The day the Rockies came to Bend

Photo by Daniel Clark/The Bulletin 1993

By Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

White wisps of clouds hung over the High Desert while the Summit Prairie String Band provided a bluegrass soundtrack on a cool Tuesday evening at Bend’s Vince Genna Stadium.

Baby-faced ballplayers, just days into their professional careers, took the field before an overflow crowd of 3,125 eager spectators — many of whom had stood in line for tickets, a line that extended out of the stadium parking lot and to a neighboring grocery store.

This was a day Jack Cain, owner of the local team, had worked toward for years. It was a day Colorado — particularly Denver — had awaited for decades. Major League Baseball was on its way to Colorado’s capital. But the Rockies’ first steps toward the Rocky Mountains began much closer to the Cascades, right here in Bend.

Twenty-five years ago this Friday, Central Oregon was the stage for the debut of a brand new MLB franchise, the Colorado Rockies, and the setting for its first-ever game. Then a sleepy town, Bend, for one night, was big league. It was not much of a baseball city back then, but the Bend Rockies began to change that image — and it started with their dramatic first game.

Expanding horizons

A population surge in Bend was gaining steam in the early 1990s.

A sleepy lumber town had started to become a city fueled by real estate, construction and tourism.

Downtown Bend was not abuzz with activity as it is today. Mike Wilson, a sports reporter for The Bulletin at the time, recalls the friendly, old-fashioned Masterson-St. Clair Hardware store on Bond Street, a business that, as Wilson put it, catered to customers who needed to fix up their 1920s-era homes. Even the Deschutes Brewery & Public House — now an expansive tourist hot spot — “was not such a bell cow for the city as much,” says Wilson, now a digital publishing specialist for ESPN Stats & Info. The brewery, just 3 years old in 1991, the year talks began to bring the Rockies to Central Oregon, “was probably one-third to one-fourth what it is now” in terms of square footage.

Bend a quarter of a century ago, Wilson recalls, “was a lot more countrified as opposed hipsterfied as it is now.”

“What we all realized was, Bend at the time, there wasn’t the explosion yet,” remembers former Bend Rockies infielder Craig Counsell, who played for two World Series champions in his 16 major league seasons. He is now manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.

“It was still a very quiet, small town,” he says. “But it was an easy town to play in because it was a small community, a good community, and very accommodating to everybody. If we would have known (Bend would boom) back then, we all would have bought real estate.”

Bend was a city of about 20,000 residents in 1991, just as Jack Cain was on the cusp of landing a deal he had sought for several years.

Jack Cain and his wife, Mary, had owned a minor league baseball team in Bend for 10 years: the Bend Phillies (1981-87) and the Bend Bucks (1988-91). After two seasons (1988-89) as the Class A short-season Northwest League affiliate of the then-California Angels, the Bucks operated two more seasons (1990-91) under a contract that ran from year to year and brought to Bend what Jack Cain describes as a “hodgepodge” of players from four or five major league organizations.

The year-to-year contract drove Jack Cain to search for a sole major league affiliate. In 1991, Major League Baseball announced an expansion that would add two teams to the National League beginning with the 1993 season: the Colorado Rockies, who would play in Denver, and the Miami Marlins. Cain immediately went to work.

He opened conversations with the two new MLB additions, as well as with the Texas Rangers. Cain was selling Bend as a prime location for a Class A short-season team, which would play games from mid-June through early September. In December 1991, the Cains reached a handshake agreement with Bob Gebhard, the Rockies’ senior vice president and general manager, to station the new club’s first team in Bend.

“It was ironic because we had gone two years without a major league working agreement,” recalls Cain, who now lives in Vancouver, Washington. “The Marlins and the Texas Rangers contacted us about the possibility of placing a team in Bend. The Rockies being the closest (geographically) — and, plus, I liked the people there working with the Rockies — we went with them.”

Wilson, the former Bulletin sports reporter, conceding there is not a definitive way to quantify his statement, says there were not many die-hard baseball fans in Bend at the time, or many fans who truly grasped the significance of the Cains’ agreement with the Rockies.

