were wide and clean and there were plenty of concession stands, souvenir stands, a team store, games of chance and a small kids section to keep fans of every age happy and content.

Just as we got to our section Ryan noticed a sign over one of the concession stands telling us today was "National Hot Dog Day" and all ballpark dogs were $1. Right away I knew what was coming, or at least I thought I did.

"Time for some hot dogs?" came the predictable question.
"Didn't you just eat a ton of salad and bread?" Rob asked him.
"Appetizer, man. I need real food," was Ryan's response.
"You think hot dogs are 'REAL' food?" Tony wanted to know.
"At a baseball game they are," he laughed.

$1 Dog Day
Dinner Time
I figured we might as well get this over with now, so we headed over to the concession stand where Ryan decided on a foot-long chili-cheese-dog. Now just saying that makes it seem large, but the description does it no justice. Not only was this dog a foot long, but it was overflowing with so much chili and cheese that the lady gave Ry a spoon to make sure he was able to capture all of the extra spillage. We all just shook our heads as Ryan hung onto his hot dog, with two hands, as if it were a prized possession and not a meal that was going to be devoured in four bites. The rest of us grabbed some hot dogs and beers and headed to our seats, for the beginning of the game.

We got to our seat with more than enough time for Ryan to wolf down his hot dog before the national anthem and he was even magnanimous to offer me a bite, though he did ask I not take such a big one. After I reminded him it was $1 per dog he was more than generous, so I took two.

Bearing the Colors In the Old West

Just as he finished his meal the announcer asked everyone to rise for the flag presentation. We all stood and craned our neck to the right field corner to watch the flag bearers march into the ballpark, but were more than a little surprised to see the colors being carried in by mounted cavalry.

The Cavalry
Four mounted riders, in US Cavalry uniforms, proudly rode into the park, no more than 20 yards from us. One was carrying the American flag, another was holding the state flag and the other two were flanking both of the flag bearers. I had no idea if this was normal here in Colorado, but I had never seen anything so grandiose, yet simple, and made sure to snap off a picture of the soldiers right before the anthem and another as they rode back past us, on the way out.

"That was cool," Nick said, elbowing Ryan.
"Really makes it feel like the Old West," he replied, wiping the last bit of hot dog from his mouth.
"I'm betting Colorado is the only place we'll see something like THIS," Tony laughed.

First Pitch

With that the game began.

The Sounds drew first blood before we knew what had happened. The first two batters walked, the runner on second then moved to third on a long fly ball and came home when the clean-up batter hit a sacrifice fly to right. Just like that it was 1-0, without a hit.

"This is not a good start," I told Ryan.
"Stop being so negative, the Sox have nine innings to get the run back," he said, finishing off his dog.
"I just don't like being down before we've even sent a player to the plate, in the first," I muttered.
"It happens. Relax and enjoy the night," he scolded me.

I knew he was right, but I was still annoyed. I took a pull on my beer and watched the Sky Sox get the final out of the inning and head to the dugout.

Colorado Springs got a man on in bottom of the first, but stranded him at second and we headed to the top of the second inning still down 1-0.

For the next few innings the teams traded zeroes. Both clubs would get runners on, but no one could capitalize on their good fortune and the score remained 1-0 through the fifth. Then something so surreal occurred I was positive that it could have only happened to us.

Hangin' With Sox
The Colorado Springs' mascot, Sox the Fox, had just come out to entertain the crowd. He rode over to our side of the field on a unicycle and climbed up on the dugout to try and rev up the crowd. Now I love to get pictures with the mascots wherever we go, and Ryan enjoys it as well, so I grabbed my beer and my son and we headed down to the dugout to try and get him to pose with us.

Sox was busy with some other fans as we patiently waited for our turn. When he was finished with the folks before us I put my brew into a cup holder and we walked over for our picture. Sox apparently didn't like my Yankees hat, so he jokingly covered it up and we laughed and tussled for a bit before taking the picture. Once we got the picture we thanked him and headed back to where I had left the beer, only to find a young couple sitting in the seats we had just vacated.

"Excuse me, sir," I said, politely, as I reached in. "I just need to grab my beer."
"Um, that's mine," he said, reaching for the cup.
"No, sir, I think you're mistaken. I just left this here while we got a picture with the fox," I told him.
"No," he said nastily. "This is mine, you must have lost yours."
"If by 'lost' you mean had it stolen, then yes," Ryan said, looking him right in the eye.

The man stood up and started to reach for Ryan, but I quickly nudged him out of the way and a stare-off ensued.

This was not exactly how I had pictured our first night starting, but I wasn't backing down, yet either. I stared right at him until his girlfriend, who was looking mortified the whole time, told him to sit down and stop making trouble. Even she knew what he had just pulled and mouthed the words 'I'm sorry' to me as he seated himself.

I was not about to start our trip off this way, so I leaned down and whispered:

"You can keep it, but I know what you did, your girl knows what you did and so does my son. Have a nice night."

He wouldn't even look at me, but he did turn a deep red in response to my comment.

"You're going to let him just take your beer?" Ryan wanted to know.
"It's not worth getting in a fight over, tossed out of the park and, possibly, arrested," I told him.
"But it's the principle," he told me.
"I know, but I made my point and we all know I'm right, now it's time to walk away."

When I got back to the seats I was calmer, but still fuming. I told the guys what had happened and settled in to watch the rest of the ballgame. The gentleman directly in front of us just shook his head and left his seat for what I assumed was a trip to the men's room, but when he came back he handed me a fresh beer.

"I saw everything that happened and I couldn't let you think that's how we act in Colorado," he said.
"Thank you," I stammered, genuinely struck by the more-than-friendly gesture.
"No, son, thank you for doing the right thing and walking away. A lot of others might not have and it's a shame that had to happen to you. My family has been enjoying your conversations all night and your trip sounds like so much fun, my son wants to do it too," he told us.

We were all so thankful for this gentleman's random act of kindness that we all spent the next few innings talking about where we had been in years past, where we were going over the next ten days and what we were planning to see in Colorado. He gave us a must-eat-at restaurant, which we put on the docket for the next day, and we all settled in to root for a Sky Sox comeback-win, as they were still down 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth.

As the Sox dug in for their, possibly, last at-bats the teams had each traded five hits, but the difference was the run, scored with no hits, in the top of the first. Colorado Springs started the inning off with a single and a walk, off former Major Leaguer Phil Coke, which put the tying run on second with no outs. They then replaced the man on first with a pinch runner and sent up the third batter of the inning, who promptly singled home the tying run and sent the winning run to third.

Walk-Off Sky Sox Win
The place went bonkers as the Sounds decided it was time to replace Coke with another pitcher, who struck out a batter, recording the first out of the inning. This left runners on first and third, but there was now one out, which might've allowed a double play to end the rally and send the game to extra innings. That, however, never happened, as the next Sky Sox batter singled to left and brought in the winning run.

