A campaign pledge: Root for the Rox
Mayor Hickenlooper is city's top fan, and a knowledgeable one
DENVER -- To say that the Rockies entered the postseason under the radar would be one of October's great understatements. They were not only under the radar, on Sept. 18 they were under three teams in the division race and four in the Wild Card chase.
Anyone but a diehard fan had to scoff at the notion that Colorado could find its way to the postseason at that point.
Count Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper among the diehard fans who knew, who have embraced their team, finding an old-school kinship with homegrown players who reflect their city's grit.
Long before Sept. 18, on Opening Day, Hickenlooper made a name for himself as a prognosticator of the purple pinstripes, picking the Rockies to win the National League West Division with 87 wins. ("There's tape of that," he said emphatically.) While the Rockies did not win the division, they climbed over all those teams to win the Wild Card and now sit two wins from the World Series, leading the Diamondbacks two games to none in the best-of-seven NL Championship Series heading into Game 3 here on Sunday night.
Just now, the nation is beginning to find out what Rockies fans have known all along.
"I'm guilty of not knowing [a lot about] the Colorado Rockies, like everyone else in the country," said TBS analyst and freshly minted Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, previewing the NLCS. "But when you watch them, they are a really solid team that makes good decisions."
But as Hickenlooper said on the eve of the NLCS: "Every baseball fan in the city, we know these players and their personalities. We know who throws their batting helmet, we know who you can rely on in the clutch. And we know we have probably the best top six batting order in baseball."
For Hickenlooper, talking baseball is not something that requires a briefing or bullet points prepared by a staff member. The mayor knows the game, having grown up a rabid Phillies fan and a junk-balling high school pitcher who got a taste of American Legion ball before heading west as a geologist, home brewer, and restaurateur.
"I almost committed suicide in 1964 when the Phillies blew a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 games left," Hickenlooper said. "I had one foot out the third-floor bathroom window when they blew it. People think the Mets collapsed [this year]. The Phillies blew a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 games to go. The Mets lost a seven-game lead with 17 games to go. No comparison."
Though a quarter century in Colorado and 4 1/2 years as Denver's mayor have solidified his allegiance to the Rockies, he couldn't keep his colors from clashing when the Rox took on the Phils in the Division Series. Hickenlooper played hooky from an afternoon of meetings in Chicago and flew to Philadelphia, buying a pair of front-row tickets and taking his 80-year-old stepfather to the game.
"It was tough," Hickenlooper admitted, his voice cracking with emotion. "I've been in Denver for 25 years. I flew to Shea Stadium to see the first Rockies game of all time. For the first 10 years I flew wherever they had Opening Day, whether it was St. Louis or Cincinnati or Monterey, Mexico. I flew to every Opening Day. So I am thoroughly a Rockies fan.
"But when [Kaz] Matsui hit that grand slam in the second game in Philadelphia, my eyes were moist. I was thrilled, I was happy, but my eyes were moist."
He resists the notion that he's the city's cheerleader-in-chief, but Hickenlooper can't keep from rooting for the Rockies, finding an old-school kinship between the team and its city. Despite the game's irreversible entrenchment in the free agency era, the mayor recognizes a unique bond between Denver and the Rox.
"Look at it, they've got a dozen kids on the team that came up through the farm system, so they have the personality of the city," Hickenlooper said, comparing them favorably to the Blake St. Bombers, who took the town to its only previous postseason in '95. "It's very similar. I would say just because this team is all these kids and they just played their hearts out in September, I think there is more energy now than there was for the Bombers."
The Rockies have given the city the kind of boost that no amount of civic planning could hope to achieve, putting marquee events such as the upcoming Democratic National Convention into the realm of the footnote.
"It's great for how the world looks at Denver," Hickenlooper said the other day. "That's why it's so important that it's not just that they're winning, it's how they're winning. Team play. No one's ever criticized anybody else. No one's ever down. You got to give [Rockies chairman and CEO] Charlie Monfort a lot a credit. He gave contracts and recruited young baseball players who had character. There's no prima donnas on that team.
"If you want to have the brand of your city enhanced by a sporting team, you want them to be great people. What's great about the Rockies is not just that they won 14 out of 15 to get into the playoffs, and now they've won 17 out of 18 [now 19 of 20]. That's incredible in its own right. But it's how they've won. These kids just don't quit. They never quit.
"And that's sort of what we do in the city. In Denver we had four successive snowstorms on four successive weeks last year. It was like the trials of Job. And yet our public works guys never quit."
Hickenlooper professes to know his place as a fan, but he's not averse to suggesting an amendment to manager Clint Hurdle's batting order, noting the alliterative attractiveness of "Helton, and Hawpe, and Holliday and Hickenlooper."
The man who founded the first brewpub in the Rocky Mountain West 20 years ago and parlayed his vision into the revitalization of LoDo, the historic neighborhood that took off with the arrival of Coors Field 12 years ago, had flexed his creative problem-solving chops years ago. He tried to rally his fellow restaurateurs to contribute to a "Fireman's Fund" to buy the Blake St. Bombers a relief pitcher, cutting down the length of games and giving fans a chance to visit the neighborhood bars and restaurants after a game.
"We were going to try and raise $150,000 a year and contribute it towards getting a top closer, a good relief pitcher to get those games over with so people could get out of the stadium and enjoy their lives," Hickenlooper said a few years back.
The Fireman's Fund never took off, but the Rockies did, finally finding the formula for success in the unlikely surge of '07.
"We got Manny Corpas!" Hickenlooper cried out, as thrilled as any fan at being able to check off another item on his to-do list. "We're all done."
There is work left to do, make no mistake. The D-backs must be disposed of. But for Hickenlooper and the city that shares his passion, it's time to find a seat, honor some "thousands" of superstitious rituals, and relish the Rockies.
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.