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Arizona Makes Splashy Debut

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is opening night, the first official game for the Arizona Diamondbacks as a member of the National League. The real thing. The debut of major league baseball in the Valley of the Sun.

Amid the beat, in and out of $355-million Bank One Ballpark, Brian Anderson, the former Angel and Cleveland Indian left hander who now pitches for the Diamondbacks, provides a little perspective.

He is standing at his locker in the spacious and plush home team’s clubhouse, saying how he had been a moron not to collect a souvenir on that historic night at Camden Yards when Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games but that he is ready for this historic event.

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“I’ve got my binoculars so that I can check out the pool,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing for the non-starters, checking out the talent.”

He referred to the talent in the right center-field pool and jacuzzi area, which can accommodate a party of 35 at $125 per person per night, one of the unique features in the rectractable-roof ballpark that is the newest addition to baseball’s galaxy of new playing fields and which, in conjunction with the nearby America West Arena, has helped bring a dramatic new look and pulse to a downtown area long in disrepair.

“What we’re trying to do is give a heart to the city, and I think we’ve done that,” said Jerry Colangelo, managing general partner of the Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns, whom he also nursed to expansion life.

No doubt about it Tuesday night, even though the Colorado Rockies provided a sobering jolt of reality with a 9-2 victory as Darryl Kile pitched seven strong innings and Vinny Castilla homered twice, driving in five runs.

It was a disappointing debut for the Diamondbacks, but only the debut.

No need for Colangelo, attempting that heart implant, to put a stethoscope on the crowd of 50,179 in the ballpark that San Diego Padre President Larry Lucchino refers to as that “cash register in the desert.”

No need to check the pulse of the people packing the nearby streets amid the blare of music and the bright lights of dozens of TV cameras.

“I grew up with baseball,” said Alex Rojas, 53, of nearby Peoria. “I mean, spring training has been great for the area, but this is different.

“To have a team of our own is to have a long dream become a reality.”

At the corner of 2nd and Adams, Mary Lou Rosas, said it was 10 years ago that she set up her vending cart and kept thinking she had made a mistake because “this area was so often like a ghost town, but now look.”

She smiled and nodded her head at a long line of customers, the front line of what is expected to be 3.2 million attendance, contributing to $110 million gross for the Diamondbacks--who have sold a major league high 36,000 season tickets--and $300 million in revenue for local businesses.

“I’m still pinching myself,” Colangelo said, several hours before Tuesday night’s first pitch. “This is going to impact the Phoenix area for years to come. You can’t go anywhere here without feeling the excitement.

“I mean, a win tonight would put a ribbon on the day, but this is just the beginning of a long journey. I consider it a major success getting to this point, getting the facility ready and putting a team on the field.”

That team, of course, doesn’t resemble any of its expansion predecessors.

With a payroll of about $33 million and an array of high-salaried free agents (many of whose signings drew criticism from the industry), the Diamondbacks (or bucks) figure to be far more competitive.

On paper, anyway.

Andy Benes, who received a three-year, $18-million contract as their anticipated ace, gave up five runs and nine hits in 6 1/3 innings Tuesday night.

Castilla slugged a two-run homer off Benes in the sixth and a three-run bomb to dead center off Clint Sadowsky after Benes left in the seventh. Todd Helton, the rookie first baseman who is replacing Andres Galarraga, doubled twice for the Rockies, while his rookie counterpart at first, $10-million bonus baby Travis Lee, had an auspicious debut, collecting three of the four hits--a homer and two singles--allowed by Kile.

The former Houston Astro right-hander signed with the Rockies for $24 million over three years after rejecting Arizona overtures.

On a balmy night, with the roof open and the spray-painted grass yet to feel the ravages of summer, Kile appeared to be the rotation leader the Rockies have desperately needed, although the test will come amid the altitude of Coors Field.

However, Colorado Manager Don Baylor refused to detract from Kile’s performance by demeaning the Arizona lineup or drawing comparisons to the expansion Rockies of 1993, who had a $7.8-million payroll, less than Benes is making this year.

“They have all-stars, Gold Glove winners and a rookie who was paid $10 million,” Baylor said. “They had three years to prepare and we had two. There’s a big difference. In our first year, I don’t even know if we had a video camera.”

The reference was to a recent incident in which a Diamondback employee was caught videotaping two Colorado exhibition games from center field--what Baylor felt was a weak attempt to steal his team’s signs and a violation of good manners for which the Diamondbacks apologized.

“They’re the new kid on the block and they’re looking for every edge, but that’s behind us,” Baylor said.

What’s in front of the Diamondbacks remains to be seen.

“I don’t think any of us are too cool to not be excited by all of this,” Manager Buck Showalter said before the ceremonial opener, “but the 162-game season can be very sobering.”

Said Colangelo: “I think our fans are happy to have a team they can call their own and will be patient with us. They know the success we’ve had with our other teams, so there’s a level of confidence and expectation, and we won’t let them down.” Lefty Anderson isn’t sure about that patience.

He went into a convenience store after a 3-0 exhibition loss to the Chicago White Sox at Bank One Sunday and was accosted by the clerk--"midnight shift, top quality"--who told him that those “SOBs better start winning with all the [tax] money we’ve put into that place. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s fired up right now.’ Expectations are high out there. I’m not sure people want to hear about any two- or three-year plans.”

Given their resources, the Diamondbacks can be expected to move quickly. Colangelo talked to his team before Tuesday’s opener, thanking the players for their contribution to this point, and received a rousing ovation when introduced during pre-game ceremonies in which Willie Mays was among several former players helping to unveil Jackie Robinson’s retired No. 42 on the left field fence and a parachute team from the Air Force Academy successfully found the opening in the roof.


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