The fans erupted, and we started yelling, screaming, cheering and high-fiving everyone around us. What a great way to start our adventure; befriending some great home team fans, rooting with them and watching a walk-off win. It was almost too perfect.

By the time we all got in the car we decided we weren't that tired and had to go get a post-game snack before turning in. So Rob found us a non-descript local restaurant, where we listened to a local muscian play requests on his guitar and had some wings, nachos, calamari and beers. The place wasn't anything special, just some local joint we found, and even though we were exhausted after such a long day no one was ready for sleep yet.

Eventually we made our way back to the hotel, where we sank into our beds and let sleep overtake us. It had been a long day, but the next one was going to be the beast of the trip, so we figured it was time to turn in. As I closed my eyes I could only imagine what was in store for us next.

July 24th: Olympic Training, The US Air Force, Colorado Cuisine and Baseball

Logo At US Training Center

We woke up the next morning fully rested and ready to go. Adventure was just ahead of us; there was 3/4 of a country to see, staring in Colorado, but first there was breakfast to be had.

Never really one for breakfast I grabbed some coffee and watched Ryan, Rob, Tony and Nick destroy the breakfast bar. There were eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, waffles, muffins, oatmeal, cereal and all kinds of juices, which seemed to be refilled as fast as the hotel patrons could empty the chafing dishes. I made a mental note to keep a lookout for Homewood Suites in the future; between the breakfasts, the dinners and the all-you-can-drink beer and wine bar, why would we want to stay anywhere else?
After checking out we hopped in the car and headed to the far side of Colorado Springs, where we were going to spend the early part of the morning touring the United States Olympic Training Center.

US Olympic Training Center
The United States Olympic Training Center  (USOTC) is actually one of three regional centers (Lake Placid,  NY, and Chula Vista, CA, are the other two), where athletes come to reside and train for their Olympic sports. There are also 17 subsidiary sites, in fifteen states, across the country, but Colorado Springs is considered to be the flagship center for the US Olympic Committee (USOC). It is a 35-acre compound, which has sports venues and facilities for judo, fencing, weightlifting, swimming, wrestling, shooting, swimming, gymnastics and martial arts. It also includes dormitories, cafeterias, a state-of-the-art sports medicine facility and a sports science center, and can house over 500 athletes and coaches at any given time. It has been referred to as an "athletic city" and is world renowned for what it provides.

Olympic Strength

The first thing you see as you head to the visitor's center is a statue, entitled "Olympic Strength," which shows athletes holding up the world. It sits in the middle of a beautiful garden, which also has statues of a boxer, a figure skater and various other athletes jumping high in a state of celebration. It seems to be bringing forth the thought of athletics and art, melding as one.

Ali and the Torches
As you walk into the visitor's center you can't help but know you are at a US facility. The walls are adorned with red, white and blue, and there are also flag-type decorations scattered throughout. The first thing that greeted us was a replica of Muhammad Ali, holding the Olympic torch, from the 1996 Atlanta games. He is flanked by the torches from the previous and successive US hosted games (Los Angeles, 1984 and Salt Lake City, 2002) as well.

We quickly approached the front desk to see where we would all meet for the 9:30 tour. The lady told us we had about 25 minutes to go, but pointed us to where the group would meet. As we walked around we noticed pictures of famous Olympic champions, like Mary Lou Retton, as well as watercolors from previous Olympic Games. The paintings were very well done and the one that stood out, to me, was from the LA Coliseum, in 1984.

Passing the Torch
A Future Olympian?
A little farther down the hallway was a statue called "Passing the
Torch," which depicted the runners handing off the Olympic Torch from one to another, as they made their way across the country. I suggested Ryan get a picture having the torch being passed to him, which he loved the idea of. In our house the Olympics have always been a family event, going back to my days as a child. Nicole and I have always tried to bring the "Olympic Magic" to our home by getting the family together and watching everything Olympic-related; from the Opening Ceremonies, where we'll make a meal of traditional dishes from the host country, through the actual events, to the Closing Ceremonies, all the while cheering incessantly for the US, as we learn more about that part of the world. I know for a fact that both boys have, at one time or another, dreamed of being Olympic athletes in various sports, so this was going to be a special morning for us.

The tour began, at 9:30 sharp, with a movie describing what we were about to see, followed by an inspiring talk from one of the US Paralympians who had been permanently injured in a bicycle accident. We listened to the story of  what had brought him to this point and were amazed at the courage, fortitude and discipline he showed in coming all the way back to be an Olympian.

The Athlete's Village
Olympic Courtyard
After a Q & A period we all were taken into a beautiful courtyard, with a waterfall and an American Flag staircase, which brought the athletes to a private, upstairs balcony. The main path was flanked by flags on both sides of the walk and led directly to the facilities where the Olympians used to train. It really was a beautiful campus and provided a relaxed, laid back atmosphere, for when the athletes weren't working out.


Shooting Range
As we walked along I saw that at various stops there were plaques and statues of Olympic events and famous moments from Olympic history. The first one we came upon was fitting: baseball. Ryan and I had to grab a picture before we headed inside to see the shooting range. USA Shooting has its headquarters in the Colorado Springs facility, so we got to see the offices as well as the ranges on which shooters would train and qualify on.

Women's Volleyball

Our next stop would be one of the gyms, where we would see judo fighters, wrestlers and gymnasts training, but the highlight for us was finding the women's volleyball team practicing. We, of course, stayed to watch for a bit, taking some pictures and falling behind the group, but it was well worth it.

Track and Field 

As we headed outside Ryan again found some cutouts representing track and field, which are among his favorite summer Olympic sports, so we had to take a few more pics. We also got to peer into the gym where some of the weightlifters were working out and determined that these would not be some people we would want to have mad at us.

Olympic Pool
Following In Phelps' Wake?
A little farther down the lane we caught up to the group just outside the swimming facility. As with USA Shooting, USA Swimming bases its headquarters here, so the facilities are always in use. We got to peer into the pool area, which was unlike anything I had ever seen, but we were not allowed to go inside, because they didn't want us tracking stuff into the pool area. Ryan has always loved swimming, which might be his favorite summer games sport, and has been an avid fan of Michael Phelps, so when we saw a Phelps plaque he made sure to get another picture. He told me, right then and there, that he planned on trying out for the Ramsey High School Swim Team for his upcoming freshman year, which I, of course, thought was a great idea.

Do You Believe In Miracle?
As we continued to walk the grounds we were shown the dormitory facility where the athletes live, which we were obviously not allowed to go inside, saw some more sports' cutouts (equestrian and hockey), found a plaque for the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" United States Olympic Hockey Team (my absolute favorite Olympic moment) and the indoor track facility. This was a two-floored gymnasium where the lower level was planned for free weights, as well as different kinds of fitness machines, while the upstairs had an indoor/outdoor, circular track. This I found very interesting because the track was a circle, with half being inside the building, while the other half was outside, and there were sliding walls that closed it off during inclement weather.

