Blake Street Bombers had an un­for­get­table blast

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Pa­trick Saun­ders

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.

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

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.

David Zalubowski, AP file

Dante Bichette, a Rockie for seven years, hit 201 home runs for the club, in­clud­ing 40 in 1994.

Jack Dempsey, AP file

Larry Walker spent 10 years in Colorado. He won the 1997 NL MVP award af­ter swat­ting 49 home runs.

David Zalubowski, AP file

An­dres Galar­raga elec­tri­fied Rock­ies fans from 1993 to 1997. He led the NL in RBIS in 1996 and 1997.

David Zalubowski, AP file

Vinny Castilla played the third­most games in Rock­ies his­tory — 1,098 dur­ing nine sea­sons in Colorado.

John Leyba, Den­ver Post file

El­lis Burks had a 30-30 sea­son with the Rock­ies in 1996, with 40 homers and 32 stolen bases.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.