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FOR OPENERS

The DNA tests are back from the lab, and those were not major-leaguers who christened Coors Field Friday afternoon.

Before 47,563 polite witnesses, a group of strangers wearing Colorado Rockies pinstripes defeated a band of aliens in New York Yankee road grays 4-1, in the first game at Denver's graceful new ballyard. But it should be said that both teams of impostors, clearly as awestruck by the surroundings as any eleven-year-old up in the stands, gave their day in the sun the effort of a lifetime.

"Last year I was playing at an NAIA school, Oklahoma City University," said Mock Rocks catcher Jeff Twist, who, at 21, was the youngest man on Denver's replacement roster. "Today I'm in a major-league ballpark. It's unbelievable. Just taking batting practice in front of Don Baylor and Don Zimmer was a thrill. I didn't play in the game, but this is the best day of my life."

Rockies pitchers yielded only five hits through the first eight innings before Paul Romanoli gave up a lone, unearned run in the ninth. The Denvers committed two errors, the New Yorks none--nothing like the kind of defensive butchery some expected from nervous hopefuls and has-beens.

As George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson watched from the expensive seats, one Matt Stark, a six-foot-four-inch, 255-pound first baseman who looks as though he could replace any three players, committed the Pseudo Yanks' only major gaffe. Trying to stretch a long single in the seventh, this behemoth slid at second base like Moby Dick washing up on the beach. Stark was out by fifteen feet, and the murmurous crowd barely tittered. With a little effort, you could hear the replacement players zipping their suitcases shut.

Still...
"I feel that some baseball is better than none at all," said Zimmer, the Rockies bench coach and the team's most cherished relic. He has 41 seasons of major-league baseball behind him as a player, manager and coach.

"Naturally, we would all like to be here with the Galarragas and the Bichettes and the Charlie Hayeses and the Girardis," Zimmer said. "We don't have that today. But we have some baseball."

Some baseball. And a lot of baseball park.
For the only real star on this chill, vaguely surreal Friday afternoon was Coors Field itself--$215 million worth of neoclassic beauty that instantly feels like it is worth every penny. It feels like home.

"It's the creme de la creme of ballparks," manager Baylor said afterward. "It's the best ballpark I've ever seen, although I haven't been to Camden Yards."

Nine thousand tons of forest-green steel and 1.4 million of Mr. Robinson's red bricks do not in themselves make a cathedral, or a legend--not yet, anyway. That probably won't happen until the Rockies hang the red-white-and-blue bunting along the railings some late October afternoon. But right from the beginning, it was easy to feel Coors Field's future mythologies starting to simmer in the stewpot of possibility. A crucial double, perhaps, caroming off that fetching joint in the wall in the left-center-field power alley. Or the eleventh-inning, game-winning dinger, late in September, doinking off the Car Quest placard beyond the 375-foot marker in right center.

Who will be the first slugger to smash one clear over the lovely latticework in dead right and onto the street beyond? On Friday, warning-track power--nothing more--was the order of the day. What gazelle will be the first to leap high over the bullpen fence and steal away a certain homer, while the startled relief pitchers stand there gape-jawed?

Will you be ordering a slice of pepperoni at Itza Pizza at the moment local baseball lore is made? Or grabbing a glass of suds in the park's trendy microbrewery? Who knows?

On Friday the Rockies' smiling "guest relations" staffers greeted arriving fans with the phrase "Welcome to history!" That had a nice enough ring to it. But until the three-year-old club yields up its own Homer in the Gloaming, its picture-perfect Don Larsen, its Lou Gehrig retirement speech, the greeting might better have been "Welcome to the future."

"How's the hitting background in here?" a visitor asked Rockies replacement Angel Echevarria on Friday.

"Very nice," he answered. "See beautifully." No kidding. Ten seconds later, the 6-3, 219-pound outfielder stepped into the batting-practice cage and slammed the first two pitches into the left-field bleachers.

Ten-year-old Lindy McManus watched those homers disappear. Then, with mustard and relish already decorating the front of his little white Rockies shirt, he gave his assessment of the new park: "Wow!"

Not everyone in the place was so happy. Denver is no hardcore labor town, like Cleveland or Chicago, but a sheet-metal worker, a union meat cutter and an eleven-year-old fifth-grader had their say, placard-wise, beyond the walls of Coors Field Friday: "Scabies not Rockies: Please Do Not Go to the Game." Inside, Lakewood's aggrieved Jeri Miller was staging her own one-woman protest.

"I Want Bichette (10) Back!" read the hand-stitched message on the back of her Rockies jersey. Asked about that, and the first-ever game at Coors Field, this fan (she's seen eighty Rockies games in two years) simply could not hold back hot tears.

"I've been one of the protesters out here for four weeks," she cried. "I came here today just to see the field. I don't think we're going to stay for the game, because they're desecrating this field. They promised us major-league baseball, and we're getting A, Double-A and less. This is the field of broken dreams."

Not for long. The craziest irony coloring Coors Field's windy exhibition opener, of course, grew out of the rumors floating through press box and bleachers all afternoon about the heightened state of baseball's labor negotiations. During Rockies batting practice, U.S. District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners, opening the door for the real major-leaguers to come back to work after eight months on the golf course. While the Yankees took infield, the talk was all about the lockout vote--whether club owners could muster the twenty votes necessary to keep replacement players on the field.

We know now that they couldn't. But for the hard-playing, limbo-bound impostors on the field and the Purple Gangs, 47,000 of them, who came to see Coors Field, there was, in Zimmer's apt phrase, "some baseball."

When it was over, the Rockies' dressing room was as subdued as the fans themselves had been all afternoon. Starter and winner Albert Bustillos, a minor-leaguer since 1988, gave up just one hit in three innings and said this was the best game he had ever pitched. But the sense of not belonging lingered. "This thing is a tease," he said, "but in another way, it's an opportunity. I'll just take it day by day."

So, too, would third baseman Billy White. A six-year veteran of the low minors, he struck a two-out, two-run double in the seventh inning Friday that salted the game away for the Mock Rocks. But afterward, the 26-year-old Kentuckian also knew he probably wasn't long for the plum-colored carpeting in the club's glamorous new dressing room, or the 61-inch TV sets, or the stylish green suede couches parked around the place like new cars.

"It ain't often that you're gonna get an opportunity to play in front of that many people...so I had a ball. I was figuring on this being my last year, anyway, and the Rockies have been good to me. They've kept me in the game a while longer, and I've got a Double-A, Triple-A contract. Wherever I go, I'll go and have a good time. I'll have a jersey on my back and enjoy the summer. But, tell you what: I'd play another six years in the minors to get to do this one day all over again."

To play some baseball.


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