It's a Friday afternoon in mid-August, and the Colorado Rockies are preparing to play one of the most important games in team history. The club had spent the previous several weeks blowing a six-game lead in the National League's Western division; going into the evening's contest, the Rockies trail the boys in Los Angeles Dodgers blue by one game. As a result, the eyes of the baseball world are focused on Coors Field, where the Rockies and their expensive new pitching ace, Bret Saberhagen, are scheduled to face the Chicago Cubs. The battle is the marquee matchup for ABC's Baseball Night in America series, and with broadcasters Al Michaels, Jim Palmer and Tim McCarver standing behind the batting cage chatting with manager Don Baylor, the Rockies players are taking their practice more seriously than ever.
In the Coors Field control room overlooking home plate, however, JD McWilliams is keeping his eye on another kind of ball. A mirror ball straight out of Saturday Night Fever.
"Man, that looks great," says Davey McWilliams, who, with older brother JD and younger sibling Ronbo, operates the stadium's giant message board. He bends down to squint at a small video monitor, where the image of a mirror ball slowly rotates. "Where'd you get it?"
JD cradles his battered Sony home video camera. "I shot it at the I-Beam last night," he says, referring to a popular LoDo nightspot. "I thought we could put it on the board and play some of this."
He pulls a mini-disc cartridge from his pocket and hands it to Tim Dunn, the Rockies' audio technician. Dunn reads the label on the mini-disc slowly, as if he's just been handed the recipe for happiness. "Disco," he intones.
The McWilliams brothers and Dunn have been on the lookout for Seventies dance music ever since they brainstormed a new Coors Field feature dubbed "Let's See Some Dancin'!" The idea? To convince fans settling in for a between-inning break to leap to their feet and start boogying by their seats, in the aisles, wherever. And as soon as the sounds of KC and the Sunshine Band delivering "That's the Way (I Like It)" begin to boom from the control room's mini-disc player, everyone realizes that they've found the missing ingredients that should push their concept over the top. First reviews are good: When, moments later, a now-giant mirror ball fills the viewing screen, several Rockies stretching their hamstrings near home plate break into wide grins.
"It's perfect," Dunn says, smiling too. "This is really going to help the show."
The show--that's how the occupants of the Coors Field control room see each Rockies game. Sure, the main attractions are on the field, but they can't entertain 50,000 people every minute. They need some help.
Recognizing this, Rockies decision-makers had the builders of Coors Field install a state-of-the-art sound system ("There are more speakers on the top deck here than in the entire Mile High Stadium," Dunn boasts). And in getting the most out of this setup, the staffers are allowed, even encouraged, to think young and have fun. Thanks to the efforts of the McWilliams brothers and Dunn, Rockies games are musically hipper than those in virtually any other major-league park.
Much of the credit for the Coors Field style goes to manager of in-game entertainment Jennifer Berger. The 26-year-old Berger has overseen the music since the Rockies were based at Mile High, and she currently has on hand a collection of approximately 700 CDs available for airing. Songs from the albums are listed in a weighty, Berger-penned compendium entitled "Situational Songs" that's intended to provide audio technician Dunn (who chooses and programs the tunes) with a track for every occasion. A few of her selections are a bit incongruous; Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain" is listed as an appropriate song to spin during a rainstorm even though its title refers not to run-of-the-mill precipitation but to nuclear fallout. In most other instances, though, Berger's got all the bases covered. Selected highlights:
INJURY: Carly Simon, "Haven't Got Time for the Pain."
FIGHT: Steppenwolf, "Born to Be Wild."
ARGUMENT: Foreigner, "Head Games."
WIN: Irene Cara, "Flashdance...What a Feeling."
LOSS: The Carpenters, "There's a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)."
Also giving Dunn an assist are the individual Rockies, each of whom gets the opportunity to pick a song to be played when he comes to bat. "When we asked them what they wanted, some of them knew right away," remembers Dunn, a 23-year-old CSU grad in his first season with the club. "Walt Weiss wanted some Springsteen, so we picked `Born to Run,' and Joe Girardi wanted some Stones, so we picked `Undercover of the Night.' And Dante Bichette, he's had `Sledgehammer' forever. But then there are ones like Eric Young. He's got Montell Jordan's `This Is How We Do It' right now, but I hear he's changed his song every year.
"Some of the other players said they didn't care what we played," he continues, "but then about two games later, they decided that they did care, or they changed their minds. Like Jason Bates at first said he wanted some Stone Temple Pilots, but then he changed to Big Head Todd's `Circle.' And Larry Walker, he's changed his the most. He started out with `You Got Another Thing Coming,' by Judas Priest, then changed it to something by Van Halen, and then he changed it again to another Van Halen song, `Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love.'"
"You can tell he's listening to it when he walks into the box," insists director of broadcasting Eric Brummond, 29, another control-room regular. "At least I think he is."
