Dressed head to foot in orange and blue, the crazies stood and howled in the Denver night, their raucous cry of joy mingled with blood lust. Their team had just taken a late lead, and now no one could shut them up. They flapped orange pennants and waved blue caps as they screamed. A few spilled their beer, and some of them jumped up onto their seats to shout from a higher perch. The cheering filled the space around them with a hot pulse of desire.
Life in Denver was good. On a chilly flood-lit Monday at a nearly empty Coors Field. For local fans of the pennant-contending New York Mets. Behind cheers of "Let's go, Mets!" the New Yorkers won this one, too, 6-5, on a wild pitch by exhausted Colorado Rockies reliever Dave Veres. While Mike Piazza and John Olerud slapped high fives, the rudderless Rockies slipped another game deeper into last place. The 10,000 or so Colorado diehards who found themselves at the scene of the crime slipped quietly away.
On the same evening, a mile away in Mile High Stadium, a much larger crowd was watching the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos get their butts kicked 38-21 by the visiting Miami Dolphins. For this orange-and-blue throng, there was no cheering, just a strong suspicion that the party was over, that this Monday-night debacle, enacted before a national TV audience, spelled a sudden end to the Broncos' hard-won dynasty.
Suspicion turned into evidence six days later in inhospitable Kansas City, where the Broncos committed four turnovers, gave up 188 yards rushing and parlayed a raw-nerved quarterback controversy into a 26-10 drubbing by the hated Chiefs. The Broncos haven't started a season 0-2 since 1994, when clueless Wade Phillips was head coach and somebody named Leonard Russell was the leading ball carrier. Now every club in the league can smell horse blood.
"This is when you find out what your team is made of," baffled head coach Mike Shanahan said after Sunday's loss. Shocked Bronco fans had their own answers for that. "What they're made of is brown, and if you're not careful, you step in it at the park," offered stockbroker Bob Wiggins. "Whatever they're made of," Bobby Maestas said, "it's not what John Elway was made of." Both men grabbed up their bottles of Miller Genuine. "You can't help laughing," Maestas said.
Laugh or cry, take your choice. The fact is that Denver's professional sports teams haven't been in a collective mess like this since Steve Tensi was one-hopping passes to Al Denson out at Mile High and the Denver Rockets were blowing easy layups before a crowd of 1,200 in the musty gloom of the Auditorium Arena.
Welcome back to Loserville. Good to see you. It almost makes you nostalgic -- well, doesn't it? -- for the days when tens of thousands of image-conscious Denver citizens, right on up to the mayor's office, worried aloud about what the rest of the country was going to think if the Donks and the Packers had to play Monday Night Football here in a driving snowstorm. Or when a play-by-play man from Oakland -- Oakland, for God's sake -- let slip on a baseball broadcast that at the Brown Palace they brought coffee to the table at the same time as his prime rib.
Loserville. Denver, Colorado, altitude 5,280 feet, After the Fall.
Exhibit A is found in the basement of baseball's National League West, where the disorganized and disoriented Colorado Rockies find themselves 23 1/2 games behind the (second-year) Arizona Diamondbacks, with no hope for improvement. This is the best team $60 million could buy: A supposed number-one starter, Darryl Kile, who went 13-17 with a bloated 5.20 earned run average in his first year with the club and downhill from there in 1999 (8-13, 6.61); a bullpen corps so beat up (good morning, Mr. Veres) and shellshocked (howya doin', Jerry Dipoto?) that they can't get it over the plate at sea level, either; a quartet of sluggers (batting champ Larry Walker, Todd Helton, Vinny Castilla, Bichette) who have all hit thirty home runs at a time when thirty home runs means absolutely nothing -- a couple of Tampa Bay Devil Rays and a pair of Los Angeles Dodgers have also hit thirty homers, and look where they are.
The Rockies' general manager has been fired, and their "new" manager, the miracle worker Jim Leyland, is so worn out after only one year on the job that he's calling it a career come October. Fans are disgusted, the owners are bickering (Bye-bye, Jerry McMorris), and even visiting players can't help getting caught up in the prevailing lethargy: Following the sixth inning of last Wednesday afternoon's Mets-Rockies game, New York starter Orel Hershiser sauntered from mound to the third-base dugout, visibly yawning.
