First the Rockies, then the Broncos . . . what next for Denver fans?
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
DENVER -- Although dawn broke with summer-like weather in a time of year when it can snow one day and be 80 degrees the next in Denver, much of Colorado was in a foul mood on Tuesday.
And a stupid free taco wasn't going to make anyone feel better.
Thanks in large part to Mike Lowell and Jacoby Ellsbury and the Red Sox, and Brett Favre and Greg Jennings and the Packers, the bubbles burst all around the Mile High City. In Denver, we have a Floyd's Barbershop chain -- I hope the family of the late actor Howard McNear, who played Floyd, gets a cut -- but we're not Mayberry. That said, there is still enough small town in virtually every place on the map (including the most provincial market in the country, New York) that being in the national spotlight is energizing and exciting. It's an important side element to playing host to major sporting events. And Denver's teams flopped under that glare. The Red Sox finished off the four-game sweep over the Rockies on Sunday night and won their second World Series since the end of World War I; and on Monday night, the Packers pulled off a sudden and stunning overtime victory over the Broncos with Favre's overtime touchdown pass to Jennings.
The entrepreneur who set up shop at the corner gas station in our neighborhood, near both Coors Field and Invesco Stadium, had Rockies (officially licensed, of course) World Series garb marked down 30 to 60 percent on Monday. And he showcased his selection of Broncos merchandise, in anticipation of the football team taking away some of the sting with a nationally televised victory over the Packers. Today, he's probably got "make me an offer" signs out for both. In many cases, Coloradans are trying to put up with the gloating of the multitudes of Red Sox and Packers fans in our midst. There won't be fights about this just in LoDo bars over the next few days. There will be battle royals in offices, at the water cooler. As it turned out, on two consecutive nights, fans in road-team colors lingered to celebrate long after the games ended in the Denver stadiums, which are less than two miles apart.
On Sunday night, Boston fans gathered behind home plate and down the lines, feting the Red Sox as they intermittently returned to the field for media interviews or just to escape the champagne spray in the clubhouse. Among their chants: "Joke's on A-Rod! … Joke's on A-Rod!" Many more fans in Sox garb wandered up and down adjacent Blake Street, celebrating. On Monday night, many green-and-gold-clad Cheeseheads stayed in the stands at Invesco Field as long as the ushers allowed, toasting and loudly extolling the virtues of the Packers' victory over the Broncos on "Monday Night Football."
In my long residence in Colorado, I've never seen a Denver stadium so dotted with fans of the visiting team as I saw on Monday night. It wasn't quite Lambeau Field South, but I only know this because I couldn't go to Brett Favre's Steakhouse or down to the Green Bay waterfront after the game for a nightcap.
And it was the Rockies' fault.
Thousands of Rocky Mountain region residents who at one point held tickets for the Broncos-Packers game undoubtedly unloaded them over the past two weeks, assuming they would stay home to watch TV or go to Coors Field to watch the Rockies face the Red Sox in Game 5 of the World Series. They gave or sold those tickets, directly or indirectly, to Cheeseheads who are either transplanted to Colorado or were willing to make the trip from Wisconsin or elsewhere. Favre, potentially making his final playing appearance in Denver, and on "Monday Night Football" to boot? That's a hot ticket for most folks who at any point in their lives have done any of the following: Swayed and shed a tear while singing the University of Wisconsin-Madison's "Varsity," gone bowling in Milwaukee, or tailgated outside Lambeau. There are going to be plenty more Broncos games, but how many times do the Rockies go to the World Series? So far, once.
So for nearly two weeks, Denver had been bracing for the night when about 120,000 fans would be in the two stadiums for overlapping games, for 24 hours of sporting excitement in the national spotlight. I heard friends and family members talk about split-screen or multiple-television strategies, or about merely monitoring the other game while they paid more attention to the one that was more interesting. Generally, Denver's first choice was going to be a baseball game that never was played. Make no mistake: Even when the Rockies were leading the major leagues in attendance in the 1990s, Denver remained, at least in the sporting realm, a Broncos town, first and foremost.
When hockey's Colorado Avalanche were putting together a 487-game home sellout streak, and winning the Stanley Cup twice, the Rockies arguably slid down the hierarchy to third place, and even at times to fourth, in the hearts of Coloradans -- below, even, the Nuggets. When the Rockies made the Series this fall, the Avalanche at least had the good sense to change their Sunday evening game against the Minnesota Wild to the afternoon, and the official attendance was a near-sellout 17,041. (The karma of staying in the same hotel as the Red Sox didn't rub off, and the Wild lost 3-1.) Yet this Rockies run to the World Series -- improbable, unforeseen, sudden, and against all odds -- enabled at least the baseball part of the Colorado organization to recapture the interest of the Denver market and perhaps put the Rockies in position to rebuild a seriously deteriorated season-ticket base -- professional sports' safety net. A bandwagon? Of course. But this also was the market that filled stadiums to watch mediocre -- or worse -- baseball in the 1990s, before reality and disaffection set in.
First, at some point during an eight-day layoff, the Rockies lost their mojo. This wasn't the same swaggering, can't-be-beat team in the Series that roared down the stretch and through the National League playoffs. Sure, there are at least four American League teams better than anyone in the National, but the Rockies of late September and through the NL side of the October bracket at least would have taken the Series to a fifth game. Instead, they looked meek, scared and indecisive.