Ali Has Nothing To Fear
USA Bobsled
Finally we were brought back to the visitors' center, where the tour concluded, but we were able to go into the Olympic Hall of Fame Room, which houses some Olympic memorabilia until the US Olympic Hall of Fame building is completed in 2018. We were able to hit a heavy bag Muhammad Ali used, sit in an Olympic bobsleigh and read about the many different athletes who have competed for the United States in the many Olympic Games. Eventually we headed back out to the car, as our next stop, the US Air Force Academy was calling to us.

US Air Force Academy

United States Air Force Academy Entrance

On the way over we all talked about how we'd been told the Air Force Academy was the most beautiful of all three military academies. I had yet to visit Annapolis, but had been to West Point many times and found it breathtaking in history, location and aesthetic appearance. In fact, just a few years earlier Ryan and I had seen the New York Yankees play the Army Cadets in a pre-season game at Johnson Stadium at Doubleday Field, and the setting was stunning. I could only imagine what the USAF Academy was going to look like.

I didn't have to wait long; the ride over was only 25 minutes or so, and the view from the highway was everything I hoped it would be. As we approached the North Gate I could see the facility was set back from the road. Visible from the entrance was the Cadet Chapel, the visitors' center and the athletic fields. It shouldn't take more than 2-3 minutes to reach it, I assumed. I was wrong.

The ride to the visitors' center took about 10-15 minutes, due to the road winding through the beautiful Colorado landscape, but we took a little longer because the closer we got the more beautiful the scenery was and we had to stop at a lookout point to take some pictures. This was a view that literally left me speechless, which is most certainly hard to do.

The Air Force Academy Has a Beautiful Campus
The US Air Force Academy is nestled in the mountains of El Paso County. In fact it seemed the entire facility jutted up against the rock formations that Colorado is famous for and, as we later found out, the cadets sometimes use the mountain paths for exercise and training purposes. The academy itself is the youngest of the five US Service Academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines), graduating its first class in 1959.

Cadet recruits for admission are judged on academic standards, and must show leadership and athletic abilities, as well as display outstanding character. They must also pass a medical exam, undergo a fitness test and secure a nomination from the member of Congress from their home district. Once admitted the cadet will go through a grueling four-year program and will graduate as a second lieutenant, with a Bachelor of Science degree. The USAF Academy usually brings in about 1,200 new cadets each year, and graduates about 1,000 of them.

Cadet Training Glider
Replica of a Cadet's Dorm Room
Our first stop would be the Barry Goldwater Visitors' Center, which
seems to be built right up against the foot of one of the smaller mountains in the area. Here we saw a movie on the history of the Air Force, and the academy, looked at plaques, photos and other memorabilia of famous cadet graduates, got to see how a cadet's dorm room looks (through a replica set up exactly as it would be in one of the halls), and look at the gliders the cadets learn to fly, which were hanging overhead. We spent about 45 minutes wandering through the center, reading as much as there was, looking at everything and visiting the gift shop, before it was time to take a self-guided tour of the grounds we were allowed to see; obviously the dorms, mess halls and classrooms were off limits.

Ry With a B-29
Harmon Hall Courtyard
We walked from the visitors' center to the courtyard at Harmon Hall, which is just outside the Cadet Chapel. Inside this courtyard there are bronze sculptures of Lt. General Harmon, the Tuskegee Airmen and a plethora of famous aircraft, such as the B-17, the B-24, P-39, P-40, P-47 and P-51. Ryan, who loves military history, absolutely loved the courtyard and had to have some pictures with some of the aircraft he had taken to learning about.

Cadet Chapel

Just a bit north of the courtyard stands the piece de resistance: of the Air Force Academy; the Cadet Chapel. Completed in 1962, the chapel is the distinguishing landmark on the academy's campus. Originally controversial in its design, the chapel was named a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
Standing 150 feet high, the chapel can be seen, on clear days, from as far as five miles away and is world-renowned for its striking beauty and construction. People have come from all over the world to see, and experience, this beautiful, stunning, house of worship.

Inside the Chapel
As we walked inside I immediately felt as if my head was on a swivel; I didn't know which way to turn first and there were so many portions to see. The shell of the chapel is made up of 17 spires - it was originally supposed to be 19, but was cut down by two due to budgetary constraints - and the structure is made up of 100 identical tetrahedrons enclosed by aluminum panels. These tetrahedrons are spaced a foot apart and colored glass, which bathes the room in a beautiful light, progressing from darker to lighter as you approach the alter, fills in the gaps between them.

The pews are made from American Walnut and African Mahogany, with the ends resembling the propellers of WW I fighter plane propellers and the back section has a strip of metal that resembles a fighter jet's wing.

Pipe Organ In the Chapel
I quietly walked the length of the chapel, 280 feet, taking pictures along the way, as I knew words could never do justice to what my eyes were seeing. After standing before the altar I quickly walked back to the front when I noticed the largest pipe-organ I had ever seen hanging above the entrance. This truly is a one-of-a-kind structure and I could tell everyone was completely overwhelmed with what they were looking at.

As I walked back into the foyer I met a security guard who informed me that what I had just witnessed was only one of the different worship areas in the chapel. What I had just been inside was known as the Protestant Chapel, but there was also a Catholic Chapel, a Jewish Chapel, a Buddhist Chapel, All Faith Rooms and a Falcon's Circle, outside. The All Faith Rooms can be used for all other religious groups and do not have any specific religious symbols inside. The worshipers, however, do have access to any faith-specific necessities, so they may properly worship their own religion. The Falcon Circle stands outside and serves the academy's followers of Earth-Centered Spirituality (Wicca, Paganism and Druidism) and was constructed with stones carved from the adjacent mountain and a fire-pit to accommodate any type of religious necessity.

I have been in both the Army Chapel, at West Point, and the Cadet Chapel, at the Air Force Academy and can say they are each stunningly beautiful in their own distinct way. Visiting the academy was an amazing experience and one I would highly recommend to anyone who might be in Colorado Springs and looking for something to do.

We quickly headed to the van and headed back towards Denver; it was almost one o'clock and we were getting hungry. It had been decided that we were going to take the gentleman's advice, from the previous evening, and head over to one of Colorado's oldest establishments: The Buckhorn Exchange. It was about a 55-minute ride, so we wanted to get started. After all, we still had some friends to meet up with in Denver and a baseball game to get to that night.

Lunch: Old West-Style

The Buckhorn Exchange

The Buckhorn Exchange is listed as "Denver's Original Steakhouse" and is located in one of the oldest parts of the city, at 100 Osage. The establishment was the brainchild of Henry H. "Shorty Scout" Zietz, who at age 12 was riding the range with "Buffalo Bill" Cody. It was during their years together, as scouts, that Zietz was given the name "Shorty Scout" by Chief Sitting Bull, in reference to his diminutive stature.

