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Playing baseball a mile high
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04/08/2003  3:57 PM ET 
Playing baseball a mile high
Altitude and park dimensions equals high scores
By Thomas Harding /

Pedro Astacio is one of the few starting pitchers to enjoy "success" at Coors Field. (David Zalubowski/AP)
DENVER -- Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd doesn't mind a good suggestion. In fact, many he receives are pretty good.

But there's one problem: Baseball at a mile high wasn't necessarily meant to be figured out; it was meant to be enjoyed, decried or shrugged at. But the Rockies are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their debut in Denver, on April 9, 1993, still having yet to unlock the secrets to success in thin air.

O'Dowd, in his fourth season of trying to bring a contender, has tried many, many plans. If anything, he knows good ideas can come from anywhere. Tony Cowell, one of the team's engineers at Coors, recalled how his hunting boots shrank after getting wet and came up with the idea of storing balls in a so-called "humidor" -- which has had only a slight effect on controlling the high scores.

So O'Dowd is willing to lend an ear. It's just too bad he can't lend several million dollars.

"Most of the things we hear aren't really weird," O'Dowd said. "Probably the strangest suggestion is to enclose the ballpark -- and it's not so much that it's weird. It's just that it's totally unrealistic. Some things just aren't doable."

The trick is finding out what can be done to make success possible in the most offense-oriented conditions in the history of baseball.

Denver's altitude changes the game because a batted ball travels farther, by 9 percent according to some scientists, than at sea level or significantly lower altitudes -- a list that includes every Major League city.

To really get how this applies to the Rockies, we tip a cap to Albert Einstein, who probably didn't have baseball in mind with his theory of relativity. For all the offensive action the Rockies have created at Mile High Stadium (1993-94) and at Coors Field (1995-present), the backlash has been equal and opposite on Rockies pitchers, and hitters haven't reacted equally well when playing away from Denver.

The top three highest single-season home run totals, for home and visiting teams, have been recorded at Coors -- 303 in 1999, 271 in 1996 and 268 in 2001. Pitchers have managed just 19 shutouts -- 11 by individuals, eight by two or more pitchers -- in eight-plus seasons at Coors. There were seven shutouts in two seasons at Mile High, which presented a left field that was not kind to hitters.

But Denver always created wild games during its time in the minors, so the majors were forewarned. The Rockies have been sparring with their special atmospheric conditions since before they began play.

Bob Gebhard, the Rockies' GM from their inception through 1999 and now a vice president and special assistant GM with St. Louis, said the configuration of the park combined goals of making the park play as regularly as possible and making it fan-friendly.

The distances in the power alleys, for example, are great in an effort to limit home runs. The fences are angled, not curved like in many parks, because they put fans closer to the field.

Colorado was more successful at pleasing the fans than having "normal" baseball.

"I guess looking back at it after all these years the one thing that we could have done was put up Plexiglas in left field to knock down a few of those low line drive type home runs, since we had to keep the distances as they are," Gebhard said. There are two places -- left field and in right-center, from the out-of-town scoreboard to some distance toward center.

"Right-center is 375 feet, but a lot of balls shoot out of there because there is a jet stream. That's something you don't know when you build a stadium, how the wind is going to circle through."

But some people like to ride that wind.

"Right-center has been very kind," said first baseman Todd Helton, who has hit many of his 112 (and counting) Coors homers to that spot.

Larry Walker, whose first season with the Rockies was their first at Coors, believes fans have been truly entertained, and that's not all bad.

"When I was young, we had tickets to the Mariners' games at the Kingdome, and I used to love it when a lot of runs were scored," Walker said. "I definitely would have liked to come to games at Coors."

Not as much as hitters like coming to the Rockies.

Andres Galarraga's career was foundering when the Rockies signed him -- for $500,000 of their budgeted $12 million in salaries -- for the expansion year of 1993. Galarraga became the first player with an expansion team to lead a league in batting (.370), stayed for six seasons and left with a .316 average.

"I did surprise myself in 1993," Galarraga said. "It was amazing. Everything I hit was a hit."

But as time progressed, some pitchers felt everything they threw was a hit. And many of those pitchers played for the Rockies.

No Colorado pitcher has won more than 17 games in a season. Only one, current New York Met Pedro Astacio, has managed three straight seasons of double figures in victories. A 4.97 team ERA for a season would be called an awful year in a lot of cities; in Denver, it's called a team record -- established when the 1995 team fostered the Rockies' only playoff appearance.

The Rockies hitters traditionally take their punches on the road. Colorado came into the 2002 season with a 427-350 home record (combined Mile High and Coors) and 246-295 record on the road, and many offensive numbers reflected that difference. The excitement over wild games at Coors, more often than not won by the home team, can't make up for finishing fourth or fifth in the NL West the past four seasons.

"Anytime you don't win as much as you'd like, it can become a negative," Helton said.

If the Rockies can trade some offensive excitement for a few victories, they'll do it.

But how?

Well-meaning, well-thinking scientists have taken their crack at trying to normalize Coors Field.

Some suggestions are simplistic -- "Just change the air," Rockies vice chairman and leader for much of their first decade Jerry McMorris said, recalling one suggestion. But the Rockies have received plenty of detailed plans for doing just that. During the winter, Greeley, Colo., resident Cliff Neeley received O'Dowd's ear and local ink for suggesting the Rockies build a hyperbaric, underground chamber outside of Coors in which the club could take batting practice in conditions that imitate the road.

But a team that has decided not to spend big money on pitching -- having committed $172.5 million to Denny Neagle and the since-traded Mike Hampton before 2001, only to get two 73-win seasons as a reward -- and is careful with spending on veteran hitters, isn't going to build a dome or giant humidor.

So the Rockies have to go about it the old fashioned way -- with scouts' eyes and stat books -- in an effort to find the right combination of players. For now, the Rockies are trying what worked in '95 -- hard-swinging offensive players, a strong bullpen and mostly homegrown starting pitching that doesn't cost much (Shawn Chacon, Jason Jennings, Denny Stark and Aaron Cook entered this season with a combined 3.291 years service time).

The search for the right formula for winning at altitude is one of the reasons the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) will conduct its 33rd annual convention in Denver July 10-13.

SABR executive director John Zajc said O'Dowd, who addressed the Cleveland-based organizations several times during his years with the Indians; Dr. Robert K. Adair, author of The Physics of Baseball; and Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus will participate in a panel discussion that will be one of the highlights of the convention.

"I'm sure our members will ask questions of the panelists, and many of our members will have their own ideas," Zajc said.

There could be as many ideas as there are hits, runs and homers in Denver.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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