Parts of the mid-September story out of Denver still might have come across as diplomatic. Yes, the Colorado Rockies' front office loves having the team's top minor-league affiliate so close, and being able to keep up with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox simply by driving an hour down Interstate 25.
But the Rockies also have been frustrated with the thin air here at the nation's highest pro ballpark (6,531 feet above sea level), and with how the altitude has affected the development of young players, especially pitchers. And after nearly two decades of dealing with it, they aren't being so polite anymore.
General manager Dan O'Dowd told the Denver Post last month that he was tired of the situation in Colorado Springs. He talked about the early-season weather limiting or preventing workouts, and how bad the wind is. O'Dowd's description of Security Service Field: "It sits at the highest point of the city, where the wind currents are worse than any other place you could actually put a ballpark."
(O'Dowd makes it an excuse now, but he's known about it since 1988, when the Triple-A franchise moved here and became the Sky Sox, affiliated with Cleveland. Back then, O'Dowd was the Indians' minor-league director, and he never complained publicly.)
To their credit, the Rockies finally have decided to do something they should have done years ago: They're planning to install a humidor for the Sky Sox, similar to one they've had since 2002 at Coors Field. When game balls are stored in a humid environment, they don't dry out and, because they're heavier, don't carry as far. They also act more normally for pitchers.
Yet, that same Post story sent a second ominous signal: Instead of a permanent humidor here, the Rockies might only install a temporary storage area in Colorado Springs.
There's only one way to take that. O'Dowd, and by extension the Rockies ownership, are telling Colorado Springs that the team's presence here might not be certain anymore, with one season remaining on their current contract.
Other indications exist, too. Three months ago, after the Rockies traded pitcher Ubaldo Jiménez to Cleveland for young prospects Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, they sent Pomeranz and White to Double-A Tulsa — not Triple-A Colorado Springs — until they were ready.
So what does this all mean? The unspoken indication is that the Rockies would like to see Colorado Springs construct a new, better-protected downtown ballpark for the Sky Sox. Nobody's making it a threat, at least not yet. But the temporary humidor has to send a message.
Mayor Steve Bach, during his campaign last spring, actually brought up the possibility of a downtown stadium. Bach knows voters would never approve public financing, even just a short-term tax. But he has hinted at having other creative options, though he's declined to be more specific. If Bach's serious, he should meet with Sky Sox owner Dave Elmore and general manager Tony Ensor, perhaps along with others who might help the financing process.
It's not realistic to expect the Sky Sox to pay for a new ballpark. The city has to be involved in some prominent way. But nobody wants to say anything for the record at this point.
How large would a downtown stadium be? How much would it cost? There's no way to know either answer now. Also, for such a project to become viable, surely the Rockies would have to guarantee their Triple-A presence in Colorado Springs for the long term.
Given the current economy, expecting this city to bend over backward for a new ballpark just doesn't sound realistic. It might make more sense to explore out-of-the-box ideas, such as installing a bubble roof at Security Service Field, which might cost less than an entirely new stadium downtown, with all the infrastructure it would require.
If the new humidor works, and has the same impact as it did in Denver, that could buy some time. But if it doesn't work, the bad news is that the Rockies are only committed to having their Triple-A team here for 2012.
And that alone makes the future uncertain for minor-league baseball in the Springs.
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