Mike Chambless, who for years served as head groundskeeper and official scorer for the Bend Phillies, Bucks and Rockies, remembers the local reaction to the news of a new affiliation for the hometown team.

“Maybe not hysterical,” says Chambless, a retired Bend school teacher. “But a lot of people thought, ‘Hey, this is going to be pretty cool. Let’s go to the first game.’”

Maybe only a buzz for the new team could be heard in Central Oregon. But a roar was building in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Where the Rockies meet the Cascades

“Not since the National League Braves left Boston for Milwaukee in 1953 has a city gone quite as batty over the prospect of a ball team’s arrival,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter David Lamb in June 1992 of Denver’s anticipation of the Rockies. “The Colorado Rockies — a National League expansion team that begins play next year and will be the only major league club in the mountain time zone — has been so inundated with telephone requests for tickets that one receptionist, Diana Alarid, lost her voice for two days.”

Mike Swanson, who served as the Rockies’ first public relations director, remembers the fan fervor in Colorado.

“People were so starved for this,” says Swanson, now vice president of communications and broadcasting with the Kansas City Royals. “We trained for a week (before coming to Bend) at the University of Denver, and I have never seen, for basically instructional league, media coverage for that. They were out there covering these kids that we just drafted, and nobody knows who the hell they are except for (pitcher) John Burke’s name, because he was from Denver (and was the Rockies’ first draft pick). It was astounding the coverage this team got before we went to Bend. And that was my first real kick in the pants that I needed to get to Bend and make sure we’ve got enough seats for media.”

The first game in Rockies franchise history — the big league team, remember, would not begin play until 1993 — was scheduled for June 16, 1992, against the Boise Hawks in a Northwest League season opener at Genna Stadium. A sign above the entry to the Genna Stadium grandstands read: “Where the Rockies meet the Cascades.”

“And,” reported The Oregonian — the Portland newspaper was among the media wave that found its way to Bend for the Rockies’ opener — “that’s what it was Tuesday night — baseball on grass with historic overtones.”

An above-capacity crowd of more than 3,000 would cram into the stadium, as would the nearly 30 media members representing outlets from Bend to Denver. A day or two before the season opener, Wilson recalls, satellite trucks from Denver stationed themselves in the parking lot at Genna Stadium, preparing to broadcast coverage of the big game back to Colorado. Already faced with the challenge of accommodating all those fans — 3,125 would be the official head count — Cain had to deal with the unprecedented media presence at Bend’s quaint, chummy ballpark.

“Opening day, there were 30-something media people there,” Cain says. “The press box can’t hold 30 people, so we had auxiliary press tables for those folks.”

“It was crazy, based on the size of the venue,” adds Swanson. “I’ve had previous experiences with San Diego and Kansas City. I had a hunch of how to handle a massive crowd. But 30 media members (at intimate Genna Stadium), it was a little hairy.”

For the Colorado Rockies, it all began in Bend: “Ground Zero,” as Bend was referred to by the Denver-based Rocky Mountain News in a 1997 story recounting the franchise’s debut. The opener, the story continued, was “over-covered by a zealous media contingent eager to capture history.” That type of coverage and excitement surrounding a rookie-level team, Counsell says, resulted in an experience most first-year players do not enjoy. The Bend Rockies, according to Counsell, felt like big-leaguers in one of the lowest minor leagues.

Quinton McCracken, an infielder on that Bend Rockies team, remembers the scene.

“Here we are, high school seniors and some collegiate players, and we’re being treated like royalty in Denver by the organization and fans and the press,” recounts McCracken, who went on to a 12-year major league career and is now director of player personnel for the Houston Astros. “Quite frankly, it was kind of like, ‘Wow. This is pro ball.’ We were all kind of star-struck, like, ‘OK, yesterday we were playing collegiate baseball, and now we’re the toasts of the town.’”

‘Not your average minor-league game’

Swanson, the Colorado Rockies’ PR man in 1992, has been with franchises that have appeared in four World Series, including two champions.

Yet, he says, “as much as I couldn’t remember what I had for dinner last night, I remember Will Scalzitti hitting that … grand slam to win the game.”

