Blake Street Bombers had an unforgettable blast
Fans arrived early and made a beeline to the left-field bleachers at Coors Field. Baseball gloves at the ready, they jostled for position, waiting for the rain of home runs.
era, sure To “Bichettesteal didn’t a popularwant Happens,”to phrasemiss and fromthe fans pregamethe party.
But it wasn’t just Rockies fans who fell under the spell. Manager Don
Baylor knew what he had, and he took full advantage.
“‘Groove’ used to put all of us in the last group of batting practice, because the visiting team would come out right then to start stretching,” recalled Dante Bichette, chuckling at the memory. “So their pitchers would be out there and they had to watch us. We could really clobber the baseball, especially during batting practice. That could be a little bit intimidating for pitchers coming into Coors Field.”
Bichette, the mullettopped left fielder, was a charter member of the Blake Street Bombers, the colorful quintet that took Lodo by storm when Coors Field debuted in 1995. Rounding out the group were outfielders Larry Walker and Ellis Burks, first baseman Andres “Big
Cat” Galarraga and third baseman Vinny Castilla.
The prodigious sluggers put an indelible stamp on the franchise, one that remains vivid more than two decades later. Local fans fell in love with tape-measure baseball, but opposing pitchers (and even some of the Rockies’ own pitchers) came to despise the high-altitude brand of baseball at Coors Field. The late, great San Diego star Tony Gwynn
“We really could clobber the baseball,
especially during batting practice. That could be a little bit intimidating
for pitchers coming into
Coors Field.” Dante Bichette, Blake Street Bomber
once said that baseballs at Coors “jumped off the bat like golf balls on the moon.”
The national media’s derision for big-league baseball in Denver continues to this day, but the Blake Street Bombers make no apologies for that golden era of Rockies baseball.
“Man, I love the name ‘Blake Street Bombers.’ It just sounds so good,” said Castilla, 50, who has worked as a special assistant to the Rockies’ general manager for the last 10 years. “That name stuck with the fans and the organization. I’m so proud that I was a part of it. What a great experience.”
Statistics help define the Bombers, who combined for 985 home runs during those wild-and-crazy, pre-humidor days.
“They brought a ton of excitement to the ballpark,” said Darren Holmes, the current bullpen coach who was a Rockies reliever from 1993-97. “Every time those guys came to the plate, fans got excited, expecting a home run.
“They brought a mystique of fear to opponents coming in here. Add in all the hype about the elevation, and everybody saying pitches didn’t move here, and it was a nightmare for opposing pitchers.”
Special time and group
In 1995, Colorado’s first playoff season, Bichette, now 53, led the National League in hits (197), home runs (40) and runs batted in (128), but finished second in the MVP voting to the Cincinnati Reds’ Barry Larkin. Bichette’s encore in 1996 included a third consecutive All-star Game appearance and a career-high 141 RBIS.
In 1998, Castilla had his best season, at age 30. He played in all 162 games, earned his second all-star appearance, hit .319 with a career-high 46 home runs and drove in 144 runs.
Galarraga, 56, was one of the Rockies’ first free-agent signings, joining the team in November 1992 on a one-year, $850,000 deal. He won the batting title in 1993, the team’s inaugural season, hitting .370. His banner season was 1996, when he mashed 47 homers, drove in 150 runs and stole 18 bases.
Walker, 50, was the 1997 NL MVP, hitting .366 with 49 home runs and 130 RBIS and posting a remarkable 1.172 OPS (on-base percentage, plus slugging). He had 409 total bases, tied for 18thmost in a season in MLB history. He also stole 33 bases and won a Gold Glove.
Walker’s MVP season was the first of three consecutive years in which he hit at least .360 with an OPS of at least 1.075.
Burks, now 52, was slowed by injuries during his time with the Rockies, and had only 1,821 at-bats. But his 1996 season was one of the best in franchise history. He led the league with 392 total bases and 142 runs scored, batted .344 and posted a 1.047 OPS. He finished third in MVP voting, behind Ken Caminity and Mike Piazza.
The 1996 season, in particular, illustrates the firepower of the Bombers and their supporting cast. The Rockies became the first team in major-league history to hit 200 homers and steal 200 bases in the same season. The prolific offense, combined with the relative newness of Coors Field, induced fans to flock to Denver’s downtown ballpark. The Rockies drew 3.89 million fans, an average of 48,037 fans per game, which remains the record for Coors Field.
“That was a special time, a special group of players,” said Walt Weiss, who played shortstop during the Bombers era and then managed the Rockies from 201216. “My job was just to get on base and let those guys drive me in. I was smart enough to know that.
“We had one of the most potent lineups, certainly of that era. I heard (Hall of Fame pitcher) John Smoltz once say it was the toughest lineup he ever faced.”
United Nations in Lodo
But it wasn’t simply hits and homers that made Colorado fall in love with the Bombers. The quintet flashed personality and had a certain ’90s style. There is a photo in the hallway leading to the press box that captures it well. The five players, all in street clothes, are walking on Blake Street, baseball bats in hand and Coors Field in the background.
