PIAZZA’S 1997 HOME RUN A PART OF COORS LORE
But Coors Field history comes with an asterisk
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.
“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.”
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.
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.