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Rocky road? Not for expansion Colorado

Okay, so these zany Colorado Rockies fans apparently still have a few things to learn.

Like if your team is losing 11-0 to San Diego on a cold, wet Friday night, there is no need to scream, stomp and make the stadium sound as if John Elway is driving for the winning touchdown just because Charlie Hayes led off the ninth inning with a homer.

That bragging about how many miles you drove to get to the game ("Boy, the traffic getting out of Boise was brutal!") won't win you a prize as it might at a high school reunion.

That the franchise agreement doesn't mandate that all Denver businessmen and women incorporate the team's color purple into their business attire.

And that when a game is rained out, as disappointing as that might be, you are supposed to get up and go home; you are not required by law to stop at a souvenir stand.

"The fans have been unbelievable," said Don Zimmer, the 62-year-old career baseball man now working as the Rockies' bench coach. "We'll be down 7-0 and we'll get two men on and they'll just go wild. "Rockies! Rockies! Rockies!' That's all you hear, and from a ton of 'em."

Even more amazing is that the Rockies, unlike their expansion brothers in Miami, haven't given their followers much to cheer about. With a 23-44 record, no true marquee players and the worst pitching staff in the league, the Rockies aren't a very good team.

But they've shown, at least in this case, that you can win for losing. The field is about the only place the Rockies haven't been a hit.

They are on pace to draw 4.5-million fans and smash the major-league season attendance record. They rank second of all major-league teams in sales of licensed merchandise. They are revising UPWARDS projections that they'll reap a whopping $37-million in revenue. They have sparked a media frenzy of coverage. And they've done what Denver supporters promised for years _ captured the hearts of the entire Rocky Mountain region.

"Who would have thought one of the national stories in sports this year would be the Colorado Rockies _ an expansion team? It's hard to believe," Rockies chairman Jerry McMorris said. "There's no question the lords of baseball made a huge mistake flying over this place for 30 years."

Denver, quite frankly, is living the dream Tampa Bay has yet to fulfill. For many years, the two communities were paired as they labored to land major-league teams, even flirting with some of the same franchises, such as the A's, White Sox and Giants.

Now, Colorado has a franchise and it is so successful that even Bob Howsam, the former major-league executive who started the push for a Denver team more than 30 years ago, is surprised.

"My son told me it would be this big, but I didn't think so," Howsam said. "It's marvelous."

While many teams are struggling for fan support, the Rockies literally have had to just open their gates _ and open them wide. Through 36 home dates, the Rockies have drawn 2,050,001 fans, which is more than the 1992 SEASON attendance of 13 teams. They sold 28,000 season tickets. They're averaging 56,944 a game. They've had 10 crowds in excess of 60,000. The SMALLEST crowd has been 45,752. Starting with the Opening Day gathering of 80,227, they hold seven attendance records. Toronto's 1992 season mark of 4,028,318 looks easy.

Consider this: The Rockies have yet to have a crowd that would fit into Coors Field, their new stadium that will open in 1995 with a capacity of 45,200. (There's been talk about increasing that capacity to more than 50,000.)

And, McMorris says, with school out, tourist season under way and the summer's best weather still to come, "Our best days are ahead of us."

The Rockies can even have a big day when they don't play. McMorris loves to tell a story about the April 12 date with the Mets, the team's first scheduled night game and, eventually, their first rainout. With nothing else to do, fans lined up at the souvenir stands. They bought $70,000 worth of merchandise.

"It was unbelievable," McMorris said. "People sat in the stands for an hour after the game was called. We had to ask people to leave."

The folks going to the stadium aren't the only ones buying Rockies stuff. Colorado ranks second behind the White Sox in sales of licensed merchandise (T-shirts, hats, balls, Christmas ornaments, underwear ), accounting for 13 percent of all purchases _ about $400-million worth of purple-and-black items.

"They exceeded even our most optimistic projections," said Rick White, president of Major League Baseball Properties.

But then again, the Rockies were in the top five of sales in 1992 _ before they had players.

On Denver streets and in Denver stores, Rockies fever is everywhere. Merchandise, promotions, books, ticket giveaways, player appearances _ everyone wants a piece of the Rock(ies). McMorris predicts an economic impact of $250-million. The money is being spread around, but the team is getting plenty, too. In 1991, officials projected initial season revenue of $17.5-million. They revised that this year to $37-million, but if the attendance keeps up, the take will exceed $40-million.

And with a generous lease at the new stadium that gives the team virtually all revenue from concessions, scoreboard advertising and luxury boxes, plus 80 percent of parking, it may get even better in 1995.

Of course, the more money the team makes, the quicker fans will demand a better team. Come fall, they'll be competing with the NFL Broncos. And the fanatical media will be watching closely.

The Rocky Mountain News, already part of the Rockies' ownership group, bid about $5-million for the right to call itself the official newspaper of the team. The Denver Post countered with a massive advertising campaign billing itself as the official newspaper of the fan.

With so much support, so much interest, so much love from the community, all that's left is for the team to win. That's proved to be the hardest part.

Unlike the Marlins, the Rockies don't have many recognizable names on their roster. Besides reclamation project Andres Galarraga, officials assembled a team at a relatively low cost (a major-league low $8.7-million payroll) and built mainly for the future. That means youth, potential, inexperience _ and all the physical and mental mistakes that come with it.

"It's been different," manager Don Baylor said. "The wins have been staggered, and we've earned every one of them."

For a while _ between the errors and the base-running mistakes and the throws to the wrong base and the woeful pitching _ it looked as if the Rockies would challenge the 1962 Mets' 40-120 record of ineptitude. Now, they're playing better _ better than the 1993 Mets. Still, outfielder Alex Cole said, "it's hard sometimes."

Attitude is one thing. Altitude is another. In the mountain air, the baseball tends to fly around _ and out of _ the park. And given the inabilities of the pitchers _ dubbed by some the Rockies Horror Pitching Show _ the baseball tends to fly more when the visiting team is at-bat.

But through it all, the Rockies try to draw comfort in knowing they are helping to assemble a franchise from the base up. "Sometimes," pitching coach Larry Bearnarth said, "that's the thing that keeps you going."

While the team doesn't like losing, the fans don't seem to care.

"They've been the real exciting part for the players," outfielder Dante Bichette said. "If we're winning, and hopefully that'll be soon, I can't imagine how they'll react."