You bat in a lineup surrounded by three hitters who have already crushed 55 home runs, giving you the kind of protection that is the envy of federal witnesses. You relax before games by sprawling on an oversized green leather sectional sofa, your feet propped on a retractable footrest while you watch SportsCenter on a big-screen TV. You have not one, but two lockers spacious enough to rent as apartments for a grand a month, were they in Manhattan. Right now they are so crammed with fan mail, plaques, pictures and assorted other trappings that you have determined it will take two days to clean them. You are so loved by the fans, in fact, that at the start of every game they greet you with high fives as you run to your position in rightfield. And in the top of the ninth inning, whether winning or losing, you always throw them a baseball, an event that sends thousands of hopeful people squealing and has the delightful kitschiness of a lounge singer tossing his room key into the crowd after his encore.
You are Larry Walker, the 28-year-old star of the Colorado Rockies, and you play in front of a full house every night at home, have $22.5 million coming to you over four years and are hitting more home runs than you've ever hit in your life. And if that isn't enough, your team is in first place. Impossible?
It seems that way only because the Rockies did not even exist three years ago. Their pitching staff is so bad that when a rookie actually lasted into the seventh inning recently, it was page one news in the local paper. And the Rockies are baseball's most agoraphobic team, with a 28-15 record at their dazzling new home, Coors Field, but a 17-20 mark on the road. And still, there was Colorado, five games up on the Los Angeles Dodgers at week's end and sporting the only winning record in the National League West. Believe it or not, the Rockies' front-office staff met last week to begin making plans for the postseason.
For Walker, who last year toiled for the attendance-poor Montreal Expos, this has been nearly too good to be true. Walker is so grateful, he has become almost a branch office of the Denver Chamber of Commerce. "Did you know there are 42 miles of cable under the field to keep it always at least 58 degrees?" he asks a visitor to Coors. "It's a treat to play here. That's why you see people getting here at 10 o'clock in the morning for a seven o'clock night game."
About the worst thing Vancouver native Walker has to endure is his teammates' razzing about his Canadian accent, especially the way he says "oowt" for the opposite of in. But he has come to like even the ribbing so much that he has turned it into his rallying cry, writing GET on his lefthanded batting gloves and OUT on his righthanded ones. Sometimes even the baseball will, as he says, get oowt. At week's end he had hit 22 home runs, more than anybody else in the league and one fewer than his best for an entire season.
"I've got a great ball club to play on and 50,000 people to play in front of," Walker says. "I played in Montreal, so this is definitely not something I'm used to. Plus, the ball does travel better here. There's no better place to play. We don't ever want to leave for a road trip, especially Dante."
That would be Dante Bichette, who has hit all 17 of his home runs this season at Coors Field. "It's a fluke thing," Bichette says. "I've hit for a good average on the road [.293], but for some reason I don't hit for power. When I get home, I go for home runs. You've got those 50,000 people screaming, and I know what they want. Hey, this team was built for this park."
Indeed, the Rockies have bludgeoned 78 dingers in 43 games at Coors Field, which even in a strike-shortened, 144-game season puts them on pace to equal the league record for home field homers, set by the 1947 New York Giants (131). They have hit 75 points higher at home (.317 to .242) than on the road, homered more than twice as frequently (every 19 at bats as opposed to every 43) and scored almost twice as many runs (6.7 per game compared with 3.7).
Third baseman Vinny Castilla, who had 12 career home runs in 488 at bats before this year, has cranked out 14 at Coors Field alone this season, including two in a 5-4 victory over the New York Mets last Saturday night and another in the Rockies' 8-5 win on Sunday. (He has six more at or near sea level.) Castilla, who is batting .391 at home and .248 on the road, also scored the deciding run in the eighth inning Saturday night on a single by the Rockie second baseman with the horror-movie-twin-bill name, Jason Bates.
Says manager Don Baylor, "We've had a comfort level at home ever since Opening Day. Not playing well on the road has become a mental thing for some guys, like Dante. I think they're aware of it, and that's why we have some of the numbers we have on the road. It should be relaxing to play on the road, but it hasn't been."