There's a reason you're seeing Kyle Beckerman's face all over the city. And no, it's not those Sideshow Bob dreadlocks -- although those are noteworthy. The reason the Colorado Rapids chose to tattoo Beckerman, along with a handful of other Rapids, on the banners and billboards hyping the upcoming 2007 season at the new Dick's Sporting Goods Park is quite simple: The kid had a breakout season last year. Not only did Beckerman grow more comfortable in the attacking mid-field role, playing 31 out of 32 games, he also tied for the squad's scoring lead with seven goals and recorded four assists, two of which were clutch passes against FC Dallas in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Couple those efforts with two call-ups from the national team -- against Mexico and Denmark -- and that amounts to one hell of a season for a Major League Soccer player. It must be the hair.
Granted, touchdowns are more plentiful in the Arena Football League than in the National Football League; it's not unusual for AFL scores to top sixty points. Still, props go to Damian Harrell, a Florida State grad and original member of the Crush, who holds the AFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown. At press time, the streak stood at a gaudy 69 in a row, and the way Harrell is playing these days, the end is definitely not in sight. And how appropriate that the best player on a team owned by John Elway is responsible for so many 7s!
The Colorado Mammoth certainly has some fine players, including defensemen Tom Ethington and Jamie Hanford, who were just named to compete on the U.S. national team at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship in May. Still, these guys have a long way to go before they'll surpass the accomplishments of Gary Gait, the team's coach. By the time he came to Colorado in 2002, Gait was arguably the greatest athlete in the history of the National Lacrosse League, earning MVP honors while setting a single-season scoring record. When he retired in 2005, he was promptly inducted into the league's hall of fame -- but Gait was far from through with lacrosse. He's the growing sport's top ambassador, as well as the reason the Mammoth are big in Denver.
While the Nugs may not have registered as many wins as anticipated at the start of the season, they've more than made up for their uneven play in drama. The team limped out of the gate, and when it finally seemed to be hitting its stride, Carmelo Anthony was suspended for fifteen games after throwing a punch so timid that it didn't even qualify as a bitch slap. Then, just when all seemed lost, owner Stan Kroenke acquired the services of bad boy Allen Iverson in one of the biggest trades in Denver pro-sports history. The Melo-A.I. tandem still isn't clicking as regularly as it should, but when they're on, the Nuggets are the most thrilling game in town. Sometimes even on the court.
Cinderella isn't known for wearing pilot's gear, but given the accomplishments of the Air Force Academy's men's basketball squad this year, she should probably try a flight suit on for size. Since players must commit to military service, the Falcons have a smaller recruiting pool to draw from than the vast majority of teams they compete against. Nevertheless, players such as Jacob Burtschi proved their grit on the hardwood, chalking up a gaudy record and spending much of the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. While a skid down the stretch doomed their chance to participate in the Big Dance, the Falcons made a run in the National Invitation Tournament that took them all the way to Madison Square Garden. This Cinderella deserves a mile-high salute.
Nearly all great NFL franchises suffer downturns. Think of the once-invincible San Francisco 49ers, who only now are showing signs of emerging from the mire of mediocrity that followed their glory days in the '80s and '90s. Yet despite plenty of opportunities to do so, the Broncos haven't hit bottom under Mike Shanahan. Even last year, when quarterback Jake "The Mistake" Plummer played so poorly that Shanny replaced him in the middle of the season with untested rookie Jay Cutler, the team nearly made the playoffs. How does Shanahan stay in the game? With smart offensive schemes, a willingness to bench or deal any athlete who's not producing, and a cold-eyed intensity that can be downright scary to behold. Simply put, Shanahan refuses to let down.
When Jeff Bzdelik was sacked by the Denver Nuggets, he could have grumbled loudly -- as he had every reason to do. Instead, he accepted the head-coaching position at the Air Force Academy and turned what could have seemed a dead-end gig into a dazzling showcase of his skills. He took a team whose players might not have made the cut at most major universities, let alone start, and molded them into a highly disciplined and efficient group capable of taking down the big boys. The University of Colorado will likely ask Bzdelik to turn around its woeful basketball program in Boulder, and CU couldn't find a better man for the job. Coach Buzz is worth catching.
Can't make it to a Rockies game, season-ticket holder? Can't find anyone to take your tickets because the Rocks are eight games below .500 and downtown scalpers are giving away tix for lengthy hugs? No sweat, season-ticket holder. Go to any Dugout Store or the Coors Field box office, and you can exchange those suckers. Granted, there are certain restrictions and blackout dates -- you can't swap a Diamondbacks game for an inter-league clash with the Yankees or a game followed by fireworks, for example -- but for the most part, the Rockies will gladly replace your unwanted tickets with tickets to another game; they'll even try to put you as close to your original seats as possible for a paltry $5 handling fee. And you can upgrade! Say you have six crappy seats -- the Rox will look at the dollar value of those seats and let you exchange for that same amount. So six $10 seats morph into two $30 ones! And while you can't upgrade past games, the Rockies will let you swap out unused tickets of games you missed, no questions asked -- unlike your wife, who demands to know where you were if not at Coors Field. Like it's any of her goddamn business.
Denver Hitting Club
What the Denver Hitting Club lacks in glitzy, suburban, mega-batting-cage luster, it makes up for in elbow grease. Elbow grease provided by Sam Morales. "I used to coach youth teams, and we were always trying to find a place to take the kids to hit, and we'd wind up having to take them out to the suburbs," explains Morales. "I always wondered why there was nothing like that in Denver." So in 1992, after hanging up his cleats as an assistant varsity baseball coach at North High School (Morales is still a mailman by day), he converted an old paint shop downtown, installing three cages and numerous pitching machines. Today the Denver Hitting Club is home to everyone from the Liga Latina de Beisbol to downtown businessmen swinging at softballs on their lunch hour and neighborhood children with big-league dreams. Morales keeps the prices fair -- $8 for thirty minutes, $12 for an hour, team rates available -- and is always around to offer a few pointers. Batter up!
HitStreak
Play ball? The centerpiece of HitStreak's training is the ProBatter Professional PX2, an extraordinary pitch simulator that's hyped as the closest thing you'll find to actually batting against Johan Santana in the bottom of the ninth. Through the use of computerized video imagery and multi-pitch simulation capabilities, the state-of-the-art machine -- preferred by such hard hitters as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox -- combines both the visual and physical aspects of facing a pitcher in competition. The training facility also features multiple hitting tunnels and training stations where wannabe major-leaguers can hone their craft.

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