In his preview of the opener that appeared in The Bulletin on June 15, Wilson wrote, “This is not your average minor-league game.” In a follow-up report on the game, Wilson wrote: “For one night, Bend was big league.”

“We were cast as the future of the Rockies organization,” recalls McCracken. “Those first few weeks were something to remember.”

“Minor league baseball can feel … it doesn’t feel like there’s big games,” Counsell observes. “It’s fun. It’s a great family atmosphere. But it doesn’t feel like a big-game atmosphere. That first night in Bend felt like it was a BIG game, like it was an important game.”

Certainly, insists Chambless, that game was significant on a lot of levels, and for a lot of people in Central Oregon and Colorado. Somewhere, he says, he still has the original score sheet from the opener.

“When you think about it,” Chambless says, “it was the first game in the history of the franchise. So it was kind of a big deal.”

Swanson remembers walking into the team clubhouse before the opener and seeing players lounging at their lockers. First pitch was still an hour away, but Swanson — with permission from Rockies manager Gene Glynn — addressed the crop of young players.

“I walked into the locker room,” Swanson says, “and I said, ‘Hey, guys. You’re about to play the first game in Colorado Rockies franchise history. There are a ton of people leaning over the railings, just wanting to get a glimpse of you, wanting to get an autograph from you. Get off your butts and go out and sign some autographs.’ It was as if I had just given them the pep talk of all pep talks. They were just high school and college kids that the Rockies happened to draft. They didn’t think much of themselves yet. … They should have gotten the first hint that the city was that Looney Tunes over them with the fact that (Denver stations) were televising their first game.”

Players obliged, exiting the clubhouse and interacting with fans before taking the field for the first game in franchise history.

“Even though they were still pretty young kids, they were mature players for having their first minor league experience,” says Bill Craib, then the Rockies beat reporter for The Bulletin and the Rocky Mountain News. “I remember that as being somewhat unusual about them.”

What the viewers back in Colorado saw, along with the sellout Genna Stadium crowd, was the Rockies fall behind 4-1. But in the bottom of the eighth inning, with one out and the bases loaded, Will Scalzitti, a 19-year-old from suburban Chicago, dug into the batter’s box.

Scalzitti, who had recorded the franchise’s first hit and first error earlier in the game, teed off on a pitch from Boise’s Max Valencia, blasting a towering fly ball over the left-field fence and onto the roof of what is now a Grocery Outlet store. The Rockies took a 5-4 lead and went on to win 6-4. (The recorded play-by-play radio call of Scalzitti’s grand slam by a young announcer named Joe Castellano working for Bend station KGRL now resides in the archives of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.)

Alas, Scalzitti never made it to the Hall of Fame, or even to the big leagues.

But, Swanson says, “for that one brief moment, Will Scalzitti was a household name in Denver.” The ball itself, the first home run in Rockies franchise history, is now in a display case, signed by Scalzitti, at Coors Field in Denver — though the Rockies did not get it without a struggle.

“We basically got held up by a family that got the baseball,” Swanson recounts. “They knew how badly we wanted it. We ended up flying them out to Denver, putting them up in a hotel and giving them some cash for the baseball so they could be at the first game in (Colorado) Rockies history. That’s how badly our management team wanted that baseball. … Bernie Mullin was our vice president of business operations at the time. And he said, ‘I don’t care what it costs you! Get the ball!’”

“People might forget things about that first game years from now,” Glynn recalled in a 1997 interview with the Rocky Mountain News, “but they will not forget Will Scalzitti’s name.”

Part of the fabric

The Bend Rockies’ debut game featured “a fairy-tale finish,” The Bulletin’s Wilson wrote, “to a night that Colorado baseball fans and Rockies officials have long dreamed about.”

The team went 43-33 in the Northwest League to win the South Division but lost to the Bellingham Mariners in the championship series. The South Division title was the first championship of any kind for the Bend franchise since the Central Oregon Phillies won the NWL crown in 1979. The first-year Bend Rockies drew 60,789 fans to home games, smashing the previous Genna Stadium record by more than 13,000.

