Hitting A Grand Slam In A Strikeout Year

In this summer of discontent for Major League Baseball, 8-year-old Aaron Bell seems an anomaly. Even as many former fans boycott the sport, Bell is doing everything he can to root his team, the Colorado Rockies, to a pennant. His bedroom in the Denver suburb of Englewood sports a Rockies bedspread, Rockies curtains, and walls plastered with photos of his favorite players and other memorabilia. And more often than not, Bell, a member of the Rockies' Rookies Kids Fan Club, is decked out in a team cap or T-shirt.

Baseball is in big trouble in most Major League cities. But not in Denver, where thousands of fans such as Aaron Bell are almost ecstatically embracing the game. As of Aug. 28, the Rockies have sold out 38 consecutive home games and should easily lead the majors in attendance this year, with a projected total of more than 3.4 million. Demand is so strong that "we're getting 5 to 10 times the face value for some tickets," says Patrick M. Chomyn, sales manager at Ticketman Inc., one of Denver's leading ticket brokers.

LONG WAIT. It's a Hall of Fame performance in a year when many clubs can't get to first base. Among all 28 teams, average attendance is running some 18% below last year's pace. It's also off 17% in Denver but only because the Rockies moved from 76,000-seat Mile High Stadium into their new home, Coors Field, which at 50,200 seats is 34% smaller. With TV ratings also in a slump, ABC and NBC recently announced they were pulling out of the Baseball Network, their deal to broadcast the sport. And with baseball's total revenues expected to plunge 30% to 40% this year--or up to $800 million--"a record number of teams, as many as 18, are losing money," says Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College, one of the nation's top baseball economists.

Things are so grim that only a handful of teams are bucking the trend--notably the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians, a red-hot club that will draw at least 2.8 million fans, the most in its history. But no team can rival the Rockies, who are playing in one of baseball's smaller markets yet in just three seasons have shattered virtually every Major League attendance record.

Cynics are quick to note that the Rockies are benefiting from several special factors. Because this is just their third season, they're still in the honeymoon stage with fans in the Rocky Mountain states "who waited over 30 years for baseball to come to Denver," says Rockies CEO Jerry D. McMorris. Moreover, this is the Rockies' first year in Coors Field, a $215 million gem that evokes the feel of an old-time ballpark. At the same time, it offers state-of-the-art concessions, including the first in-stadium microbrewery: the SandLot, which makes brews such as Squeeze Play Wheat and Slugger's SandLot Stout. On the field--thanks to the mile-high altitude--more home runs are hit than in any other stadium. And the Rockies are in 1995's only real pennant race, with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But such special edges hardly guarantee success. The Florida Marlins are also just three years old, the Texas Rangers are playing in a sparkling stadium that opened just last year, and the Atlanta Braves are the National League's best team. Yet attendance is way down in those markets.

BIG SPENDER. So what made the difference in Denver? Much of the credit goes to owner McMorris. He made a fortune by building NW Transport Service Inc. into the nation's largest privately owned trucking company, with revenues topping $500 million. Now, McMorris is channeling his drive into the Rockies, where he exhorts his staff to put the fans first. It shows. While other owners bemoan high payrolls, McMorris regularly thanks Rockies fans for "making it possible for us" to acquire such high-priced talent as outfielder Larry Walker and pitching ace Bret Saberhagen. Yet even as the payroll has soared to $35 million from just $8 million in 1993, McMorris insists on part of the park offering the cheapest seats in baseball. In "the Rockpile," a 2,300-seat section behind center field, a family of four can watch for as little as $4.

McMorris is now vowing to win the World Series "faster than the Miracle Mets" of 1969, who clinched it in the team's eighth season. Whether or not he meets that goal, his Rockies have already given the rest of baseball plenty to think about.