Burks is on the far left, biceps bulging beneath a slick, golden, short-sleeved, mock turtleneck. Next comes Walker, the casual Canadian, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, Teva sandals on his feet and a Colorado Avalanche cap on his head.
The beefy Galarraga is in the middle, dressed to the nines in black slacks and a stripped silk shirt. Bichette, gold chain dangling, is wearing ’90s-style jeans and black, slipperlike shoes. Castilla is strutting his stuff in jeans and a T-shirt.
“Man, we were colorful, we were unique,” Castilla said. “We had a lot of ethnicities. Big Cat is Venezuelan, I’m Mexican, ‘Walk’ is Canadian, Ellis is Africanamerican and Dante’s a white American guy. We were all different, but we all got along.”
Added Weiss, with a chuckle: “I never thought of us as the United Nations, but I guess Vinny’s right. Those were fun times. I think back on those days almost like I was back in college. We were close that way and that team was a lot of fun.”
From the outside looking in, the long-haired Bichette seemed like the goofy one. He was a champion Foosball player and won an armwrestling title in Las Vegas.
His signature walk-up song was, fittingly, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” When he hit a home run, he dropped his bat as if he couldn’t believe the ball went out. Then he did his patented little fist shake.
“Yeah, the shucky ducky,” Bichette said. “(Former Rockies pitcher) Marvin Freeman came up with the name for it. It stuck with me. He said, ‘Dante, man, what is it that you do? That shucky ducky?’ ”
Bichette, who served as the Rockies’ hitting coach under Weiss in 2013, says he was actually the most serious hitting student of the group. Walker, on the other hand …
“Larry was the most-gifted, most-talented player I’ve ever seen or played with,” Bichette said. “He was crazy talented; a true fivetool player. He was the kind of guy who could show up, not taking batting practice and then go out and get four hits. The game came really easy to him. I studied hitting, but Larry could just hit.”
Walker, whose walk-up song was Ozzie Ozborne’s “Crazy Train,” was notoriously superstitious. His uniform number was 33, he took three practice swings, set his alarm clock for three minutes past the hour and even set the microwave for 3 minutes, 33 seconds.
“Let’s see, my first marriage was on Nov. 3 at 3:33, lasted three years — it ended in ’93 — and cost me $3 million,” Walker told Sports Illustrated in a 2001 story. “It can’t work every time. Anyway, I’ve got other superstitions you don’t know about.”
Galarraga, the veteran, taught Castilla the ropes on and off the field.
“He was my mentor,” Castilla said. “He helped me out a lot when I was a young kid. Man, could he dress.”
Ask teammates about Castilla and they all mention his engaging smile and sunny disposition.
“Vinny was the happiest guy I ever played with,” Bichette recalled. “I loved to make him laugh. I used to flex my forearm for him and he’d say, ‘Man, you’re strong!’ Then he would always laugh.
“So, just a few weeks ago, I texted him a photo of my forearm, just to make him laugh.”
Castilla, the Rockies’ 20th pick of the 1992 expansion draft, earned a reputation as one of baseball’s best fastball hitters.
“Vinny’s hand-eye coordination was amazing,” Bichette said. “We played a ping-pong match before every game. I don’t care how hard you hit that ping-pong ball at him, it would come back.”
Galarraga, on the other hand, was considered one of the majors’ best breaking ball hitters.
“Cat was my version of a Venezuelan Fred Flintstone,” Bichette said. “He was just so big and strong. He had those huge arms and huge calves. He would turn on those breaking pitches and just crush them out.”
Burks, an excellent high-fastball hitter, was the quiet Bomber. The word often used to describe him was “professional.”
The Rockies, now in their 25th season, have had their share of heroes through the years. Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado spring to mind when fans think of Rockies baseball.
But longtime fans can close their eyes and imagine Coors Field in the early years, when public address announcer Alan Roach’s godlike voice set the stage: “Donn-tayyyy Baa-shett! ... “LA-RRY WALK-ERR!”
The Blake Street Bombers were coming to the plate.
“We had a blast, no doubt about it,” Bichette said.
Former third baseman Vinny Castilla, who still works for the Rockies, was a member of the Blake Street Bombers. “We were unique,” says Castilla, who hit .319 with 46 homers and 144 RBIS in 1998.
Dante Bichette, a Rockie for seven years, hit 201 home runs for the club, including 40 in 1994.
Larry Walker spent 10 years in Colorado. He won the 1997 NL MVP award after swatting 49 home runs.
Andres Galarraga electrified Rockies fans from 1993 to 1997. He led the NL in RBIS in 1996 and 1997.
Vinny Castilla played the thirdmost games in Rockies history — 1,098 during nine seasons in Colorado.
Ellis Burks had a 30-30 season with the Rockies in 1996, with 40 homers and 32 stolen bases.