The restaurant became a favorite eatery of cattlemen, railroad workers, minors, gamblers, Indian chiefs and businessmen. It offered a festive atmosphere in which one could grab a drink, have a meal and enjoy some of the finest game the Old West had to offer. Now in its third century of operation, it is listed on the National Historic Registry. Though it is primarily a steakhouse, The Buckhorn is famous for its wild game menu, which features buffalo prime rib, quail, elk, salmon, game hen, rattlesnake and the house specialty, Rocky Mountain Oysters.

The Buckhorn's Dining Room
The minute we walked inside it seemed as if we were transported back in time to the days of the Old West. The whole restaurant had dark wood paneling and the tables were sturdy and covered with simple, red-checked tablecloths, and there were animal-head trophies adorning every space on the walls. We saw moose, elk, deer, bobcats, bison and wild boar, and there were also fully stuffed-animals, such as otter, skunks, raccoons, and a giant western diamondback rattlesnake, as well as game birds in other various locations. I had never seen anything quite like this, but I had a feeling I was going to love this place.

We were quickly seated and decided to order a plethora of wild game appetizers for the table. We decided on wild duck breast, sirloin game tips (beef, buffalo and elk, sauteed with mushrooms in a pepper sauce), smoked buffalo sausage (with red chili polenta and a spicy mustard), a buffalo burger, a bison burger and, of course, Rocky Mountain Oysters. I had suggested trying the rattlesnake, but Ryan nixed that idea, saying that he was not going to bite anything that could someday bite him back and kill him.

Dave the Moose
Colorado's First Liquor License
After placing our order we were encouraged to go upstairs and see the rest of the restaurant, which we gladly agreed to do. There were Native American artifacts hanging over the stairway and the first thing that greeted us when we got upstairs was a moose head, which I named "Dave," hanging over the bar. We were told by the bartender that The Buckhorn was granted the first-ever liquor license in the state of Colorado and I was allowed to come behind the bar to photograph it.

One of the Many Gun Collections
Upstairs Lounge
Right next to the bar itself was a lounge area, where patrons could sit and talk, enjoy their drink, or relax over a meal. What made this lounge area different from others I had ever seen, aside from the animals all over the walls and the old-time gun collections encased throughout the room, was that the furniture was something you'd find in living rooms all over the country. Big comfy couches, deep leather chairs and recliners, as well as small tables to rest your plates and glasses on. It really was a comfortable environment and had we known it was here before we had been seated we would have chosen to eat here, instead.

Da Bears
Service Bar
Just past the lounge area was another dining room, which had the same
motif as downstairs but had two other features that made it stand out in a completely different way: a full sized chuck wagon that had been turned into a service bar, and two fully stuffed bears, standing at the front of the room. The chuck wagon-bar was an interesting concept, but it was the bears that stole the show. One was a medium-sized black bear and the other was a full-sized grizzly, which we obviously had to get a picture with. After all, how often is it that you come to a restaurant and are greeted by a giant bear at the front of the dining room?

Colorado's Original Explorers

On the way back downstairs Ryan found an "exhibit" that made him actually laugh out loud; it was a canoe filled with smaller critters (a skunk, two raccoons and a badger) that looked as if they were headed out for a river adventure. I don't know why it struck us as funny as it did, but we had to have a picture to take home and show Brendan.

"I'm pretty sure Brendan would not approve of this place," Rob said, as we sat back down.
"Yeah, I think he'd be pretty upset at all the animals hanging from the walls," Nick agreed.
"I'm not sure he'd like the menu, to be honest," Ryan chimed in.

Now for those that don't know, Brendan is my animal enthusiast. He is enamored with anything to do with animals, and loves going to zoos and aquariums as much as he enjoys attending sporting events, so this would not be the best place to have taken him for lunch.

All of a sudden the waitress returned with our food and placed it all on the table in front of us. She explained what each one was, how it was prepared and what we were likely to taste when biting into it. The one thing everyone seemed to be a little squeamish about, but were interested in trying, were the Rocky Mountain Oysters, which are billed as the house specialty.

Rocky Mountain Oysters, Wild Game Tips and Buffalo Sausage
The name of the dish, Rocky Mountain Oysters, is innocuous enough if you don't know what it is, but upon learning what you're eating, and how it's prepared, it can make even the toughest guy shudder. It seems this particular delicacy is bull testicles, which have been surgically removed, peeled, pounded flat, sliced into smaller sections, coated in a mixture of flour, bread crumbs, salt and pepper, and then deep fried. I'm sure plenty of guys who had no idea what this dish was when I started talking about it, are now wincing and have crossed their legs, at least once. Needless to say, no one came here saying "we MUST have a plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters," but we decided we had to at least give them a shot...but only a half order.

Rob's Unsure About the "Oysters"
Ryan Tries an "Oyster"
We divvied everything up, except for the "oysters," which sat in the middle of the table, like the elephant in the room. No one wanted to be the first to grab one, so I took a deep breath, reached over, picked one up and put it on my plate. I could sense everyone's eyes watching my every move, so there was no turning back. I gave it a thorough looking over before deciding to dip it in the horseradish sauce (it's also served with cocktail sauce, which we got as well), took a deep breath and popped it in my mouth.

It was very much edible, once you get past knowing exactly what you're eating, and tasted a lot like fried calamari. The horseradish sauce added a slight "zip," but didn't overwhelm the hint of salt and pepper crust. If you had no idea what you were eating there would be no issues, but everyone at the table knew exactly what I, and soon they, was eating; hence the "cautiousness." Ryan snapped a great picture of Rob, who was watching me eat at the time, and you can see the look of "concern" on his face as I partook.

"How was it," Rob asked, "and please don't say chewy, or I'm not eating it."
"It was actually pretty good," I laughed, grabbing another few pieces."

One by one everyone else braved the plate of "oysters," Ryan being the most "fearless," though I can tell you he was more than a little hesitant about putting it in his mouth. Once he ate it, however, he was convinced it was pretty good, despite being grossed out knowing what it was.

"Oysters", Game Tips, Duck, Buffalo Sausage
Nick With a Bison Burger
The rest of the meal was very, very good. The duck was a lot
like chicken, but more flavorful and had a "sweeter" type taste, and was served in a rich, savory gravy, while the buffalo sausage had a sweet, smokey flavor and a nice "snap" when bitten into. It was also leaner than a beef or pork sausage, so it was a lot less greasy and more of the natural flavor could shine through, enhanced with just a dab of the mustard it was served with. Both burgers, bison and buffalo, were also less greasy than a beef burger and provided a full, distinct, rich flavor, which was more pronounced than beef, yet, at the same time, less "heavy." The wild game tips, which had beef, buffalo and elk, were three distinct flavors, which was not surprising since they are three different animals. The biggest surprise of the three was the elk, which was lean, but definitely had a more "gamey" taste than the other two. The flavor differential was quite enjoyable, all in the same dish and that one did not last very long.

