Tim Raines and the Denver Bears
Before the Colorado Rockies began play in 1993, the city of Denver hosted a popular and successful minor league franchise – The Denver Bears. Of the notable alumni to pass through our fair city one player, former Montreal Expos outfielder Tim Raines won election to the Baseball Hall of Fame last week. His election came in his tenth and final year of eligibility. Raines won election with 86% of the vote (75% is needed for election). He was one of the most prolific base stealers of all time, stealing 808 bases over a career that spanned from 1979 – 2002. In 1979, he was called up from the minors to the big club for the proverbial cup of coffee on September 11. Raines saw minimal action that last month of ’79 season. In 1980 Raines began the season with the Denver Bears, a AAA ball club based in the American Association.
Largely considered to be one of the greatest AAA teams ever assembled, the Bears ran away in the regular season in 1980. The Bears dominated in every sense of the word – finishing with a record of 92-44. Second place finisher, Oklahoma City 89ers. The Bears scored an average of 6.36 runs a game, more than one run better than the next team. They lead the league in hits (1383), doubles (232), home runs (146) along with OPS (.833). The Mile High club ranked second in the PCL in stolen bases with 143. Denver pitching finished second in ERA at 3.87, first with fourteen shutouts and second with 740 K’s. The club’s fielding percentage was .974 – good for second in the American Association. While success came easily during the regular season, the Bears lost the AA championship to the Springfield Redbirds four games to one.
Only three teams since the turn of the 21st century have surpassed the Bears per-game run total – 2000 Salt lake Buzz, 2001 Reno Aces and the 2011 Colorado Springs Sky Sox.
As a 20 year old phenom, Raines tied for the league batting title, hitting at a .354 clip. Also noteworthy were his league best 11 triples and 77 stolen bases. Raines would win the PCL 1980 Rookie of the Year Award for his efforts. In 1981, Raines found a permanent home in Montreal. He hit .304 and his 71 steals led the NL that season. Raines served as the sparkplug that helped the Expos secure their first (only) post season appearance in the history of the Montreal franchise.
From 1971 – 1983, the Denver Bears won five American Association titles. During the era, players such as Bill Madlock, Craig Nettles, Billy Martin, Jeff Burroughs as well as Hall of Fame members Andre Dawson (2010) and Tony LaRussa (2014) and made their presence known the Mile High City. Dawson and Raines were Denver teammates in 1976. Denver also provided the Expos with the extraordinary talents of Ellis Valentine, Tim Wallach, Bill Gullickson and Warren Cromartie. As the Bears MLB affiliation changed hands over the years – (Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds) – Braves knuckleballer Phil Niekro (HOF, 1997) cut his teeth while wearing a Denver Bears uniform. In later years, the franchise changed its name to the Zephyrs. They became the top Cincinnati Reds farm club, Barry Larkin (HOF, 2012) was named Top AAA Rookie and Player of The Year for the Zephyrs in 1986. The AAA franchise departed Denver for good after the 1992 campaign as the expansion Colorado Rockies would begin play at Mile High Stadium in 1993.
Tim Raines holds a significant place in Denver baseball lore. The National Ballpark Museum congratulates him on the monumental achievement.
Written by: Rob Fugelseth