They're playing pinball, not baseball

Coors Field needs mechanical flippers, one on each side, maybe some rubber bands connecting the bases, and perhaps some spinning wheels with flashing lights around the outfield.

Then the joint really could be a pinball machine, which would be better suited for what goes on whenever the Colorado Rockies play at home.

They try to sell it as baseball, and although there are runs, hits and errors, any resemblance beyond that is purely coincidental.

The ballpark has become a penny arcade, a pitcher's worst nightmare, where balls soar through the thin air with no particular concern for statistics. The outfielders ought to wear hardhats.

In the first month of the season, National League pitchers compiled an alarming 8.01 ERA at Coors and 4.22 at the league's 15 other parks. Rockies pitchers had an 8.20 ERA at home and 4.68 on the road. Does anybody notice a trend here?

Colorado's team batting average for April was .319 at home and .259 on the road. It was the same for the rest of the NL. The league hit .330 at Coors in April and .269 elsewhere. Same hitters. Same pitchers. Different ballparks.

The Rockies set a team record with 24 hits Wednesday in a 16-7 victory over the Montreal Expos, a fitting end to a high-scoring homestand.

Colorado scored 72 runs in six games against the Expos and New York Mets, hitting double figures five times. In all, the three teams combined for 125 runs, an average of 20.8 a game.

The only thing missing were bonus turns for highest scores.

Indoor baseball is an anomaly but sometimes in the course of baseball events, it becomes necessary. When the air is as thin as major league pitching, it might have made sense to put a roof on top when they built this building. Instead, they keep getting Arena League scores.

Coors makes pitchers a little whacky. In consecutive games there last weekend, Mike Hampton of the Mets and Masato Yoshii of the Rockies took out their frustrations by beating up dugout water coolers.

This did nothing to improve their outings - eight hits and seven runs in five innings for Hampton; nine hits and six runs in 3 2-3 innings for Yoshii.

Perhaps there is no better example of the effect Coors has on pitchers than Darryl Kile, who barely escaped with his sanity.

Kile was a perfectly productive pitcher for seven seasons in Houston, where he threw a no-hitter in 1993 and finished his run with a 19-7 record in 1997. Then he walked straight into the mouth of the lion, signing a free-agent contract worth $7 million a year with the Rockies.

Suddenly, the right-hander became very hittable. He led the league with 17 losses in 1998, when his ERA doubled from 2.57 in his 19-win season to 5.20. It was worse last year when he went 8-13 with a 6.61 ERA.

Over the winter, he was rescued, traded to St. Louis, where he went 5-1 in April. His only loss came when he gave up eight hits and 11 runs, eight earned, in 1 2-3 innings on April 13. It was no surprise that the meltdown was at the Coors pinball machine.

Despite his adventures there, Kile is benevolent about the curse of Coors.

''I don't really think about it,'' he said. ''Every ballpark, every stadium, every place you pitch has different characteristics. You've just got to make adjustments everywhere you go and the same thing applies there. I went out there every five days and tried to do what I could do, but things just didn't work out.''

For him and a lot of others.

The Rockies' roster of pitchers marches into Coors each year determined to slay the dragon and wind up just trying to make their peace with the place.

The ballpark sits in the lower downtown section of Denver, with fans along the first base and right field lines afforded a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains. Most of the seats are green but the 20th row of the upper deck is painted purple, to mark the spot where the stadium reaches exactly one mile above sea level and the air is rare.

The pitchers don't need the reminder.

Hal Bock is a columnist for the Associated Press.

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