Sarsaparilla,"In a Dirty Glass"
The one thing Ryan decided to try, rather than conventional soda, was a home-brewed Sarsaparilla. This soft-drink is categorized in the root beer family, but it's not as sweet, and is mostly associated with the Old West through old cowboy books and movies. He found it enjoyable, smoother than a root beer and with less of a "bite," and decided this was going to be his second-favorite soft drink, behind Dr. Pepper.

The waitress came to clear the table and present us with the check when she noticed there was still a half order, of the half order, of Rocky Mountain Oysters still on the plate.

"I know the half order is huge," she scolded us, "but you all can't leave that food on the plate."
"Ma'am," Ryan started, "they were good, but we've already eaten more balls than any man ever should."

Thankfully she had a sense of humor and laughed long and hard, along with the rest of us, as she collected the bill and we headed out the door to our next stop, a pregame party across the street from Coors Field, with some friends from back home who were out here for the game as well.

Pre- Gaming with Friends from Back Home

It took us about fifteen minutes to get into downtown Denver, where we quickly found a parking spot and headed over to Jackson's Sports Bar to join a party with some friends we knew from back home, who, as luck would have it, were also in Denver for the night's game.

Rob and I are part of a "community" of Springsteen fans (in fact that's how we met many years ago), who are tight-knit and do more than just talk to one another from behind a keyboard, or meet up at a concert. A lot of us happened to "meet" in this group, then we met in person, at various shows, and became such good friends that we would visit one another, spend time as a group and help one another through the tough times that life throws at you and, sometimes, vacation together. This particular group does a baseball trip once a year as well, but they choose one destination and spend an extended period of time at that location, and this year it happened to be in Denver.

Ry and His Buddy, Nicholas
Me, Doug, Heidi and Ry
We got to Jackson's in time to catch them for a few minutes on their "pre-game pub crawl," so we spent the next hour and a half laughing, joking and hanging out with Andy, Sean, Laura, Mary, Lisa, her son Nicholas (who is good friends with Ryan), Frank, Brian (who had just joined us for the Toronto trip, the preceding month), Heidi and her boyfriend, Doug. The funniest thing about all this was the fact we hadn't seen a few of them in more than a year and even though we live relatively close to one another it took traveling three-quarters of the way across the country in order to get together.

Eventually our all-too-short amount of time was up and our friends were on their way to another sports bar, so we decided to take a stroll around the outside of Coors Field, before meeting some friends of Rob's and heading inside when the gates opened.

Coors Field

Coors Field, From Blake Street

Being that Jackson's is directly across the street from the Home Plate Gate (at 20th and Blake), we decided to start there, which was perfect because it is the iconic front of the ballpark that people see anytime Coors is depicted in videos or pictures. It is an old-time-looking brick edifice, with a giant clock sitting between the words Coors and Field, at the top. There are windows built into the superstructure which stretch around the building, on both the first and third base sides, and the plaza in front of the gate is hand-laid brick, with a statue entitled "The Player" standing in the center.

Ry and I With "The Player"

This statue is a tribute to Branch Rickey, standing nine feet six inches tall, on top of a four-foot-high granite base, donated by the Denver Rotary Club in 2005. This piece of art is a larger version of the "Branch Rickey Award," which is annually given to the MLB player who best represents Rickey's motto of "service over self." Some recipients who have been honored in the past are, Kirby Puckett, Ozzie Smith, Curt Schilling and Dave Winfield.

Opening Day Brick

We also found a cornerstone, just to the right of the Home Plate Gate, which was dedicated to Coors Field's Opening Day, on April 26, 1995. This stone was obviously part of the original edifice, but was inscribed at the end of the inaugural season to honor the first-ever Opening Day.

The whole plaza scene brings about a warm, nostalgic, old-time baseball feel, one that you would associate with pictures of the original Yankee Stadium, Forbes Field, Ebbets Field or, possibly, Shibe Park. It has the retro feel, but with all the modern amenities associated with today's ballparks, and there is a good reason for that.

The architects chosen to design the new park were from the HOK firm and had done the designs for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and since have been the lead designers for the new Yankee Stadium (NY), Target Field (MN), AT&T Park (SF), Great American Ballpark (Cincinnati), Marlins Park (Miami) and Citi Field (NY). These ballparks are all part of the new "retro" wave in stadium design, which is meant to conjure up images and feelings of baseball's "Golden Age."

We asked the security guard at the gate if there was anything noteworthy we should see around the exterior of the park. She told us the only thing she would point out would be the baseball archway, about halfway down the third base side of the stadium, which she thought would make for some nice pictures. Since we are all about seeing everything there is to see, and we had some time on our hands, we decided to head down the walkway and check it out.

"Evolution Of The Ball" Arch

We walked about 200 yards, down to Wynkoop Street, and there at the base of a small set of stairs was a 23-foot-high, 42-foot-wide arch, entitled "The Evolution of The Ball." This giant archway was designed by Lonnie Hanzon and is "garnished" with 108 three-dimensional, glazed balls, which depict everything from eyeballs, to wrecking balls, to debutante balls. It is topped off with a giant baseball, sitting on a section of railroad track, and is quite the interesting sight.

Charlie Blackmon Bobblehead
Since there was nothing more to see around the
outside of the park we decided to go back to the Plaza and wait, on line, for Rob's childhood friend Derek, and his buddy Mike. I wasn't too keen on the idea of being on line an hour before the gates opened, but the boys were insistent since tonight was Charlie Blackmon bobble-head night and the they didn't want to miss the giveaway.

As we stood on line I struck up a conversation with a gentleman named Scott, who was a season ticket holder and seemed to know every bit of information about the ballpark there was to know. He was a walking encyclopedia and I was interested in everything he could tell me.

The ballpark's construction took almost two-and-a-half years to complete (October 1992-February 1995), but it was ready for Opening Day that year. While doing the excavation for the new park workers unearthed dinosaur remains, including a seven-foot-long Triceratops, which almost led to the park being named Jurassic Park and, later, had the team bring about a Triceratops mascot named "Dinger." All I could think of was the children's television show Barney, where the main character is a purple dinosaur, and I shook my head in disbelief, hoping I would not see "Dinger" tonight.

When Coors Field opened its doors for the first time, on April 26, 1995, the final cost for the new ballpark came in at $300 million, but it was also stunningly beautiful. The ballpark's naming rights had been bought by the Colorado-based Coors Brewing Company, and they certainly got their money's worth in aesthetic value.
The park was originally designed to hold about 44,000 fans, but then was redesigned to seat 50,200 for Opening Day in 1995. It has since expanded to 50,381 (1999-2000), 50,445 (2001-2010), 50,490 (2011) and, finally, 50,398 (2012-present).

By the time Rob's friends arrived my head was spinning from all the information I had been bombarded with, but I certainly did feel as if I had just been given a crash course on the history of Coors Field. Finally they announced the gates were opening, so I thanked Scott and headed inside with everyone, collecting my own Charlie Blackmon bobblehead and heading to see the ballpark with my own eyes.

