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Rox reflect fondly on Blake St. Bombers

Rox reflect fondly on Blake St. Bombers

It was the best of times. In just their third season, the upstart Colorado Rockies shattered the old eight-year path the last best expansion team had blazed to the playoffs, crafting together an unlikely season of success that sent them surging into October.

The Rockies thrilled their fans in their first two seasons, with a hard-hitting lineup and a porous pitching staff setting up high-scoring affairs at Mile High Stadium. But baseball in the Broncos' backyard remained something of a novelty, a temporary aberration to marvel at, enjoy, and endure. Moving into their new home on the corner of 20th and Blake and claiming it as their own was the catalytic coming-of-age moment that defined the team.

The groundwork was laid before the franchise ever took the field. A day before the Expansion Draft in November 1992, the Rockies signed Andres Galarraga as a free agent. The "Big Cat" brought instant prestige to the purple pinstripers when he won the batting title in the Rockies' inaugural '93 season, hitting a mile-high .370.

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"Baseball with altitude" took off with the move to Coors Field in '95. The Rockies celebrated the maturation of their second-round Expansion Draft pick, Vinny Castilla, the explosive emergence of Dante Bichette, acquired in a Draft day trade, and the leadership offered by sluggers Ellis Burks and Larry Walker, signed as free agents before the '94 and '95 seasons, respectively.

Collectively, these "Blake Street Bombers" terrorized opposing pitchers while pacing a Rockies squad that led the league in hitting every year from '95-'02, in homers from '95-'97 and '99, and in runs from '95-'97 and 2000-01.

Freshly signed free agents Walker and Bill Swift paid immediate dividends, as Walker collected three hits and three RBIs in the inaugural opener at Coors Field, and Swift pitched six innings en route to a dramatic Rockies win over the Mets. But it was Bichette who launched the Rockies' first bomb at Coors Field.

Having lost a five-run lead in the fifth, the Rockies established a precedent of battling back, coming back from 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth, from 8-7 in the 13th, and from 9-8 in the 14th, with Bichette's three-run homer setting the tone for an entire year of unlikely underdog overachieving.

The Blake St. Bombers seized home-field advantage, establishing a stranglehold on visiting clubs with a 44-28 record and ultimately beginning a streak of 203 consecutive sellouts.

"Whether it was raining or snowing or whatever, it was a packed house every day," Castilla said upon his return to the Rockies in September '06. "That was unbelievable."

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The road was a different story, however. While their lumber spoke for itself at home, the Blake St. Bombers were lost in translation each time they descended from their mile-high home, going 33-39 outside of Colorado.

"Every time we would go on the road, it was a struggle," Don Baylor, the Rockies' manager from '93-'98, explained 10 years after winning Manager of the Year honors for guiding the '95 squad to the postseason. "We'd come home, and all of a sudden we'd start wearing that 'S' on our chest again."

Playing like supermen, the Blake Street Bombers took the momentum of the moment and ran with it.

•  Galarraga tore into opposing pitchers, tying a National League record when he homered in three consecutive innings in San Diego on June 23, and setting a franchise best with his one-man fireworks show, going 6-for-6 with two homers and five RBIs against Houston on July 3.

•  Bichette led the league in hits (197), homers (40) and RBIs (128), and finished a close second in MVP voting to Cincinnati's Barry Larkin.

•  The Blake St. bomb squad of Bichette, Walker, Castilla and Galarraga became just the second quartet of teammates in Major League history to each hit 30 or more home runs.

The Rockies came into the season's final day a game ahead of Houston in the NL Wild Card race, watching the out-of-town scoreboard's unfolding tale of the Cubs squandering a six-run lead and losing to the Astros, forcing the Rockies to win one more. It was as important a game as had ever been played in Colorado, and no one was immune to the nerves as they awaited the anthem.

"Bret Saberhagen is starting that game. This guy's pitched in the World Series, but I remember he was like this," Baylor said, shaking his hand dramatically to illustrate his point. "It was pressure."

The Rockies fell behind in the top of the first, but by then, fans knew that trailing at Coors was merely the preamble for the fireworks to follow. By the top of the third, Saberhagen had given up eight runs, and the Rockies trailed by six.

Baylor coaxed seven innings of one-run ball from relievers Mark Thompson, Lance Painter, Brian Rekar, Bruce Ruffin, Darren Holmes and Curtis Leskanic. As much as they depended on the Bombers, the remarkable relievers held leads to the tune of a 60-4 record when leading after seven innings.

"That bullpen was pretty special, from what I've heard," Rockies current manager Clint Hurdle said during the NLDS, having previously noted the importance of the bullpen in 1995, as the Rockies built their '07 club.

The top of the order went 10-for-18, with Eric Young and Walker each launching two-run homers to get the Rockies back in it in the third before a four-run fifth put them ahead to stay.

Leskanic had the franchise's hopes on his shoulders in the ninth, striking out two and inducing a grounder to Galarraga to clinch Colorado's first playoff berth. Nine years later -- moments after earning the Red Sox a 12th-inning win over the Yankees in the pivotal Game 4 of the '04 ALCS -- he referred to the Wild Card clincher as the enduring standard.

"I remember being down 8-2," Leskanic said, the memories calling up vivid images in his mind's eye. "We ended up winning 10-9. That was the coolest game I'd ever been a part of."

It was uncharted territory for a team with only Burks, Saberhagen and Walt Weiss possessing postseason experience, and the fans and players responded with World Series atmosphere, celebrating on the field and soaking the clubhouse with champagne.

"The most fun I had was when we won the Wild Card here in '95," Walker said when he reflected on a decade in Colorado in '03. "I've got the Gold Gloves, the MVP award, the batting titles. When you get those awards, you give a little speech, you wear a tuxedo. But you don't play the game so you can dress up in a tuxedo and say something in front of a microphone. That's not what it's all about.

"When you win a Wild Card, as we did, you've got champagne flying over each other, you're hugging, high-fiving, going nuts. It goes on all night. That's a celebration. That right there is the reason you play the game."

Despite a three-year record of 30-3 against the Rockies, the Braves took nothing for granted as they prepared for perhaps the most intimidating challenge in 14 consecutive postseason appearances.

"It was the scariest series we've ever played," John Smoltz admitted 10 years after Coors Field hosted the first two Division Series games in the Wild Card era. "Consequently, we ended up winning the World Series that year."

With Greg Maddux facing Kevin Ritz in the opener, the Rockies led, 3-1, after five innings, but were down, 4-3, in the bottom of the eighth when Braves coach Pat Corrales repositioned Chipper Jones at third seconds before Jones grabbed what would have been a run-scoring extra-base hit on its way to left field, thwarting a rally in its tracks.

"They probably would have gone to the World Series if we don't make that play," Braves manager Bobby Cox confirmed a decade later. "That series was as good as it gets."

The Rockies led in each of the series' four games, taking Game 3 in the 10th in Atlanta before losing to Maddux in the finale. The Braves went on to win a trophy that year and a collection of rings as the spoils of their only World Series championship in a string of 14 consecutive division titles.

But at least as treasured as any diamond-studded ring are the memories of a team taking baseball by storm in just its third year of existence.

"That season ranks No. 1," Baylor said years later. "That's the most fun I had in baseball."

Three and a half million fans felt exactly the same way. For 13 years -- until their 13-inning Wild Card tiebreaker and their long-awaited return to October -- baseball was never better on Blake Street, and the game has rarely reached such heights of tantalizing tension -- delivering so faithfully on its promise to captivate the mind and stir the heart -- than in that inaugural Wild Card ride of '95.

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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