10/10/07 7:34 PM ET
NLCS is latest chapter in rich history
Arizona, Colorado have made marks on pro baseball
By Owen Perkins / Special to MLB.com
Who can doubt, then, that this is baseball country?
Fifty years after the Dodgers first left the shores of the Atlantic for the West Coast, the National League Championship Series features a pair of teams from two cater-cornered states, with Colorado and Arizona representing the most recent generations of expansion, in '93 and '98 respectively, bringing the pastoral game to the western frontier.
The Old West is evident in the living legacies surrounding both the Rockies and Diamondbacks, with the Rockies at home alongside the railway that put Denver on the map in a historic community revitalized by the birth of a brewpub and a new migration to the inner city.
"Old beer in new bottles," Kurt Vonnegut would call it when he visited the brewery to taste "Kurt's Mile-High Malt," made in his honor from his own grandfather's award-winning Leiber Lager recipe.
Old beer in new bottles. You can fill in the blanks on your own analogies, but don't let the restoration of the historic buildings with new yuppie-friendly pubs and restaurants inside escape you, nor the flour mills and steam shops and dry goods mercantiles converted into upscale residences. And we need not remind you not to neglect the fact that when big league baseball finally came to Blake Street, it came fittingly packaged in an old-style ballpark bearing the standard of a new brand of baseball-same classic heritage, bold new taste.
While the four diamonds converging in Arizona's northeast corner make a unique welcome to baseball in Arizona, the earliest documented games in the state were played along its southern border, with international rivalries presaging baseball's global outreach over a hundred years later.
Baseball back east originated as an urban game, offering "pastoral" relief in an increasingly industrialized environment, but baseball out west flourished in the mining towns that marked the expanding edge of the frontier. Tales from 1880s Tombstone recall how "The umpire wore the rule book on his hip," as an historian once wrote of 19th century borderland baseball.
Though big league baseball was a long time coming to Arizona, legends from various professional leagues date back as far as 1925, when banned Black Sox players Chick Gandil, Buck Weaver and Lefty Williams found a home in the Copper League, playing in towns like Juarez, Chino, Douglas, and Fort Bayard, N.M.
And though the desert had long been a home for teams to pitch Spring Training camps, it was generations before big league baseball finally arrived in 1998, elevating the hopes of the kids on the sandlot to finally feel they could make it to the show.
One such sandlotter moved to Arizona from Alaska at the age of 6 and thrived in a climate where he could play baseball year round.
"At that age, and in that time, when there wasn't Nintendo and all the other stuff, baseball was all we did," Curt Schilling recalled during his last season with the D-backs. "There was always a team to play on. The competition was always good, because everybody was playing all the time. At that point in time, in the '70s and '80s, this was America's game, so everybody played."
The exposure to big league teams and their scouts, flocking to the desert for Cactus League play, worked to the advantage of young players in Arizona, but college ball gave Schilling a chance to stand out in his single season of 1985, pitching in Prescott, a mile above sea level for Yavapai Junior College.
"It was a lot like pitching at Coors Field," Schilling laughed. "High altitude, small ballpark. We went to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado. We had a phenomenal team, and we lost on a couple quirks. But it was one of the funnest years of my life."
Colorado's own legacy was mined out of similar towns, teaming with men eager to unleash their athleticism between the foul lines after a hard week's work. Deep in the Rockies, up from Four Corners, over Red Mountain pass from Durango and Silverton, the rugged town of Ouray grew a hearty crop, boasting the likes of Smokey Joe Wood, Colorado's first great pitcher, a teenage phenom who went on to the big leagues and went 34-5 for the 1912 Red Sox, winning three World Series games against the Giants that year.
Denver was a city starving for big league baseball when it finally fielded the Rockies in the '93 expansion, but the appetite had been wet by over a century of tradition, with pennants flying over its parks as far back as the 1880s, when the Denvers earned the first Western League championship, paving the way for their purple-pinstriped descendents.
There are those who will tell you of William Byers, publisher of The Rocky Mountain News, who is credited with forming the first official club when he posted invitations to meet at Whipple's cabinet store, on the south side of the McGaa Street Bridge on March 12, 1862 to bring professional ball to Colorado.
But though Denver may have been first, the state champion Leadville Blues were foremost among teams of the 19th century, and when you watch a game as the Mount Massive Range glows in amber beyond the fences, you understand that mountain ball was meant to be.
For some 60 years, Denver saw teams come and go, whether setting up residency or barnstorming through with the likes of Satchel Paige, who famously pulled his outfielders in around the mound before striking out the side against Coors Brewery baseballers.
The Denver Bears arrived in 1947, moving into the newly built Mile High Stadium a year later and becoming the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in 1955. Managerial masters from Ralph Houk to Billy Martin and from Jack McKeon to Felipe Alou took a turn skippering the club, but it was Charlie Metro who gave Denver a Triple-A championship with the 1960 edition of the club.
Chief among the state's homegrown big leaguers is surely Goose Gossage, whose Colorado character forged the standard future closers would be measured by, compiling a state-best 124 Major League wins and 310 saves.
"I didn't know what I was getting into, signing right out of high school," Gossage once admitted, describing the apprehension of going from his childhood home in Colorado Springs directly to the White Sox. "I was scared to death. I thought these guys put their pants on differently than I did."
More recently, homegrown pitchers have been making their mark, with Greeley's Shawn Chacon shining for the Rockies, Yankees, and Pirates and Denver natives Brad Lidge of the Astros and Cy Young winner Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays all bearing testament to the benefits of being raised on Rocky Mountain baseball.
"I didn't ever really fathom the fact that we could have big league baseball in Denver," Chacon said while still with the Rockies. "My dad had season tickets the first year, and he took me out of school to go see that first game. We sat in the left-field stands, right past the fence. I remember seeing [Eric Young's] home run going right over our heads, and seeing the left fielder and then the opposing team's bullpen warming up. I was just in awe seeing those guys out there."
The Rockies and D-backs each reach out enthusiastically to share that sense of awe with western communities craving a taste of America's game. Former D-backs pitcher Miguel Batista once had his eyes opened for him when traveling to the Hualapai Reservation on behalf of the club, helping to inspire local kids to embrace the game and internalize its dreams.
The bards of baseball have long mined the western landscape, tagging "Grand Canyon power" as the metaphorical epitome of a slugger's thump and filling radio listeners with visions of games of Bunyon-esque proportions. The power to hit a ball out of the Grand Canyon is an easy image to understand, but ironically Batista found it wasn't so easy to visualize games being played in the extreme environment of Arizona's canyon country.
"Their reservation is right on the Grand Canyon," Batista recalled. "So their field is just dust. There's no grass at all. You say, 'How can you play baseball here?' That's when you know, they're really trying hard for something.
"They are beautiful people," Batista continued. "A lot of them just need to believe a little more in how much they can do. The Grand Canyon is just a big crack in the middle of the earth. But the people are the most beautiful thing."
As the NLCS settles into the west, the wonders of the region, from Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks to Arizona's Grand Canyon more briefly to the back seat, making way for the western-style splendor of the awe-inspiring pastime.
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.