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DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

To answer the question on every citizen's lips: Yes! The individual seats at Coors Field will be wider than those iron maidens crammed into Mile High Stadium. Not much wider, mind you. Your coveted season ticket won't get you a La-Z-Boy or a BarcaLounger, and Marvin Davis still will have to bring his own sofa. But the rump slightly broadened by long hours of munching Cracker Jacks over the box scores will be more happily accommodated on Blake Street than in Broncoland.

Otherwise, neoclassicism remains the order of the day. As the lovely new ballpark you are financing for the Colorado Rockies rises from rubble in LoDo, there are some things the devoted baseball fan cannot help noticing with admiration:

Those dark green arches of graceful steel--the custom-mixed paint shade is called "Rocky Mountain evergreen"-- dangling from the construction cranes immediately put you in mind of Fenway Park.

The plans call for another of contemporary baseball's Disneyized, bells-and-whistles scoreboards in left-center field. But over in right there will be an old-fashioned one reminiscent of Wrigley Field, complete with an actual human being who updates scores by dropping numbered placards into slots.

As in the days of Philly's Baker Bowl or Nashville's Sulphur Dell, Coors Field has been fitted to its snug site rather than plunked down in the wasteland of a suburb, so its outfield dimensions will be gloriously asymetrical--347 feet down the left-field line, 350 to right, 415 in dead center, 390 and 375 in the left-center and right-center power alleys, respectively.

Those 1,450,000 red bricks in the facade will have you aching for Duke Snider and Ebbets Field.

Tom Gleason puts it in a nutshell: "The architecture says 1900."
The deputy director of the Denver Metropolitan Major League Baseball Stadium District--a fancy name for the Rockies' landlord--took me on a tour of Coors Field last week, and I don't mind admitting to a case of goosebumps. Say what you will, skeptics, about the wisdom of trying to clone the era of Cobb and Ruth and Bob "Death to Flying Things" Furguson. Go ahead: Knock the manufacture of nostalgia. The fact remains, as evidenced by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Inc.'s near-masterpiece in Baltimore called Camden Yards, fans and ball clubs have come to their senses in the 1990s. The Toilet-Bowl-and-Ashtray Period, the Dark Age of stadium design, has now mercifully ended. Let Giants fans freeze in soulless and inhospitable Candlestick Park. Let Pirate slugger Andy Van Slyke try to figure out whether he's batting in Three Rivers Stadium or at nearly identical Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. Most unspeakable of all, let Joe Carter hit home runs in that overgrown video arcade up in Toronto, and leave the beleaguered fans of Houston to gag on the fetid indoor gases of the Astrodome.

For your $160 million, give or take a few bucks, you will get 1900 next year.
And no one will blame you if you start dreaming tonight about those three acres of living, breathing Coors Field sod--three strains of bluegrass, two of rye--taking root right now at a Fort Morgan turf farm. Or the beautiful crushed-brick warning track. Or the easy views of the downtown skyline and snowy Longs Peak. Or the bullpens stacked end-to-end in right-center field, where everyone will be able to watch the Rox relief pitchers put in overtime.

Before we get too far into the realm of rapture, though, let's take note of the necessities that you won't find just yet over at Coors Field.

For one thing, home plate hasn't been set in place. Instead you'll find a round, steel "surveyor's monument" caked with dirt, signifying the center of Denver's baseball universe. Those widened seats are not in yet either--50,100 of them instead of, ahem, the original 43,800. And what will become the actual playing surface this October right now looks like Verdun--a hopeless bog of machinery and mud and exhausted soldiers that seems to say the war will never end. It feels impossible that this chaos one day will become the exquisite, emerald perfection of a baseball diamond. That's something worth waiting for.

Meanwhile, the most important elements of any ballpark are not the things that Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum can install. They are, rather, the work of Tinker, Evers & Chance. For better or worse, spectator sport has become the dominant American religion of our time, but a temple is not built in a day. You may get goosebumps wandering around unfinished Coors Field in the afternoon sunshine (which, by the way, will hit right-fielder Dante Bichette right in the kisser), but you can't get memories yet, and you can't get myths.