“It was definitely an improvement over what we had drawn in the past,” Jack Cain reflects. He recalls a conversation he had with Bob Gebhard, then the Colorado general manager. Initially, Cain wanted to keep Bucks as the team’s name, but Gebhard insisted that the new Rockies affiliate adopt the same nickname. After the Bend Rockies’ triumphant first game, Cain invited Gebhard into the souvenir shop at Genna Stadium and observed that the Bend team had made more in sales for Bend Rockies merchandise on opening night than for Bend Bucks items in the entire previous season.

“I told him, ‘I just want to thank you for forcing us to use the Rockies name,’” Cain says. “As much as anything, it was a relief from the days of not being competitive.”

Swanson spent the first week of the ’92 season in Bend before returning to Denver. The Colorado capital for decades had been home to a Triple-A team, which since 1985 had been known as the Zephyrs and since 1987 was a farm team for the Milwaukee Brewers. It was the Zephyrs’ final year in Denver — the Rockies’ arrival prompted the Zephyrs to move to New Orleans in 1993. But according to Swanson, the impending departure of the minor league club was overshadowed by the excitement surrounding the new kids coming up the pipeline. “Everyone wanted to know how the Bend Rockies were doing,” Swanson says. “It was that hot of a topic.”

Swanson says he had barely heard of Bend before coming here to be with the newborn Rockies and “really didn’t know much about it.”

“But by the time we left to go back to Denver, Bend was part of our fabric,” he says. And of the game that christened the Rockies franchise? “It was huge. It was bigger than any rookie ballgame should ever have been.”

Wilson says Bend was not really much of a baseball town 25 years ago. The Bend Rockies, though, began to change that image — starting with their dramatic first game.

“For anyone who was paying attention, it had to have energized their fandom, you would think,” Wilson says. “How could it not? Maybe you didn’t go to that game, but you heard about it.”

The rest of the season was nothing short of special, Craib says. It was “not a usual minor league season.” To an extent, he adds, the Rockies made the intimate town of Bend feel “like a bigger-city experience.”

“It was already a big deal to start with,” Chambless says of the Rockies coming to Bend. “Then they won that game, and it peaked, that maybe this is going to be a big deal all summer.”

It started there

The Bend Rockies — even the cities of Bend and Denver — were riding high after the scintillating season opener and ensuing South Division title.

Meanwhile, the team’s parent franchise, the Colorado Rockies, was about to begin its first season in 1993 and was calling up its young talent to fill its minor league system and big league roster. Over the years, 10 of the 28 Bend players from the 1992 roster would appear in major league games.

“You look at the names of those players who played in the big leagues,” says Swanson, “it’s phenomenal.”

“The Rockies really stocked this team, because it was their only team,” says Craib, who now lives in Vermont and works for a workforce leadership company, the Human Capital Institute. “So they were a really higher caliber of players across the board than you would typically see in a first-year team.”

In 1993, the Bend Rockies finished last in the NWL South Division. By then, rumors began to swirl that the Cains were considering moving the team to their hometown Portland, which was soon to be vacated as the Triple-A Beavers were preparing to relocate to Salt Lake City. The following year, the Rockies posted a league-worst 29-47 record. Though a record 69,225 fans came out to Genna Stadium during the ’94 campaign, the Bend Rockies would not return the following season.

In September 1994, the Cains finalized their plan to move the team to what is now Portland’s Providence Park, leaving the ’94 Bend Rockies as the last affiliated minor league club to play in Bend.

“It was a hard decision,” says Jack Cain. “I told people at the time, ‘Sometimes you have to think with your brain and not with your heart.’ It was tough for us to leave Bend, but it was a financial situation that made sense financially to go to a larger market.”

For as long as Bend has been without an affiliated team, the memories of the Rockies — particularly that 1992 squad — live on. Not only for fans and former employees, but also for the players who had never before heard of Bend, Oregon.

Some of those players, like Quinton McCracken, may never forget it.

“That’s where my baseball career began,” McCracken says. “It’ll always be a special place for me and my family, and it’s very special in my life. I often think of Bend and the beauty and the great people and the environment that helped facilitate many of us, because there was many a player on that team that were able to fulfill their big league dreams. And it started there.”

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