"Vinny Castilla was the hardest," Dunn continues. "He requested this song `El Matador' by some group called Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, but nobody'd ever heard of it."
"We searched all over for it before we finally found it on some import CD," Brummond says.
What about the Big Cat, Andres Galarraga? According to a persistent rumor, he wasn't exactly thrilled about stepping out of the on-deck circle to the sound of his first signature number, Henry Mancini's decidedly un-macho "The Pink Panther Theme."
"I haven't had anything confirmed," Dunn responds gingerly, "but he did request something else."
The Venezuelan slugger "brought in a cassette with something on it kind of like `El Matador,'" Brummond confirms. "I don't know why it was changed. The tape might not have been in very good shape."
"So now he's got `Black Cat,' by Janet Jackson," Dunn notes. "He's hitting pretty well at home, so I guess he likes it okay."
Not everyone's equally bowled over by the music. "We've heard some people say, `It's an old-time ballpark, so it should have more old-time music," acknowledges Brummond. "So we've increased the amount of organ we play."
"I try to pick out some Fifties and Sixties stuff, too," Dunn adds. "Which is pretty old-time to me."
At 5 o'clock sharp, Berger assembles her crew: Dunn, the McWilliams brothers, video technician Brandy Lay and a handful of others. Joining them are Coors Field organist Chuck Shockney, a neatly dressed gentleman with bright eyes and Bob Palmer hair, and public-address announcer Kelly Burnham. Berger tells them that the night's show should be a routine one. Only the National Anthem looks to be out of the ordinary; it will be delivered by an eighty-member choir from Heritage Christian Center in Denver. Dunn, who has to mike the singers, is unconcerned. "We only have two microphones for the national anthem, so there's not much I can do," he says. "Thank goodness everybody will be quiet."
After a short dinner break, JD returns to his computer monitor and starts pounding in data to be projected that night on the giant screen. As you might expect from someone who had his first name legally changed to remove the periods ("There shouldn't be any periods, because `JD' doesn't stand for anything," he divulges), he's meticulous about getting every number and punctuation mark just right, even though he's been composing variations on the same messages for his entire adult life. "I've typed `Welcome' and `Hooray' and `Happy birthday' and `Will you marry me?' a thousand times," he grumbles. "Sometimes it seems like every game somebody's wanting to get married."
The senior McWilliams at age thirty, JD backed into his career as a purveyor of ballpark culture. As a teenager, he babysat for the daughters of Gary Tischer, a neighbor who oversees Mile High Stadium, McNichols Arena and other venues for the City of Denver. When, in 1983, the person who recorded balls and strikes for the minor-league Denver Bears left the position, Tischer asked JD, then eighteen, if he'd like to take the job on for the summer. "I had to push these big, old mechanical buttons--clunk, clunk, clunk," JD recalls. "I think I made $15 a game."
Over the course of the next four years, JD enrolled in and dropped out of Colorado State University and kept track of a lot of balls and strikes. Then, in 1987, Mile High received a Diamond Vision video screen and a new matrix board--and because JD was the only person on staff with hands-on computer knowledge, he was hired full-time. Since then, he's handled a variety of duties (running the matrix board, programming music, videotape editing, technical directing) for the Broncos, Nuggets, the recently departed Denver Grizzlies and the Rockies. He's looking forward to taking on similar responsibilities for the National Hockey League's Colorado Avalanche and hopes someday to put together new episodes of JD's Swingin' Meat Gallery, a variety show he co-created with Las Vegas-based cameraman Erich Albl.
JD didn't make a dime from the three episodes of the program he put together in 1992 (they ran throughout that summer on KUBD-TV/Channel 59), but that doesn't make him any less proud of them. "We'd do things like a video for Steve Miller's `Take the Money and Run' where we acted it out using Playskool people--you know, those little wooden toys with no arms. We had two of them shoot another one until some fake blood ran out," he enthuses. "And I'm going to do more things like that. The show hasn't been canceled--it's just on extended hiatus."
It was JD who brought his kin into the matrix-board business. Davey, 27, took over balls-and-strikes duties in 1987, and Ronbo, 21, has been recording statistics on and off since 1990. Just as surprising, they still live together in the house where they were raised. "And," Davey says, "we haven't killed each other yet."
In fact, Dunn and the McWilliams brothers exhibit the easy camaraderie of a comedy team. As pitcher Saberhagen takes the mound just prior to game time, Dunn realizes, "Hey, I don't think Saberhagen has a song yet. I don't think anyone's asked him."
"Oh, I was talking to him the other day," Davey interjects, "and he said he wanted you to play `Cowboys From Hell,' by Pantera."
"Actually," Dunn corrects himself, "I think he likes Hootie and the Blowfish, but that's not all that inspirational. I don't think Hootie and the Blowfish would make me want to a hit a home run."
