The year was 1980, and Denver was truly a “one horse town.” No, seriously, we all shared one horse named Bullwinkle. I lived in Morrison, so I got three days in May. Anyhoo… it was a small town. We had the Broncos (who had tragically lost the Super Bowl to the Cowboys a few years back), but that was about it for Pros. We had farm league hockey, and it was fantastic. The Colorado Rockies. Yep, the Rockies — Hockey. Actually, if you remember “Crazy George” in KC, he used to roam the Rockies games beating his drum at Big Mac (McNichols Arena) Did you know he invented “the wave?” Fun fact, we also had the Colorado Avalanche then, too. Except, they were a professional… wait for it… indoor soccer team. In further fact, my buddy Whitney and I tried out for the team. A friend of mine in school came up with the name in a contest (we’re not really sure if she was the only one, but she got prizes and a cruise and such). Whitney, nor I, made the team.
Well, it would follow that obviously there was no Colorado Rockies baseball then. Nope, we had just gotten cable, and so you were either an Atlanta Braves fan (TBS), or a Chicago Cubs fan (WGN). I chose the latter. I loved the Dodgers because I loved LA. Lasorda, Valenzuela, Steve Garvey, Cey… plus the colors were blue, and my brother like the Yankees, so of course, I would like their nemesis.
My brother and I both played baseball at the YMCA (insert joke), but we were kinda on the poorer side, so it was actually really fun and nice. Basically, you got a hat and shirt (which you paid for, or sold candy for, or sold GOLD C books!), they provided the balls and some bats, the rest was up to you. Yes, kids used to wear corduroy jeans and those horrible SAS shoes and slide into 2nd. So, youth baseball was a big thing. We sucked BTW. I was a pitcher, my brother was a catcher. You can only imagine how well that went. Also, I wasn’t very good. I could throw a fastball and a very slow, perfectly-placed-for-a-homerun curveball. It was either a strikeout, or I was looking over my shoulder as the ball cleared a fence that had an American Furniture Warehouse banner waiving in the wind, as if to say, “come here, baseball, right over this fence is where you shall live, and we’ll make the fat boy go chase it, too!”
But I tried to get into baseball. Tried to learn box scores. I became a fairly good 1st baseman and a great outfielder. (not part of this story, but I went on to play a little in high school, before the spring musicals became more important to me). So, I made an effort to get into it. Started learning the players, and watching the division races. I had seen Mr. October do his thing during those Yankee World Series runs, much to my dismay while my brother cheered. But, damn those were incredible moments in televised history.
My dad, who was stingy with a buck, took the family to Rockies (hockey) and Bears (baseball) games, when we could afford it. Now, these were both farm league, Triple A teams, so the tickets (and the sodas, and parking, and yada yada) were significantly cheaper. I just looked it up — tickets were $1.50-$4.50 per game! Compare that to $18-$25 per game for the Broncos in 1980 (GASP!) I never knew anyone that could afford a Bronco game. We certainly couldn’t, we never went. I got to go if someone had tickets, and like a lot of other Bronco fans, we got to go during the strike year in 1982. I know it seems cheap, but a family of four, gas, parking, dinner, popcorn nachos, pop, probably a program, maybe a little trinket, it adds up.
But here’s the thing, the Denver Bears played at Mile High. So, if you were a Bronco fan (and we all were), it was like sneaking in to the hallowed church during the summer. Plus, us folk from the mountains got to come down to the “big city.” You know, Federal Blvd. HA! And for maybe $35, (probably with a discount from King Soopers -score!) the whole family could enjoy the day, that was doable. And the Bears were great. No, really, there were maybe the best Triple A team of all time. Especially the 1980 team. Between 1971 and 1982, they had won 7 division championships. It was fun baseball to watch, and easy to see, because really only about 10,000 people went to most games. 1st base line? Sure. Behind the dugout? You bet. Right on the wall in outfield? Not a problem. I remember catching or snagging at least 5 baseballs, and they handed them out like candy then. If you got one, it was yours.
So, I became a fan of the Denver Bears, but really, I just loved Tim Raines. He was amazing. He hit .354 and stole 77 bases and had 11 triples in 1980. He was 20. It was truly inspiring. He was named rookie of the year, best minor leaguer of the year later, I think.
Those days in Denver, the biggest annual event was the Fourth of July fireworks show. And these July 4th games were packed, 65,000 people in the stadium would come watch the Denver Bears play baseball-minor league baseball, no less-and then hang out for the fireworks. The Denver Bears would play during the day (sometimes a double-header) and then there was a break where they let the kids on the field for hot dog eating contests, races, playing with the mascot. Really fun stuff. Imagine being a kid just running around on the field at Mile High! And it was during this time that the players would sign programs, bats, jerseys, hats, etc.
I met Tim Raines in 1980 at the Fourth of July game on the field in Mile High stadium. I had bought one kick-ass Denver Bears terrycloth wristband with my lawn mowing business money and I wore it proudly with the mitt I had brought to catch fly foul balls. So, there I was was meeting one of my heroes and he asks me, “You play?” “Yes, I do.” “What positions?” “Well, I’m a pitcher, but I’m not very good. I am playing first base, but I think I want to play outfield.” He said, “If you can hit a garbage can from centerfield, any team would take you. Want me to sign something?” And so he proceeded to sign my shirt (some stupid cheap t-shirt), my ratty old NON Denver Bears hat, and then I asked if he would sign my wristband. He looked at me funny, said “wristBAND? Why don’t you have two?” I told him I could only afford one with the my lawn moving money. So, he took off one of his, sweaty and used, sightly faded and certainly stretched out, and signed them both! “Remember, hit the garbage can, you won’t go wrong. Good luck, enjoy the fireworks.”
I obviously did not go on to play pro ball. I actually fell out of love with baseball when the damn Zephyrs?!!!! happened. Look it up. I would eventually get to see the Colorado Rockies (baseball, real MLB baseball) at Mile High, which was awesome. However, I did go on playing baseball. But guess what, I never washed those signed wristbands, either of them actually. I have one somewhere, I think. But regardless of memorabilia, that moment lives on my memory through this day. The day I met one of my sports heroes from a lowly Triple A team called the Denver Bears, on a blistering July day, with mustard on my shirt from the hot dog eating contest, who would eventually make the Hall of Fame! (And the fireworks were great, too)
Congratulations, Hall of Famer — Tim Raines.