PI­AZZA’S 1997 HOME RUN A PART OF COORS LORE

But Coors Field his­tory comes with an as­ter­isk

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Nick Groke

The long­est home run in Coors Field his­tory has an as­ter­isk.

This is a ball­park that once forced the com­mis­sioner of base­ball to hire an as­tro­physi­cist, a place that has been de­scribed as a moon­scape and a launch­ing pad, the sta­dium that hosted base­ball’s long­est home run of the so-called Stat­cast Era.

It is a base­ball field with an in­ti­mate and in­tense un­der­stand­ing of the cheer­lead­ing long ball, un­like any other place in the ma­jor leagues.

The home run be­longs at Coors Field. And Coors Field is a home run.

But in the 25th year of Rock­ies base­ball, in­clud­ing 23 sea­sons played at 20th and Blake, some home runs have taken on a sec­ond life, fall­ing into a Paul Bun­yan-like lore that weaves to­gether the story of base­ball at el­e­va­tion.

The men­tions of “Do you re­mem­ber when?” have grown big­ger than the boxs­cores. The tall tales tell a more vivid story than the statis­tics.

One home run in par­tic­u­lar, more than any other, sum­ma­rizes Rock­ies base­ball and how it has evolved.

It is the long­est home run in Coors Field his­tory.

Maybe.

“It was mam­moth, man,” pitcher Dar­ren Holmes said. “It was a big bomb.”

“It just kept fly­ing”

The fol­low-through on a Mike Pi­azza home run swing usu­ally ended with his bat be­tween his shoul­der blades, like he was sheath­ing a sword. The Hall of Fame catcher, a home-run hit­ting slug­ger, called his own shots as the ball left his bat. That fol­lowthrough in­di­cated a home run be­fore a play-by-play an­nouncer could scream it.

Nearly 20 years ago, on Sept. 26, 1997, Pi­azza’s fol­low-through dis­ap­peared. In the sixth in­ning at Coors Field, fac­ing his friend and for­mer team­mate, Rock­ies re­liever Dar­ren Holmes, Pi­azza turned on a changeup that had ev­ery­body at Coors cran­ing their necks.

“Usu­ally when he’d hit them, he’d watch it,” Holmes said. “When he hit this one, he dropped his head. I thought he popped it up to cen­ter. So I turned around …”

He had plenty of time to find the ball.

“… And it just kept fly­ing. I was like, Holy Cow.”

Pi­azza’s home run landed on the Coors Field con­course in left­cen­ter field, be­yond the bleacher seats and drunken fans. His tater landed just shy of the Kings Soop­ers sign, an enor­mous gro­cery store bill­board that, at such a dis­tance from home plate, looks like a tiny bea­con across an ex­panse.

Ac­cord­ing to a post-game es­ti­mate pro­vided by Rock­ies of­fi­cials, the home run trav­eled 496 feet. It was then the long­est home run in Coors Field his­tory, 3 feet longer than a Larry Walker home run to right field three weeks ear­lier.

“The farthest home run ever hit in Coors Field,” Holmes said.

But it’s not the long­est home run. Not of­fi­cially. Pi­azza’s homer needs a footnote.

Fudg­ing the num­ber

Two months be­fore his mon­ster shot, in a game at Los Angeles, Holmes faced Pi­azza in the eighth in­ning with the Rock­ies up by two. Holmes was drafted by the Dodgers three years be­fore Pi­azza and they came up through the mi­nor leagues to­gether. Walt Weiss, then Colorado’s short­stop, came up with an idea. Pi­azza was bit­ing on fast­balls. And though Holmes threw pri­mar­ily fast­balls and break­ing pitches, Weiss talked him into throw­ing a changeup.

“I said, ‘Man, you’ve got a good changeup. I think you can get Pi­azza with your changeup,’” Weiss re­called. “So in L.A., he punched out Pi­azza on change­ups. And I’m all fired up. ‘I told ya!’ I took all the credit for it.”

The Pi­azza-holmes re­match came in the sixth in­ning at Coors Field. Weiss walked to the mound with Pi­azza wait­ing to step into the box.

“And I’m like, ‘Hey man, re­mem­ber that changeup to Pi­azza?’” Weiss said. “And he throws him a changeup.”

Holmes spun his head to track the homer. Weiss never turned, in­stead bury­ing his face in his glove and rak­ing the dirt with his shoes.

“It’s still the farthest ball that’s ever been hit here. He put a dent in the Kings Soop­ers sign,” Weiss said. “Holmey turned around and looked at me. And I was kinda looking down, groom­ing my po­si­tion. I couldn’t look at him.”

Weiss buried his sheep­ish grin in his glove. The Rock­ies buried the home run in the books.

In its early years, Coors Field spun out of con­trol with home runs. The ball­park ac­counted for three of the four high­est sea­son home run to­tals in ma­jor-league his­tory, in­clud­ing a record-set­ting 303 homers in 1999. Pi­azza’s blast that night was one of seven hit in that game.

“We talked about it ev­ery year I was there,” said Bob Geb­hard, the Rock­ies’ first gen­eral man­ager. “What can we do to cut down the num­bers? It’s just some­thing we had to cope with. It’s tough. I strug­gled with it.”

