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SAFE AT HOME

Last Thursday night, the wet flags on the high rim of the stadium flapped at half mast for the dead in Oklahoma. A chill wind whistled through the lower box seats, and periodic drizzle slanted down onto players, clots of fans and the guys struggling to sell cold beer. You could identify each benumbed loner dotting the distant tundra of the Rockpile by individual parka, poncho or blurry grimace.

On the field, native Floridian Dante Bichette pulled two purple-and-black batting gloves onto each hand to take some of the sting out of BP. But twenty seconds into his Coors Field career, a batting-practice fastball rode in tight, the big outfielder lashed into it, and his black Louisville Slugger split mid-label. Hands ringing, Bichette studied the useless bat for a second (good-bye, partner), then tossed it onto the damp grass. That kind of night.

In the end the Rox got nine ragged innings into the book--a 7-3 exhibition loss to the storied New York Yankees at the first bona fide major-league game at Coors Field. But it was no night for baseball. It was, rather, a chance for the residents to eyeball their new living room through the mists, to size up the yard, to figure out where the Cat will frolic when the moving van pulls away from the curb. By the time the Purple Gang--three, four and five hitters Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga and Bichette--had finished measuring the rain-slick concourses at the far edges of the new property with a barrage of batting practice home runs, the inhospitable April skies, the national gloom, even baseball's ongoing woes, were forgotten.

The Colorado Rockies--the real Colorado Rockies--were beginning to feel at home.

"There's nothing like this place," Bichette said. "Camden Yards comes close, but this stadium, combined with the fans--there's nothing like it. How will it play? We'll see. Sometimes you fit right into a ballpark, but at Mile High Stadium it took me about half a year to play defense out there. After Mile High, this can't be as tough...I think it's going to be great for hitters, tough for fielders. The ball's gonna get through to the gaps and the wall quick, because there's a lot of room to cover out there. But I think it's gonna be a little more fair than Mile High. Anyway, we'll get used to it before anybody else will. We've got a chance this week to play some games that don't matter--to learn the angles and the bounces and the hops."

This has already been a spring filled with angles, bounces and hops. Three years ago, when the expansion Rockies plucked Bichette off the Milwaukee Brewers bench and installed him as their regular right-fielder, his career was revived and he became a local fan favorite for two seasons. In 1994 he even made the All-Star team for the first time.

But this March, in the wake of baseball's destructive labor strife and the dash of hungry owners after discounted free agents, Bichette suddenly started to look expendable to the Rockies. When the team spent $35.1 million April 8 to sign free agent Walker, who hit .322 with 19 homers and 86 RBIs for Montreal last season, and San Francisco starter Bill Swift, Bichette might have been looking for his pink slip.

Instead, general manager Bob Gebhard offered him something close to his 1994 salary of $2.8 million. The outfielder gritted his teeth and accepted--along with a reassignment to left field to make way for Walker in right. "I spent too many years on the bench," he said Thursday, "wishing I could pitch, or catch, or something, just so I could swing the lumber. So I have no problem playing left field."

As for his contract, he can live with that, too. "There are a lot of reasons I came back here," Bichette explained. "The fans are one. I wanted to play for them, because they kind of invented me. I was a part-time player, and I came over here, and through them just pumping me up every night, I became an everyday player. And Don Baylor, the best manager I've ever played for. Very compassionate. He really wanted me back. Everyone did. So here I am. And we have a chance to win, so that's even more of a plus."

When Ellis Burks's injured wrist completely heals, the Rockies could have one of the best power-hitting outfields in baseball--Bichette in left field, Burks in center, the left-handed bomb-launcher Walker in right, and a reliable fourth outfielder in the amazing Mike Kingery. That should take some of the load off 1993 National League batting champ Galarraga, whose injured knee and broken hand were feeling just as good as the rest of him last Thursday night as he surveyed rain-shimmered Coors Field for the first time.

"I'm so happy to be here, so happy to be home," the slimmed-down but muscled-up Big Cat said. "The field is great, the seats, the scoreboard, the locker room. I mean everything. I think it is the best stadium I have ever played in."

But does he think it's a hitter's park? Here the Cat's eyes clearly started to glow. "Oh, yeah, I do. It is same way like Mile High Stadium, and I got a good memory on that. Same city. Same weather. The ball jumping the same way. All the same. Hopefully, I'm making a good year in this ballpark, too...I guarantee we gonna score a lot of runs and we gonna play good defense. And if pitcher doin' the job, we gonna win a lot of games."

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