Baseball: Crowds lured by fascination of the Rockies' horror pitching show: Though dreams of pennants remain just that, there has been some celebration for the new boys on the major league block

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE IRON law of baseball expansion is that last place has your name on it from opening day. Every team to join the major leagues, from the New York Mets to the Toronto Blue Jays, have paid their dues long before they began to dream of pennants and World Series.

Neither of this year's National League debutants, the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies, are about to storm the play-offs, but both have something to celebrate. The Marlins know already they will finish above last place in the National League East, thanks to the those amazingly awful Mets, but they also have a good chance of surpassing the expansion team record of 70 wins, set by the Los Angeles (now California) Angels in 1961.

Florida can largely thank their closer, Bryan Harvey, for that. They took a big gamble on the former California relief pitcher's dollars 4m (pounds 2.6m) salary, signing him when he had been out for a year with elbow surgery, but he has come good with 36 saves to his name. On a team playing well under .500, that ought to put him in the running for the league's Cy Young Award.

It is the kind of start that will fuel the ambitions of the team owner, and chairman of Blockbuster Video, Wayne Huizenga, to tap the Latin American television market by projecting the Miami-based Marlins as the 'Team of the Americas'. Last month Florida served notice that they are already building for future success when they signed the 24-year-old third baseman, Gary Sheffield from San Diego, the NL batting champion last year.

The only disappointment has been the failure of the two Latin marquee players, Benito Santiago and Orestes Destrade. Santiago, a former All Star catcher, has flopped, while the Cuban- American, Destrade, three times a home run champion in Japan, has not fulfilled hopes that he could become the new Cecil Fielder. Thus far Destrade has hit only 11 homers, small change compared with his four-year Japanese aggregate of 154.

Colorado have performed exactly like novices on the field, but the novelty of being the only major league team for over 500 miles has put them on a pace to smash Toronto's single- season aggregate attendance of 4,028,318. Already the Rockies have broken the 35-year-old record for a day game (with their opening day crowd of 80,227), the 45-year-old mark for a three-game series (216,349) and the 30-year-old mark for a four-game series (251,521).

The thin air in Denver's Mile High Stadium has not created the expected home run paradise. A study by the University of Denver into the effects of the atmosphere at 5,280 feet on a baseball discovered that a batted ball travelled nine per cent further than at sea level. The result is a few prodigiously long home runs, but what is more noticeable is the greater number of balls that jump through the gaps in the infield, giving the outfielders less reaction time.

It is therefore still a hitters' ballpark, but most of the hits have come from the visitors' bats, as the home rotation have laid on a Rockies Horror Pitching Show. At least Colorado are not as bad as the worst-ever expansion team, the 1962 Mets, to whom manager Casey Stengel once despairingly lamented: 'Can't anyone here play this game?' But the Rockies manager, Don Baylor, recently complained: 'If I ride it out any more, I'll be in Japan. That's a long trip, riding it out.'

For now the fans in the Rocky Mountain states are content for Colorado to ride it out. They just keep on coming.

Results, standings, Sporting Digest, page 31