Geb­hard’s last sea­son, not co­in­ci­den­tally, was that record-break­ing 1999. Three years later, in 2002 — at the sug­ges­tion of a sta­dium en­gi­neer who had ex­per­i­mented by drop­ping base­balls off the roof to see how far they bounced — the Rock­ies adopted a hu­mi­dor. The hu­mi­dor is still in use to­day — it looks like a beer keg re­frig­er­a­tor — tucked into a cor­ner of Coors Field’s base­ment near the Rock­ies’ club­house.

The Rock­ies are still fuss­ing with Coors Field’s rep­u­ta­tion as a homer haven. In 2016, at the be­hest of gen­eral man­ager Jeff Bridich, the Rock­ies raised the out­field fences be­tween right field and cen­ter by nearly 9 feet and the fence down the left-field line by 5 feet.

“It’s hard to put a team to­gether. It’s hard to get free agents to get ex­cited about pitch­ing there,” Geb­hard said.

So the Rock­ies fudged Pi­azza’s home run num­ber — 500 was just too big a num­ber. Weiss in hind­sight es­ti­mated Pi­azza’s homer was the long­est ever hit at Coors Field. ESPN retroac­tively guessed 515 feet with their Hit Tracker soft­ware. Holmes saw some­thing even longer.

“They said it was 496 feet. But it was ev­ery bit of 540 feet,” Holmes said.

A piece of his­tory

Base­ball’s lat­est revo­lu­tion is one of mea­sure­ments. Dur­ing the 2006 post­sea­son, a year be­fore the Rock­ies ran to­ward the World Se­ries in “Rock­to­ber,” Ma­jor League Base­ball qui­etly be­gan us­ing the PITCHF/X sys­tem, a video track­ing tech­nol­ogy cre­ated by a com­pany called Sportvi­sion. They are the com­pany re­spon­si­ble for the blue halo that once fol­lowed hockey pucks around tele­vised NHL games.

By 2015, MLB had adopted the tech­nol­ogy at ev­ery one of its sta­di­ums, and they rolled out the data to fans. The multi-di­men­sional track­ing tech­nol­ogy can es­ti­mate with some ac­cu­racy the launch an­gle, exit ve­loc­ity, spin rate and dis­tance of ev­ery ball hit in a game. A not-so-sim­ple tri­an­gu­la­tion con­ver­sion can now mea­sure the dis­tance of home runs with less guess­work.

Did Babe Ruth re­ally hit a base­ball 575 feet off Bert Cole at Detroit’s Navin Field in 1921? Tales passed through the gen­er­a­tions say it was the long­est home run ever hit. Was it longer than 600 feet? In the 96 years since then, the static of ex­ag­ger­a­tion added to the Bam­bino’s lore and made an ac­cu­rate read­ing im­pos­si­ble.

Did Joey Meyer re­ally hit a 587foot mon­ster for the Den­ver Ze­phyrs at the old Mile High Sta­dium in 1987? We have video of that homer. We can see how far it trav­eled, but it’s still im­pos­si­ble to mea­sure ac­cu­rately how far the ball flew.

Tech­nol­ogy, though, has fi­nally caught up with our fas­ci­na­tion for home runs. On Au­gust 6 last sea­son, Mi­ami slug­ger Gian­carlo Stan­ton smacked a home run off Colorado’s Chad Bet­tis at Coors Field. The ball landed in the cen­ter-field cheap seats.

With the hu­mi­dor, Coors Field has ceded the ma­jor-league lead in home runs. Den­ver’s ball­park ranks 10th this sea­son in home runs. But Coors Field can still pro­pel a healthy homer. MLB tracked Stan­ton’s homer at 504 feet — the long­est home run in the Stat­cast Era.

Stan­ton’s blast trav­eled nearly the same path as Pi­azza’s in 1997, but it faded far ear­lier. The two homers are a neat echo through Coors Field’s his­tory, a con­ve­nient com­par­i­son that only un­der­lines how far Pi­azza hit a base­ball that late September night off Holmes.

“Do I re­mem­ber it?” Holmes said, laugh­ing at the mem­ory. “All th­ese people say­ing so and so was known as Don Larsen’s last strike­out or what­ever. But you’re a part of his­tory. Ob­vi­ously you want to be on the other end. But for ev­ery part of his­tory, there’s got to be some­body on the bad end. You play long enough, you get the good and the bad.”

Screen­shots courtesy of MLB

Dodgers catcher Mike Pi­azza, from top to bot­tom, sends a pitch by Dar­ren Holmes’ pitch 496 feet over cen­ter field at Coors Field in Den­ver for a two-run home run to put the Dodgers up 7-1 on Sept. 26, 1997.

Jeff Neu­mann and Nick Groke ,Th e Denve rp ost

Source: ESPN Home Run Tracker, fan­graphs.com ,C olorado Rock­ies

Marlins slug­ger Gian­carlo Stan­ton watches the flight of a mam­moth solo home run hit off Rock­ies pitcher Chad Bet­tis dur­ing the fifth in­ning of their game Aug. 6, 2016, at Coors Field. MLB tracked Stan­ton’s homer at 504 feet — the long­est home run in the Stat­cast Era.

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