I went on a field trip in Colorado on Friday. No, I didn't go to Pikes Peak, Red Rocks Amphitheater, or the Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave...
DENVER — I went on a field trip in Colorado on Friday.
No, I didn’t go to Pikes Peak, Red Rocks Amphitheater, or the Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave.
I toured the world-famous Coors Field humidor, which is about the most celebrated tourist attraction in the Rocky Mountains these days.
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OK, it’s no Aspen or Steamboat Springs. There’s not even a gift shop. The humidor — or, to use its official title, the Environmental Storage Chamber (ESC) — looks like a meat locker from the outside and a beer-keg cooler from the inside.
It’s buried deep in the bowels of Coors Field, among the pipes and electrical wires — little more, really, than a glorified aluminum shed.
Ah, but to the Colorado Rockies, fighting for their World Series lives after losing the first two games in Boston, it is heaven.
More specifically, to the Rockies’ pitchers, who used to be the most beleaguered group in baseball, the humidor is a steadfast friend. They credit it with restoring normalcy to the pinball machine that used to be Mile High baseball.
“I love it,” said Rockies reliever Matt Herges, reverentially. “I’m a big fan. I don’t know who came up with it. I don’t know if anyone is taking credit for it, but being a pitcher, and holding on to a frozen cue ball as opposed to a legitimate horsehide-leather baseball, is a big difference. A big difference.”
In a nutshell, the humidor is a temperature- and humidity-controlled room the Rockies have used to store their baseballs since 2002. It was the brainchild of one of their engineers, Tony Cowell, who noticed one day that his leather hunting boots had grown tighter over the summer.
Cowell had an epiphany that would change Colorado Rockies’ baseball forever. He surmised that the same dry conditions in Denver, where the humidity rarely goes above 10 percent, that constricted his boots must also be affecting the baseballs.
The Rockies’ engineering department conducted some tests and came to the same conclusion that major-league pitchers had arrived at anecdotally for years: The balls at Coors Field were funky.
More specifically, they were lighter, and slicker, than balls used around the majors; a real bear to grip for pitchers already disadvantaged by the light air at mile-high altitude that allowed the ball to carry farther, not to mention disrupted their breaking pitches and fatigued them prematurely.
Presto — the ESC was conceived, with the temperature permanently set at 70 degrees, with 50 percent relative humidity, putting it within the specifications set by Rawlings, the baseball manufacturer.
During my tour, I got to see 48 boxes of Rawlings balls — with a dozen balls in each box — sitting on the racks inside the humidor. And I’m kicking myself — I left my camera at home.
The Rockies won’t go so far as to say the humidor got them to the World Series. After all, they finished last or next-to-last from 2002-06 — all humidor years.
But they firmly believe the standardization of the baseballs set them on the path to respectability that never would have been achieved if they kept playing 19-14 games.
According to the Denver Post, Coors Field averaged a league-high 13.8 runs and 3.2 home runs a game from 1995 to 2001. Those numbers have dropped precipitously in the post-humidor era.
“Coming in here every year, we would talk about it — ‘You’re going to see some crazy things. The game is just different here,’ ” said Herges, who pitched for the Dodgers in the early 2000s. “And it was pre-humidor. The scores were just astronomical.”
In 2007, the average runs dropped to 10.66, an all-time low, while the 2.26 home runs ranked third lowest. Colorado had a 4.34 ERA at home, the best in franchise history.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Herges said. “Pre-humidor, in terms of ERA, it’s made a difference, no doubt.”
Added Rockies ace Jeff Francis, whose entire major-league career has been post-humidor, “You’re just evening the playing field for pitchers. I think the numbers have shown over the past few years that home runs are down. Maybe it’s the humidor’s fault, maybe not. Maybe we’ve got better pitchers, who knows. We like to think it’s better pitchers.”
The Rockies also have a great defense, setting a major-league record with a .989 fielding percentage. They’ve also let their grass grow higher, slowing down grounders.
But the humidor gets the most credit, to the point where the entire culture of Colorado as a place that chews up pitchers and spits them out — hello, Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle — is changing.
“If you were a free agent, although this is a lovely place, you didn’t want to come here if you were a pitcher,” Herges said. “Because everyone said that’s where pitchers go to die.
“Now it’s a desirable place to go. It really is. They’re going to get free-agent pitchers here now, and not have to pay them astronomical amounts of money.”
Boston hitting coach Dave Magadan almost makes the humidor seem like a cloak-and-dagger operation — not an atypical reaction from puzzled opponents.
“We kind had heard about it secretly,” he said Friday. “There were rumors. We heard stuff in the wind. I thought it was kind of a myth, then we found out they were actually doing it.
“Yeah, you noticed a little bit of difference. Balls that a guy squares up, most of the time, it’s a home run. But for the ball not to go out … it was like, something’s going on.”
There is still some dispute about whether the humidor affects the distance the ball travels, or merely aids pitchers’ ability to grip the horsehide.
“The humidor has helped. It has,” Herges said. “But the ball, in the thin air, will still not curve foul like it will at sea level. Your breaking pitches, they don’t do the same thing as at sea level.
“But there’s a grip now. That’s the big complaint of pitchers. There used to be no grip on the ball. It was hard and slick. The humidor is helping.”
Of course, if the Rockies don’t start hitting any better than they did in Boston — two runs in two games — it won’t matter if they play the game in a wine cellar.
In the end, it’s not the baseballs that wins World Series. It’s the players hitting, throwing and catching them.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org