The Colorado Rockies had a Big Bang moment that helped them form into a real baseball franchise and it wasn’t Opening Day 1993.
No, that pivotal moment that created the Rockies universe happened with the 1992 Expansion Draft.
Held at the Marriott Marquis in the New York City on November 17, 1992, two groups of baseball professionals gathered to make lemonade from the lemons available to them by the other MLB clubs.
Colorado and the Florida Marlins aimed to put together the best team possible and avoid losing 100 games in the process. (Both would succeed at this ultimate goal.)
The other 26 teams could protect 15 players on their 40-man roster. After each round, consisting of 26 picks, National League clubs could add three more to the protection list while American League clubs were allowed four. Following the third round of 20 selections, both the Rox and Fish would have 36 players each.
Colorado took David Nied from Atlanta with the first overall pick and would see him start the first game in franchise history on April 5, 1993.
Vinny Castilla, Eric Young Sr., Joe Girardi and Kevin Ritz were also added to the first purple-clad organization in baseball history. Kevin Reimer was drafted by the Rockies and immediately dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers for Dante Bichette.
Three of the four catchers Colorado drafted went on to become big league managers: Girardi, Eric Wedge and Brad Ausmus. Relief pitcher Darren Holmes later went on to become a coach with Colorado following his playing career.
Another one of those players selected that day was Cincinnati Reds middle infielder Freddie Benavides.
Stuck behind future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin at shortstop, the opportunity for the 26-year-old Benavides to continue his career was a blessing.
“I thought it was very exciting, of course, coming here and being part of an inaugural, first year expansion club and getting a chance to play here,” the 56-year-old said of his experience following the Expansion Draft. “Once we started and had that first game here with 80,000 fans, it was unbelievable. It’s a great city. I love this place.”
Of course, before Colorado would become official at the start of the regular season, there was still Spring Training with which to contend.
Players change teams in all sports and become surrounded by a roster of players and coaches they don’t know. But this was a roster made up entirely of players traded and discarded. No one knew anyone and everyone was in the same boat.
Yet it was business as usual at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, AZ for the Rockies’ first Spring Training.
“It seemed like a normal spring, I guess. Everybody’s a professional, everybody came from different teams at the Major League level, so it just felt like you’re preparing,” Benavides said.
Two men were pivotal in not only making Benavides feel like he had a new home, but they helped make the entire organization feel Big League, in the literal and figurative sense.
Andrés Galarraga, Colorado’s first superstar, was signed to a one-year contract the day prior to the expansion draft on Nov 16, 1992. He went on to earn the franchise’s first All-Star nod and win the NL batting title with an impressive .370 batting average.
“The Big Cat was outstanding with us. I was fairly young, still getting my feet wet in the big leagues, and he took care of a lot of players,” Benavides admitted. “It was great to go to him anytime we had issues. He was outstanding.”
The other major influence on the organization was their manager, Don Baylor.
A veteran of 19-seasons in MLB as a player, Baylor finally had an opportunity to run his own club after stints as a hitting coach with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals.
In Milwaukee, he identified the potential of Bichette. In St. Louis, it was an injured Galarraga who still had the best years of his career ahead of him.
Baylor would bring both of them to Denver for his new roster. The care for his players – regardless of their stature or statistical output – was obvious to anyone who spent time with him.
“I loved him,” Benavides said of Baylor. “I thought that he was a good man. I learned a lot from him from the hitting standpoint, from all the coaches, but he was a really good man to me.”
From the dry, arid climate of Tuscon, they traveled to the New York City’s wet April for their debut.
Neid threw the first pitch for the Rockies, Galarraga recorded the first base hit and Bichette honored his manager by becoming the first to get hit by a pitch. (Baylor retired with 267 HBPs during his playing career, most during the Expansion Era at the time of his retirement.)
And starting at shortstop in game no. 1, before the days of Neifi Pérez, Troy Tulowitzki and Trevor Story, was Benavides.
“I still get calls from a bunch of people trying to try to get stuff from the starting nine,” Benavides shared. “It’s part of history, right?”
Benavides still has the lineup card with his named written in the eighth-spot as well as a commemorative champagne bottle replete with teammates’ signatures and a Rockies logo amongst his favorite memorabilia from that inaugural campaign.
Benavides would call it a career just three years later. After some time away from the game, he took the same arc as Baylor and Holmes, entering the fray as a coach with the Cincinnati Reds.
“Now that I’m older, you start realizing, ‘Wow, that’s the first team in franchise history.’ Then you start going by and walk the aisles right here (in the clubhouse). I have a couple of guys like, ‘Hey, that’s your name there on the first team ever.’ So it’s pretty special.”