Starting Lineup and Concessions

Tony, Nick, Me, Ryan, Rob, Mike, Derek

Jim Kulhawy
Ryan Kulhawy
Rob Zoch
Tony D'Angelo
Nick D'Angelo
Derek Turner
Mike Howley

The first thing we try to do when entering a ballpark is head right to the area behind home plate, which serves as our "official picture area." Over the years I have found it best to try and get this picture done right away, as there are usually not a lot of fans there at that time, and the ushers are more likely to let us get as close as we want with over an hour and a half to go before first pitch.

Ryan quickly ran ahead to make sure we were allowed to be at field level - believe it or not there are some stadiums that won't let you walk around downstairs unless you have a lower level ticket for the game (cough, cough, White Sox, cough cough), and we never want to go through THAT again - but we were assured it was not going to be a problem. To be honest, I enjoyed watching Ry interact with the different people we met on the road. It wasn't always like that; in fact, during our first year of "touring" he would get embarrassed when I would just strike up a conversation with a stranger, telling our story and making a new friend, but now he was the one who wanted to instigate the conversation and tell the folks all about what we were doing. It was fun to watch him grow and mature, though I hoped he would slow down just a little. I'm not quite ready to let go of my "little boy."

Left Field
Right Field
The first thing you notice, at field level, is the actual field, which was a blend of Kentucky Bluegrass and Perennial Ryegrass. It was a rich, dark shade of green that seemed to come straight out of a picture book about Ireland, and though the playing surface wasn't much bigger or smaller than any other park (the dimensions were 347 feet to left field, 390 to left-center, 415 to center, 375 to right-center, 350 to right and 56 feet from home plate to the backstop), the field seemed huge.

Home Plate View

Giant Scoreboard

As I scanned the park, the first thing I noticed was the giant scoreboard in left field, which is actually two LED boards on top of one another. The top one, underneath the Rockies logo (a baseball "flying" across the Rocky Mountains), is a video board that measures 27' x 47' and shows replays, highlights and all other projections, while the lower one is 33' x 73' and is used for lineups, stats and as a scoreboard. There are also other display board/screens around the park that give out statistics, out-of-town scores, pertinent information about the game and the players and the time, temperature and weather conditions.

Another thing that was very noticeable, when you looked into the outfield, was a large section of bleacher seats, located high above the playing field, squeezed between the scoreboard and the right-field grandstand. This section is known as "The Rockpile" and is a concept that was brought to Coors Field from the Rockies previous home. These same seats at Mile High were located near the south stands and were the farthest from home plate in the stadium, so the team discounted them to as low as $1 for certain games as a "thank you" to the loyal fans. The new "Rockpile" has become home to some of the rowdiest fans in the park and offfers a great atmosphere, if you don't mind watching the game from afar.

After spending about 15 minutes taking pictures, admiring the ballpark and talking with the fans, it was time to walk the concourse to see the "interior" of the park and scout out our choice for dinner, which is always something native to the area we are visiting. I had no doubt we'd find something Coloradoish, but I didn't know if it was going to be able to beat the lunch we had just had, at The Buckhorn.

Concourse Memorabilia
Concourse Memorabilia
Walking around the concourse was fun, as it always is before the
crowds come in, and there was quite a bit to see. First and foremost, the walkways are clean and wide, which is definitely a plus, and you can see the field of play from just about anywhere. As we wandered around I stopped to take pictures of the various memorabilia that was hung around the park. Though the team had only been in existence for twenty years there are quite a few banners depicting franchise highlights, such as, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards won, the team's first win, the first player to hit for the cycle (Dante Bichette) and the first no-hitter (Ubaldo Jimenez). I am sure those will be added to over the years, but for now it added a nice touch of "nostalgia" to a ballpark that was a mere twenty years old.


Ballpark Food at Coors Field

"Pssst," I heard Ryan loudly whisper, to catch my attention. "I'm hungry."
"I was waiting for that," I laughed. "Which is why I have been looking as we've been walking."
"You knew it was just a matter of time," Tony chimed in.
"I knew it had to be soon," Rob interjected. "We've been here too long for him not to have eaten."

When a fan is hungry at Coors Field there is no reason to settle for the regular ballpark fare. He, or she, can find just about anything to satisfy their craving and it should never be a regular hot dog and a Coors Lite brew. There are a plethora of fantastic options, including Blake Street Burritos (Mexican, obviously), Wazee Market (specialty pizzas, wrapped hot dogs, pulled pork sandwiches, spicy Italian sausages, brisket on a Kaiser roll), Xtreme Dog (jumbo hot dogs, garnished with unlimited possibilities,including bacon, bleu cheese, green chilies, jalapenos and plenty of other toppings), Right Field Greens (for when you just want a salad), Helton Burgers (named one of the best burgers in baseball), and, for the kiddies, Buckaroos (kid-sized portions, at a kid-sized price). There is even what is believed to be baseball's only stadium-food-truck (Wok In The Park), which serves Oriental cuisine.

Now while all of this sounds great, it didn't exactly scream "COLORADO!" to us, so we kept looking, until...

Now This Is Ballpark Food In Colorado
"There," I said, emphatically, pointing to a sign.
"The Mile High Grill?" Rob asked.
"Yup, that's definitely the spot," I told him.
"Why?" he continued to press.
"Holy cow, they have elk brats," Ryan said, finally seeing what drew my attention in the first place.
"That's it," I told him, laughing and getting on line.
"What do you wash an elk brat down with?" Tony wanted to know.
"A 20th Anniversary Coors Field Ale," Ryan said, after scanning the beer taps.
"Perfect," I told him, and ordered a few of each.

Usually we take our culinary delights up to our seats and chow down there, but this time no one wanted to wait and we still had more of the ballpark to walk. The problem was, there were no sit-down tables, or hi-tops, available to us and we wanted to chow down immediately, so we improvised. I grabbed the largest garbage can I could find and dragged it over to where we were standing, we broke out some hand sanitizer and napkins and cleaned off the top, and set our plates and cups down and started to dig in.

Elk Brat
Ry and Tony Dig In
The elk brat was exactly as I imagined it would be. Covered in sauteed peppers and onions, this foot-long monster was a true masterpiece of grilled perfection. As soon as you bit into it you could hear the "snap" of the casing, which is the sign of a good sausage product, but the burst of flavor that immediately hit you was what made this the perfect choice to represent Colorado at the ballpark. There was a quick "bite" of heat, not uncomfortable but flavorful, which only enhanced the taste of the elk, which was a little "gamey," but not enough that it overpowered the eater. The grilled peppers and onions added a rich, smooth flavor that contrasted nicely with the meat in the brat. I can honestly say this was the most "intense" brat I have ever eaten and would gladly rate this as the best, as well. Ryan obviously agreed, as his was gone long before I finished mine. So much for savoring the moment.