After seeing Kile's unraveling, no starting pitcher worth the name will now sign with Colorado, and Coors Field's light-headed agonies will likely continue. Hope for the future resides in the fact that left-fielder Bichette, a 35-year-old who runs like Roseanne, has vowed to work on his fielding skills in the off-season.
Exhibit B: The AvaNugs. It's not for nothing that we lump together Denver's long-suffering, bottom-feeding National Basketball Association franchise and its fading entry in the National Hockey League. Both teams, along with their new arena, the Pepsi Center, are now the property of one Donald Sturm, a hard-nosed billionaire banker who doesn't like sports very much but is said to be committed to producing winners. Good luck, Herr Sturm und Drang. The seven -- count 'em, seven -- head coaches the Nuggets have employed since 1990 have combined for 244 wins and 462 losses, and Bill Hanzlik's 11-71 mark in 1997-98 came within a few missed free throws of setting the all-time NBA record for futility.
The good news is that the only coach who gave the Nuggs and their beleaguered fans a whiff of the playoffs in the last decade, Dan Issel, is back on the bench this year. Players respect him, Denver fans love him (largely for his record-setting exploits as a player), and he believes he'll get more emotional and financial support for the cause than he got from tightfisted ex-owner Charlie Lyons, of Ascent Entertainment.
The bad news is that Issel may be the best thing the Nuggets have got: Forward Antonio McDyess is the keystone of a troubled club, but general manager/head coach Issel is also committed to point guard Nick Van Exel, late of the Los Angeles Lakers. Moody and mercurial, Van Exel could be the salvation of the team if a few things go right, or its undoing if they don't. The Nuggets center, second-year man Raef LaFrentz, remains unproven, having spent all of last year's strike-shortened season laid up with an injury. The supporting cast is average at best, and Sturm may find himself closing a couple of checking accounts if they don't produce.
Betting on the Horse? This is clearly Issel's last run for the roses.
The Avalanche, transplants from Quebec City who picked up a Stanley Cup their first year in Denver (before a lot of season-ticket folk knew a blue line from a cross-check), haven't been able to reproduce that miracle. After taking out hated Detroit in the playoffs last year, they blew a two-game lead to eventual Cup winner Dallas, and many puckheads think the Avs blew their wad right there.
Bob Hartley's club had two spectacular rookies last year, but the team is aging (Hi, there, Saint Patrick, see you in church) and the loss of ace playmaker Theo Fleury could mean a long year. The Avs' 1-4 pre-season record may not mean much, but they look like a team about ready to slip up big-time. At least that bogus Arab princess didn't pick up their sticks.
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Hockey, shmockey. In this town, the blue-chip franchise is still the football team. Always was. Probably always will be. And if the first two games of 1999 are any indication -- anybody doubt it? -- the Broncos have returned to mediocrity with a resounding thud. Number Seven, John Elway, has been installed on the Ring of Fame. Longtime defensive leader Steve Atwater is now banging heads for the New York Jets. And last Sunday the Chiefs knocked linebacker John Mobley out of the picture for the year. Thank God Shannon Sharpe isn't talking to the media anymore: It might be all mutiny and rumor of mutiny.
Three-peat, nothing. After starting 0-2 and being saddled with one of the toughest schedules in the league, these Broncos will be lucky to sneak into the playoff picture by a horsehair. Anyone out there still snickering about that Christmas Day breather against the lowly Detroit Lions? The Barry Sanders-less Lions have beaten the Seahawks and the Packers in their first two, and before the Donks ever get to the Silverdome, they've got to face monsters like Green Bay, Minnesota and Jacksonville, along with ancient enemies like Oakland and New England. It's not a pretty picture, the Broncos' immediate prospects.
Suddenly, Sunday morning's matchup in Tampa Bay looms large.
On the other hand, none of this sports stuff may matter much. This is no longer a self-conscious cowtown on the make, or a hostage of the Eastern banks, or a sagebrush outpost beholden to the ebb and flow of oil prices. This is no longer a city whose self-esteem rises and falls on the strength of a quarterback's arm, or what Philadelphians think of our new airport. So forget the three-peat. Leave 30,000 seats empty at Coors Field. And don't get hot and bothered if the Horse and his Nuggets fail to get out of the gate again. Live without it. Live.