Those jewel-like encrustations will come later, some of them much later, in moments we can scarcely imagine, moments some of us will cherish forever, while others are standing in line at the hot dog stand.

Consider Babe Ruth's 60th home run of 1927 at Yankee Stadium. Or Roger Maris's 61st one, in 1961. Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 Series and Lou Gehrig's farewell speech in 1939.

Consider. The Curse of the Bambino that still haunts the Fens. Or the first night game at Ebbets Field, June 15, 1938, in which the Reds' Johnny Vander Meer pitched his second consecutive no-hitter. Speaking of the Reds, in the long history of Cincinnati's late, lamented Crosley Field, 176 batters won free suits by slamming home runs into the Speidler Suit sign high atop the Superior Towel and Linen Service Laundry beyond the left field wall. But only one, the great Ernie Lombardi, struck a tater that landed in a passing coal truck and traveled 30 miles that afternoon.

At New York's Polo Grounds--the original Polo Grounds of the 1880s--two teams used to play. The National League's Giants, then called the Gothams, occupied the southwest diamond, the American Association Mets (no, not those Mets) the southeast. Sometimes, long drives would skid under the canvas fence separating the two fields, and fans would be treated to an intruder sliding under the tarp to retrieve it. Seventy years before Bobby Thomson's blast.

How about Bennett Park in Detroit, a wooden bandbox occupied by the Tigers from 1901 to 1911? It is said that infielders there soon came to resemble prizefighters: Just two inches of topsoil had been sprinkled over a bed of cobblestones, and bad hops were the rule. Later, when Ty Cobb made Briggs Stadium famous, groundskeepers soaked the area in front of the plate--"Cobb's Lake"--to slow down his bunts, and he ordered extra bleachers erected when sluggers came to town so their long drives would turn into ground-rule doubles. Even today, hospitality remains in short supply in Motown. The sign leading the Indians or Twins into their cramped dressing room still reads: "Visitors Clubhouse--No Visitors Allowed."

While Ellis Burks and Howard Johnson seek to make history in their new "green cathedral" and to uncover its inevitable quirks, they might recall the peculiarities of lovable Wrigley Field. In the Friendly Confines, the great Roberto Clemente once sought to retrieve a gapper from the park's signature wall covering of thick vines and wound up trying to peg a white soft-drink cup to the plate. Northsiders are familiar with the 26-24 games an outblowing wind can produce, and they won't soon forget April 14, 1976, the day Dave "King Kong" Kingman, then with the Mets, blasted a 550-foot home run over Waveland Avenue. The ball bounced a couple of times on Kenmore and knocked harmlessly upon the front door of one Naomi Martinez. In order to greet her visitor, Mrs. Martinez turned away from her TV set, where she was watching Dave Kingman rounding the bases.

Yes, the ballpark is already beautiful, a neoclassical gem, but Coors Field won't be finished for decades. Not in the real sense. For this work-in-progress has not yet produced its Miracle of Coogan's Bluff or its 715th home run by Henry Aaron. There's no Gas House Gang. Dock Ellis hasn't yet pitched a game on LSD, and Pete Rose hasn't belly-slid into home. No Whiz Kids grace the place, no Bombers, no Miracle Mets. No drunken fan has yet driven his car into the stadium, as one did in Pittsburgh seven years ago, and overturned a 70-gallon vat of cheese dip. Willie Mays hasn't yet made The Catch in deep center off Vic Wertz, and Nolan Ryan hasn't mowed 'em down with the Express.

And Casey Stengel, confounded in the Fifties by an opposing line drive lost among the monuments in Yankee Stadium's center field, has not yet shouted to the immovable statues: "Ruth! Gehrig! Huggins! Somebody throw that damned ball in here now!"

Such miracles and the mythic moments lie in wait on Blake Street, too, hidden in the mysteries of the game. With that in mind, what real student of the art can wait for the dawning of the Year 1900?


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