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Flak Jackets

Outside the St. Francis Center, a day shelter a few blocks from Coors Field, it seems as if the Colorado Rockies are drafting employees from the area's minor leagues. Among the crowd of down-on-their-lucks milling around out front, a handful are resplendent in the green-and-purple windbreakers that have been the uniform of Coors Field ushers and guest-relations personnel. Down the street, a woman in one of the stadium jackets wobbles in the morning sun that warms Park Avenue West. A few feet away, a compadre tilts against an abandoned building and suckles a hipper of vodka. A block farther, a pair of rough-cut twentysomethings peer into passing cars, directing them around the corner with a nod of the head. As they make nervous exchanges, their wary eyes looking over their shoulders, the words "COORS FIELD STAFF" scream from their backs.

For visitors to Coors Field, these jackets are as symbolic of the Rockies as the team's logo. For many ticket holders, the quality of the ballpark experience depends as much on the crew in the stands as the squad on the field.

But now that the Colorado Rockies have donated 250 of their staff jackets to a pair of downtown homeless shelters, the status associated with the instantly recognizable windbreakers is changing. These days the person sporting Coors Field colors is more likely to be a drunk than to know how to spot one in the bleachers.

Many a fan has attempted to buy these coats off the back of a stadium grunt. But according to the clients inside the St. Francis Center, the Rockies jackets now carry a different kind of cachet. "You know what this coat represents?" asks a man named Santiago, who is enjoying his 67th day of freedom after a six-year stint in the state pen. "This coat represents tramps, because they're the only ones wearing them. Yeah, it's a Starter jacket, and a good one, but this is a tramp coat." Not that he's complaining, since his revered jacket has helped him assimilate into his new surroundings.

"When I first started coming here," Santiago says, "some guy started hassling me--you know, 'You're a cop, what kind of pig are you?' He disrespected me, you know--he was asking to be dropped. But I just got out of the joint, and I can't do that. If I hurt somebody, I'll go back automatically. Besides, I don't do criminal stuff anymore. But with this jacket on, I don't look out of place. I'll sell it to you if you want," he offers with a laugh, "so you can blend in."

This may not be what the Rockies had in mind when they donated these coats, which were replaced this season with a newer model. According to Deb Ainscough, who oversees the stadium's clothing inventory, the intent of the donations was dual: to give the needy some high-quality outerwear along with an extra dose of self-esteem. "For someone who doesn't even have the basic creature comforts," says Ainscough, who came up with the donation idea, "wearing a staff jacket, even if it's an old one--maybe it's a little step up for them. Who needs a little pick-me-up more than someone like that?" When Ainscough ran the idea past her supervisors last fall, they quickly embraced it. In December the team distributed the coats to the St. Francis Center and the nearby Samaritan House.

According to a St. Francis manager, the shelters held off handing out the lightly insulated jackets until this spring since they aren't heavy enough for winter use. But before the coats hit the streets, Ainscough had one hurdle to overcome: Denver police officers have always been instructed to stop anyone wearing a Coors Field jacket, since the coats were stored in-house and considered stolen property if they were worn outside the ballpark.

"We considered donating them to an out-of-town charity to eliminate any difficulties," Ainscough recalls. "I mean, people who are homeless have enough problems without being hassled for wearing a gift." To avoid this confusion, Ainscough contacted local police precincts and alerted them to the jackets' pending appearance among the area's homeless.

That the coats would soon be worn by a different demographic was a concern for some Rockies employees, who worried that gritty types in Rockies gear might give game attendees the wrong impression. "That hasn't been a problem," says stadium services supervisor Todd Zeo, who aided in the coat giveaway. "I haven't heard from any fans, but I have heard from a police officer who saw that the jackets were out and questioned the people wearing them. But we've gotten the word out, so that's not a problem anymore." And as far as ticket holders fretting over what appear to be Coors Field employees dumpster-diving or panhandling outside the park, Zeo says that's a risk the team was willing to take. "That wouldn't be a downside to me," he says. "The important thing is that we got the coats out to the people who needed them." Ainscough agrees. "Who knows if this won't be the seed that starts a positive cycle in a person's life?" she muses. "You just don't know, and that's the potential I saw behind the jacket donation."

Guy Johnson, a polite gentleman giant now in his second season on the mean streets surrounding Coors Field, can attest to the positive difference his coat has made. He says that during a recent stretch of wet weather, the only dry skin on his lanky frame was found under his rain-resistant Rockies wear. What's more, he says, "I'm a Rockies fan, and I've been to a few games, so I don't mind wearing this. And as far as that goes, some of the guys wearing them aren't Rockies fans, but I know they're glad to have a nice jacket. You gotta understand, it's a rare few guys on the street who could buy a nice jacket like this."

Keith West is a fourteen-year veteran of Denver's homeless district who pulls no punches when detailing the pitfalls of his career. "You choose to do three things on the street," he says in a deep, deliberate drawl. "You sniff paint, do crack cocaine or drink. I drink," he admits, breaking into a chuckle. "Not real heavy, but heavy enough. And every time I get drunk, I pass out in the street, so I might as well be on the street, right?" When he steps up to the St. Francis Center's clothing room to receive his coat (fifteen minutes of picking up trash outside the shelter earns visitors a trip to the center's coat check), he's told he can have a team jacket.

"It's not an Avalanche jacket, is it?" he asks. Wouldn't he wear one of those? "Hell, naw!" he spits. "I like the Rockies. I like Dante Bichette; he's my favorite. Larry Walker--he won that MVP? It should have been Dante. When they got rid of the Big Cat," he adds, "I was mad." Coat in hand, he steps back into the gathering of men idling away the morning here and ponders his new possession. Does it instill a sense of pride in his Colorado Rockies? "Well, it supports the team, that's what it does. But, really, it's just a jacket."

Maybe not. "I was on the bus today," Santiago says, adjusting the fit of his Coors coat, "and this guy says to me, 'It's a good day for you to go to work, huh?'" But I'm not going to work. I'm just coming here to use the phone. The other day I was on the bus, and this lady, I guess she used to work at Coors Field, she asked me, 'How much did you pay for your jacket?' She said she paid a hundred dollars for one like this. I told her I was given this jacket at a tramp camp 'cause it was snowing one day. She didn't believe me. She was stuck on stupid, you know? She kept on saying nobody gave me this jacket, stuff like that. I think she thought I stole it.


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