As for the beer, it was a special brew. Made specifically for the Rockies, by Coors Brewing Company, the "Rockies 20th Anniversary Ale" was an American Amber/Red, had a smooth crisp flavor and was only going to be served at Coors Field for the 2015 year. It was the perfect companion to the brat, as it didn't have too much flavor (like a Pale Ale or an I.P.A.), but strongly complimented the bold taste the sausage provided. Rob, Tony and I raised our glasses in agreement; this was the perfect ballpark meal for Colorado.

After the brats were gone, which didn't take long, we meandered towards the area behind the outfield fences, where the bullpens were located. I had heard that this area was definitely unique  and I was dying to see it. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

"Hey guys," I heard a female voice call out as we approached the bullpen area.

Since we didn't know anyone from Colorado who wasn't going to the game with us, I didn't think she could be talking to us, so I just walked on.

"Jim...Ryan," I heard the voice call out again.
"Aunt Heidi," I heard Ryan laugh, as he went running to give her a hug.

I had completely forgotten our friends from back home were at the game; we hadn't seen them since they left Jackson's, but here were Heidi and Doug, exploring Coors Field just as we were.
Heidi, Me, and Ryan

Heidi is one of my favorite people in the world. We had met in the Springsteen fan group, years ago, and had become close. She is a pretty, fun-loving party-girl who lives for her friends, baseball, beer and, most importantly, the beach, but not necessarily in that order. We had attended many Bruce Springsteen shows together, had visited one another's families and she had become an "Aunt" to both Ryan and Brendan, while letting me continually come to her for parenting advice, being that she had raised two fantastic kids of her own.

She and Doug, a fun-loving teddy bear of a guy himself, had undertaken a motorcycle trip from their home in Virginia Beach all the way out to Colorado, hitting ballparks along the way and having their own kind of baseball adventure. It was nice to get to spend a few moments alone with them, so we could talk, laugh and just enjoy the ballpark.

Rockies Bullpen
We all stood around for a few moments looking at the bullpen, which is as amazing as I had been told. Located behind the right-field fence, this area was constructed to pay homage to the natural beauty that is Colorado, and the designers did a marvelous job. The setting is mountain wilderness and there are live pine trees, native flowers and shrubs and even a waterfall, which shoots water high into the sky after a Rockies' home run, or win. There is even a pathway through this mountain paradise that the players have to walk on before they can get to their bullpen "clubhouse." This really was an amazing ballpark, but there was still more to see before first pitch.

After walking around downstairs there was one more thing we had to see, but that was upstairs in the far reaches of the stadium, so off we trekked.

Mile High Seatline
Ryan and I Sitting Mile High
I had heard people tell me I would feel different in Denver, because of the altitude, but I'd yet to experience it, so I thought maybe this would be when I actually began to feel it. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I did not notice a difference, but I could immediately tell when we were, officially, one mile above sea level. Coors Field has a ring of seats, in the upper reaches of the stadium, (which are marked in purple and stretch from left field to right field to denote this height. There was no way Ryan and I weren't going to march right up to those seats, park our butts and have a picture taken. After all, how many times can you say you sat a mile up at a baseball game?

The Game

First Pitch

Finally we took our seats, slightly to the first base side of home plate, and waited for the game to begin. Normally we like to sit directly behind "the dish," but we were told by a good friend that these seats offered up the best view to catch the sun setting over the Rocky Mountains and we didn't want to miss that. Speaking of which, my friend, Jim, was supposed to be joining us for the game, but he had yet to arrive. I hoped he would be there soon, as first pitch was about to take place.

Neither team was very good at this point in the season; the Rockies were 40-53, while the Reds were sporting a 42-51 record, so we just settled in, hoping to be entertained with a good game. It did not disappoint.

The Reds went out 1-2-3 in the top of the first, while the Rox only brought one more batter to the plate, thanks to a walk to D.J. LeMahieu. In the second the same exact pattern emerged, with the Reds going down in order, the Rockies reaching first on a walk (this time to Corey Dickerson), but no one scored. The Reds got the first hit of the game in the third, a Tucker Barnhart single, but he was erased two batters later on a 6-4-3 double play, and this time the Rockies went down in order.

"Man, these teams suck," Ryan leaned over and whispered to me.
"Yeah, not a lot of excitement so far, is there?" I replied.
"I knew they were bad, I just didn't realize they were this bad," Nick offered.
"Anyone want a beer?" Tony wanted to know, as he headed down the stairs.
"I'll take one, but it's last call, we have a long night ahead of us," I reminded him.
"No worries, I just need one more of those anniversary beers," he laughed.
"Make it two," I told him.
"Three," Rob raised his hand.
"Four?" Ryan called out, laughing.
We all turned and looked at him.
"I guess not then," he smiled, sheepishly.

Just as he walked down, my friend Jimmy walked up.

"Sorry I'm late," he told us. "Had an issue at home and then traffic was a problem."
"No worries," I told him. "I'm glad you could join us."

Jimmy and I
I have known Jim for almost 30 years. He grew up in my hometown of Tenafly and we were both involved in Scouting together. Troop 140, Tenafly, was where we became friends and bonded over meetings, camping trips, canoe adventures and a lot of outdoor fun. After I earned my Eagle Scout, at 14, I didn't spend a lot of time with the Scouts and after he went off to ASU we fell out of touch, but we had reconnected on Facebook and when he found we were coming out there was no way he was going to miss a reunion. I introduced him to everyone and he took special delight in telling Ryan about all my misadventures growing up, which Ryan thought was fantastic. Thankfully the game interrupted our reminiscing for the time being, unfortunately for Tony; who hadn't come back with the beer, it was now getting exciting.

The fourth inning started with a double, off the bat of Brandon Phillips; two batters later, Todd Frazier drove him in with a double of his own, making it 1-0 Reds. Jay Bruce flew out for the second out of the inning, but Marlon Bird walked, Todd Frazier stole third and Ivan De Jesus doubled, upping the score to 3-0. The Rox finally got out of the inning when the pitcher went down swinging, but the damage was done.

The Rockies, again, went down in order in the bottom of the fourth and then the Reds sent four men to the plate in the top of the fifth, but no more scoring was done by either team. We were starting to get restless; aside from the One Reds' "explosion" the game really was boring, but then Jimmy elbowed me in the ribs.
"Look over the left field wall," he gestured. "Sun's going down."
Following his lead, I did just that and witnessed the most amazing sunset I had ever seen.

Rocky Mountain Sunset
Mountains Over The Left Field Wall
I had been forewarned about how beautiful this sight was going to be if we had a clear night, but this was better than anything I could have conjured up with my imagination. Out in the distance were the Rocky Mountains and as the sun sank further behind them it lit the sky up with a rainbow of yellows, reds, purples and indigos. I sat and stared, mesmerized at what was playing out before me. Thankfully I was able to get Ryan's attention and the two of us spent the next twenty minutes alternating between the action on the field and the sun setting behind the mountains. It's something I will never forget, as long as I live, and I am thankful to have been able to witness it with my son.
Sun Setting Behind The Scoreboard

As we gazed back and forth between the game and the sunset, the Rockies' bats were starting to come alive. The inning started out with a Corey Dickerson single, but he was erased on a force at second with the next batter. With one out, and one on, however, Nick Hundley tripled, Charlie Blackmon singled and just like that we had a 3-2 game. The Rockies didn't tie it, yet, but it did get the crowd into the game. Up until this point they'd had nothing to cheer about and now Coors Field erupted in a wall of noise.