But embarrassing for their fans? Not really. Most everyone understood what a collision of planets the run had been, that the organization's fiscally conservative, small-market plan (in a market that had shown it would reward more ambition and aggressiveness than that) had produced an exciting, praiseworthy team that overachieved down the stretch. There is a foundation now for future seasons, if the ownership treats this October as a reminder of the sort of excitement and passion that winning baseball could bring to Colorado, and not as a complete vindication of its spendthrift thinking.
If there is any anger lingering from the Series, it is over the ridiculous manner in which the Rockies -- in consultation with MLB -- sold the available tickets for the (scheduled) three games in Denver. For two separate stretches of consecutive days last week, the tickets that didn't go to season-ticket holders or to MLB were allegedly available online. There were a couple of problems with that, starting with the fact that the system couldn't handle the traffic on the first day and so the sale had to be suspended while the Geek Squad tried to get the bugs out. Even when the system worked the next day, brokers in Atlanta or fans within a subway ride of the Big Dig had just as much chance, and perhaps even a greater shot (thanks to wondrous sniping software), as Colorado fans at obtaining tickets. So in that sense, when Coors Field ended up so full of Red Sox fans who either got through on the computers themselves or paid big dollars to the, ahem, "ticket brokers," the Rockies' management reaped what they so deserved.
Rather than full and rocking, Coors Field was dark on Monday night. The Red Sox were back in Boston, preparing for Tuesday's parade, and the region's sporting attention quickly refocused on Invesco Field. Ah, there always are the Broncos. And "Monday Night Football"! A lot has changed since we could be so excited about Denver's first "Monday Night Football" appearance in 1973, when Ol' Hightops himself, Jim Turner, kicked a last-second field goal to pull out a 23-23 tie with the hated Oakland Raiders. It was the first time the circus had come to town, and the attitude was that Denver had arrived. Many of us even remember the furor over the perception that MNF -- and that cad, Howard Cosell -- ignored the Broncos during the 1977 season, which turned out to be Denver's first appearance in the Super Bowl. Not only weren't the Broncos on the MNF schedule that season, but paranoid folks around here put a stopwatch on the halftime highlights -- which Cosell narrated off the cuff, but didn't select -- and decided it was part of the plot. So a pub in South Denver -- long gone -- got national attention with a promotion to select a fan to throw a brick through a television showing the "Monday Night Football" broadcast each week.
Much has changed since then, from the proliferation of television options and competition to the availability of highlights around the clock. John Elway played something like a couple of seasons worth of Monday night games, including an infamous Snow Bowl on Oct. 15, 1984. (See "weather" in the first paragraph.) By the time Game 4 of the Series -- and the Series itself -- ended late Sunday night, it was too late for many Broncos fans to reclaim their tickets from their Packers fan neighbors. But Coloradoans at least were going to have a chance to soothe some emotional wounds, whether in person at Invesco Field or at home watching it unfold on ESPN. Again, the Broncos pulled out a tie at the end of regulation - but this time, they got to keep playing. And then they snatched a loss from the Jaworskis of victory, giving up that electrifying TD pass in overtime. So first, the Chowdaheads among us, and now the Cheeseheads among us, are celebrating.
There is no way to be sure, of course, how many of those Sox fans and Packers fans in attendance over the past few days had made the trip in, or have moved here from the East or Midwest. Colorado isn't the only state with a high percentage of transplants (I'm one; I moved to the Denver area at age 17), but it's right up there in the percentage of non-native residents who in many cases have retained the athletic allegiances of their younger years. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, of course, since rooting for franchises made up of mercenary athletes shouldn't be a litmus test for loyalty to a new area. There's nothing wrong with that, that is, if your rooting for the "other" team is done with some subtlety and comes with a recognition of how galling it can be to the natives in your midst.
But based on what I've seen since last weekend, there are roughly 2,383,285 Red Sox fans in Colorado; and a few of them, as you might suspect, are obnoxious. They're lording the Sox's victory over co-workers this week. At last check, I believe, the tally of Colorado natives who have moved to New England is four.
Funny how that works.
Maybe it's because I have Wisconsin in my family tree and have spent considerable time in that state, especially in the past five years. But the Cheeseheads -- who have a sense of humor and no persecution complex -- seem a lot easier to take. And Denver sports fans might be inclined to feel a little more convivial with Cheeseheads, given that the Rockies were within one pitch of elimination from postseason consideration when the Brewers' Tony Gwynn Jr. delivered a game-tying, two-out triple in the ninth inning against the Padres on the final Saturday of the regular season. The Brewers won that game, in extra innings, and then the Sunday matchup with the Padres, enabling the Rockies to ultimately pull into a tie and into the play-in game against San Diego.
The Broncos' inability to get the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of regulation against the Packers on Monday night meant they had to settle for the field goal to send the game to overtime. Denver had blown its chance. It was a stunning loss. But even Broncos fans who remember Elway's heroics walked out of the stadium feeling some appreciation for Favre's peerless and lingering competitiveness.
Regardless, Denver will get over this.
Just give us time.