Later, Dunn sits down to compose the evening's "Today in History" quiz; fans are shown three factoids and are asked to choose the one that actually happened on the date in question. After a moment of indecision, he picks journalist Charles Glass's 1987 escape from kidnappers in Beirut, then recruits the McWilliams boys to help him come up with the phony responses.
"Let's say that Pete Rose hit for the cycle in 1984," JD suggests. "What team was he playing for then?"
"The Phillies, I think," Ronbo says.
"You think?" JD asks.
"It doesn't have to be that right if it's a wrong answer," Dunn declares.
"Yeah," agrees Davey, "but there's a problem." He looks out the window at the now-filled stadium. "There are a lot of real baseball fans out there."
The national anthem goes off without a hitch; the choir is so loud that its members probably could be heard without any amplification at all. As announcer Burnham discloses the starting lineups for the Cubs and the Rockies, Davey makes his choice for the evening's home-run pool. "If you pick the person who hits the last home run in a game, you win," he explains. "We used to have to pick the person who hit the first home run, but that wasn't that much fun. A lot of times it would be over in the first inning."
The Rockies take the field to the rousing sound of Dick Dale's "Miserlou," which Dunn plucks from the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction. It's a good choice; instantly, the crowd is at full roar. But the excitement doesn't last long. Cubs leadoff hitter Brian McRae reaches on a bunt single. Shortly thereafter, first baseman Mark Grace smashes the ball down the third-base line, where fans seated nearby try to grab it. "Someone down there touched that ball!" Ronbo shouts. "That cost us a run! They should throw out the whole front row!"
Ronbo's ire increases as Saberhagen continues to serve up hittable pitch after hittable pitch. When even Cubs hurler Kevin Foster knocks in a run with a fielder's choice, manager Baylor stalks to the mound and yanks Saberhagen after only a third of an inning (he's credited with allowing seven earned runs, his worst outing since reaching the majors). Dunn accompanies the action with the David Bowie and Queen hit "Under Pressure." To fend off any possible gripes from his boss, he shouts, "It's on your list, Berger."
When at last the Cubs suffer their third out, Dunn plugs in a modest R&B cut, Lalah Hathaway's "Let Me Love You," and groans. "This is a beautiful night," he says.
It gets worse. Galarraga, no doubt inspired by "Black Cat," reaches the seats in the Rockies' half of the first inning, but the Cubs get two more runs in the third, bringing the score to 9-1. With the Rockies' hopes of gaining ground on the Dodgers dribbling away, the control-room staffers concentrate on Music Trax, in which attendees are given the chance to vote on which one of three songs will be played in its entirety during the next half inning. The word "night" is the common denominator linking the songs. First up is Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," which gets a smattering of mild applause ("Forget it, Rod," Davey says). It's followed by KC & the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight," which is intended to whet appetites for the mirror ball later in the game, and Frank Sinatra's "The Way You Look Tonight."
"Oooh," Ronbo moans. "It's Sinatra vs. KC."
"No way," Brandy Lay counters. "Sinatra's getting some boos. KC all the way."
Half an inning later, Dunn takes great pleasure in punching up "Get Down Tonight." But by that time, the weather has begun to deteriorate. A huge thunderclap draws a stunned "aaahhh" from the throng. JD looks at Dunn admiringly. "Did you do that?" he asks.
The query is answered by the beginning of a major downpour, prompting JD to stick his head out the window and shout, "Run for your lives!" The crowd does just that, taking shelter without glancing at the up-to-the-minute bulletin from the National Weather Service that graphics coordinator Brian Ives has flashed on the screen. "I spend all this time typing that in and they don't even look at it," Ives grouses.
At 8:18, the umpires call for a rain delay. As the infield is covered and a satellite broadcast of the Dodgers-New York Mets game is switched onto the field's viewing screen (the Dodgers eventually lose 3-2), Dunn uses a phone opposite him to call a friend he's promised to meet after the game. "I don't think it's going to last long," he predicts. And then he sits down and stares at the rain for the next two hours and 45 minutes.
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The game finally gets under way again a few minutes after 11 p.m. A couple thousand people, most resembling damp washcloths with legs, remain to see what turns out to be a memorable catastrophe. The absurd final tally is Cubs 26, Rockies 7--and the game, which ends around 1:15 a.m., isn't as close as the score indicates.
Still, the control-roomers do their best to keep the drenched, chilly zealots who stick around for the bitter end reasonably entertained. As one day bleeds into another, Berger allows Dunn to pull out Eric Clapton's "After Midnight" and Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour." "At this point," Dunn says, "you figure that anyone crazy enough to stay around this late deserves to have a little fun. So we're going to get a little goofy."
Later, JD even puts his mirror-ball graphic on the board, and as KC & the Sunshine Band groove their way into an encore, quite a few stragglers who've stuck around for the entire show actually get up and dance. The McWilliams brothers lean back in their chairs, quietly satisfied.