The Reds threatened to score in the sixth, but when that didn't happen the Rockies tied the game, on a Carlos Gomez lead-off home run in the bottom of the inning. Now the ballpark was alive and, like sharks, the fans could small blood in the water. They were cheering, yelling, hugging and screaming with one another, which impressed me because the team was far from the playoff picture, but they acted as if the pennant was on the line.

Just before the top of the seventh Jimmy told me he had to go "feed the meter" for his car. He hadn't parked in a lot, but had found a spot a block away from the ballpark and didn't want a ticket. I was assured he would be allowed back inside the stadium, but said goodbye, just in case he was wrong.

Neither team scored in the seventh, but that just set up a wild finish to the game.

As the Reds were getting ready to bat, in the top of the eighth, my phone rang. It was Jimmy telling me he had an issue with a cop, at the car, and wouldn't be able to find a new spot, get back in the building and see the end of the game. I was upset as I was hoping to be able to catch up some more with him, but understood. He promised we'd figure something out soon, then I hung up and placed the phone in the cup holder in front of me. It had been getting banged around in my pocket all game long, so I figured this would be the safest place.

Cincinnati led off the eighth with a Marlon Byrd triple, then took the lead three batters later when Skip Schumaker hit a ground rule double to left. Even though the Reds had retaken the lead,  that only seemed to make the Rockies' fans louder and more boisterous. The decibel level in the park only increased, later in the inning, when Tucker Bernhart was picked off third, as he was trying to steal home, by catcher Nick Hundley. If I thought the place was loud at that moment, it got crazier in the bottom of the inning when Colorado took the lead on another Carlos Gomez home run, a Nolan Arenado triple and a Ben Paulsen sacrifice fly.

"Three outs away from a win," Ryan was saying, over and over, while bouncing up and down in anticipation.
"Yeah, but John Axford is not Mariano Rivera," I reminded him.
"You don't come back like that to have your closer blow the save," he smiled, reassuringly, at me.

Brandon Phillips led off the inning with a ground out.

One out and Ryan was getting even more excited.

The next batter, Joey Votto, quieted the entire stadium, and stopped my son's bouncing, when he crushed a  game-tying-homer, over the left-field fence, on the first pitch he saw. The look of sheer annoyance I got from Ryan was enough to make me cringe. It was almost as if he was blaming me for the blown save. Actually he WAS blaming me.

"You...You...," he stammered. "You broke the karma. You know better than that."

Sadly I did, I knew it too, but there was nothing I could do to fix the problem. The damage could not be undone.

"This just sets us up for a wild-walk-off win," I tried to reassure him
"You better hope so, 'cause it's going to be a long ride to Kansas City with me reminding you of this," he warned me.

I shuddered, knowing he meant it.

The bottom of the ninth didn't get off to a rousing start, when the leadoff batter grounded out. It looked as if Charlie Blackmon did the same, but the Rockies challenged the call and were rewarded when instant replay showed he was safe. He then proceeded to steal second, which was key because the next batter hit into what would have been an inning-ending double play, but Blackmon easily went to third instead, all because of the stolen base.

The stage was now set: two outs, the winning run on third and the team's most productive player, Troy Tulowitzki, at the plate. We had been waiting for Tulo to do something, anything, all night long, but he'd been completely unproductive.

"He's due," I said to Ryan, grabbing him by the shoulders.
"We're winning it right now, with Tulo being the hero," I assured him.

I was both right and wrong.

The Winning Run
Tulowitzki set himself in the batter's box, took a few practice swings and awaited the first pitch. The entire stadium leaned forward in anticipation, but Tulo never got a chance to take the bat off his shoulder. The Cincinnati pitcher, Ryan Matheus, uncorked a wild pitch that sent Blackmon sliding into home, ahead of the tag, with the game-winning run.

Coors Field erupted, and Ryan started jumping up and down, hugging me, Rob, Tony and Nicky. It was like one big dog-pile, with none of us believing what we had just witnessed. We didn't think it could have gotten any more exciting than the previous night, but by taking the lead in the bottom of the eighth, blowing the save in the ninth, having instant replay overturning a call in the bottom of the ninth and winning, on a two-out wild pitch, the Rockies had proven us wrong.

Post-Game Wrap-Up 

Walk-Off Wild Pitch Win

We were on Cloud Nine as we walked down from our seats, a mile above sea level, and headed out the home plate gate. We had just witnessed an incredible game, had navigated the party-like atmosphere of the ballpark neighborhood and had gotten all the way to the SUV when I reached into my pocket for the phone, to call Nicole, and realized I had left it in the cup holder back at our seats.

Needless to say I was not a happy camper as I emptied my pockets, cursing the whole time, and trying to convince myself that it wasn't where I knew it was.

"You're a dumbass," Rob told me.
"Tell him something he doesn't know," Ryan laughed.
"We gotta go back," was all I could say.

After looking at the hordes of people and cars, it was quickly decided that the quickest way to resolve this problem was for me to run back while the others, slowly, inched their way back to the ballpark in the truck. I took off at top speed, weaving in and out of the throngs of people wandering the streets, headed back to their cars, or, more likely, to the next bar to celebrate the win.

It took me about five minutes to get back to the ballpark, another five to talk my way in and another five to get back to the section where our seats had been. As I stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking up, I decided I was going to run to the top, thin air be damned, even if it killed me.

I sprinted up the stairs, taking two at a time, feeling pretty damn good about my accomplishment when I got to our seats and found my phone still there, in the cup holder where I'd left it. Slowly, triumphantly, I walked back down the stairs, out of the ballpark and back out into the crowded street.

I looked around, half-expecting to see the guys bringing the Explorer around the corner, but they were nowhere to be found. I called Rob, only to find out they had progressed exactly half a block in the twenty-five minutes I had been gone. I made my way back to where they were, slid behind the wheel and turned the car eastward, toward Kansas City.

"OK, how long until we're in KC?" Nick asked me.
"Ten hours," I replied, nonchalantly.
"Wait...What?" Ryan asked, incredulously.
"Get comfy, it's about to be a long night," I told them.

At least I wouldn't have to hear Ryan bitching that I'd broken the karma, in the ninth inning, I thought.

"Good thing Colorado won," I heard my son call from the back. "Ten hours would have been a long time to hear me complain about you breaking the karma at the end of the game."
"Get some sleep," I told him. "It's going to be a long night."

I had no idea how right I was going to be.

Next Stop:
Saturday, July 25, 2015
Kansas City, Missouri
Kauffman Stadium
Houston Astros vs. Kansas City Royals