DENVER (AP) -It was during a duck hunt six years ago that the idea for the Coors Field humidor was born.
An employee in the Colorado Rockies' engineering department noticed his leather boots had dried up and shrunk over the summer. He wondered whether cowhide baseballs were doing the same thing in Denver's thin, bone-dry air.
The ballpark had earned the nickname ``Coors Canaveral'' for all the home runs that were launched over the walls - the fences already were deeper than most parks because of the altitude.
Maybe that's why pitchers were complaining that it felt as if they were throwing billiard balls, they were so slick.
So the Rockies tested the baseballs and discovered that, sure enough, employee Tony Cowell's theory was correct.
``What we found was the balls were getting smaller and traveling farther,'' said Colorado manager Clint Hurdle, whose team faced the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the NLCS at Coors Field on Sunday night.
``For a long time, it was unbeknownst to us. We would go, 'Oooh! and 'Ahh!' and watch them go. And everybody that came to the plate was homer ready,'' Hurdle said.
The Rawlings balls had fallen below Major League Baseball's regulations, which require them to be between 5 and 5 1/4 ounces with a circumference of 9 to 9 1/4 inches. The Rockies sold MLB on the idea of a climate-controlled vault to store the baseballs in their boxes on metal racks.
The 9-foot-by-9-foot greenhouse-like room is a scaled-down version of the keg coolers that keep beer icy before it flows through Coors Field concession taps.
And baseball at a mile high has never been the same.
At times, Coors Field can play just like any pitcher's park, as evidenced by the Rockies' 2-1 squeaker over Philadelphia that wrapped up their sweep of the Phillies in the humidor's playoff debut last week.
There were 13.4 runs per game scored at Coors in the year before the humidor's introduction; that number was down by nearly three runs this season.
In 2001, there were a major league-high 268 homers hit out of Coors Field. This year, there were 185, which ranked 10th.
``All we want to do is make sure we are playing with baseballs that meet Major League Baseball's specifications,'' Rockies vice president of ballpark operations Kevin Kahn said. ``And before we weren't confident we were doing that. Now we are. That's really the bottom line.
``And then the side effect of that is there is better grip on balls than when they were drying out before,'' Kahn said. ``They were getting drier and lighter. And again, the home runs were just one concern. You have to look at walks because guys weren't able to have full command of their pitches because they couldn't get a grip. So, it was the walks before the home run. That just sends the run number up.''
Now, runs are down, games are shorter, ERAs have dipped. Cowell will have to let the numbers speak for him - he's off-limits to the media.
The steel-walled room behind the Rockies' clubhouse is always 70 degrees with 50 percent humidity. Baseballs are stored on large metal racks and rotated with each shipment, about four times a year. Before games, the baseballs and rubbed with mud and returned to the humidor until game time.
``It's like a walk-in cooler, basically, but instead of keeping things cold, we're maintaining a temperature and there's a humidifier piece to it, as well,'' Kahn said. ``When people come in and see it, it's almost a universal response. They're like, 'Oh. This is it?' I guess they expect to see a big vat of water with baseballs bobbing around.''
It holds about 400 dozen baseballs and a new shipment of 142 came in just this week.
``Those are World Series balls,'' Kahn explained. ``It takes a few days to normalize the effect.''
Baseballs are taken out and randomly tested periodically and MLB monitors the process.
The balls the Rockies hit during batting practice or the ones they use to field grounders aren't stored in the humidor and players say they feel like ice cubs or cue balls.
The first decade of big league baseball in downtown Denver was dominated by the Blake Street Bombers. Balls flew out of Coors Field with such regularity that no lead was safe and box scores resembled Sunday softball slugfests.
Now, it's a place where pitchers no longer fear to tread, where they don't have to worry about feigning injury to avoid the hits to their ERA and psyche.
Although it's a spacious outfield that turns singles into doubles, at least lazy fly balls settle into outfielders' gloves instead of the seats - gloves, which by the way are oiled often to keep from drying out.
``Before, the ball is flying like crazy here,'' said Game 3 starter Livan Hernandez of the Diamondbacks. ``I think it's better for me, for any pitcher. Before, no one wanted to pitch in Colorado. It's difficult. Right now, you go and you don't see too many home runs in a game, and you see more bloopers than home runs. I think it's great.''
Position players don't exactly hate the humidor.
While their soft popups no longer float into the gaps for extra-base hits or sail over the walls, at least they don't have to sit through four-hour games where the bullpen door might as well be a turnstile.
``As a fielder, you're not out there for half-hour-long innings,'' Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins said. But doesn't the hitter in him lament the humidor's arrival?
``I don't know. I think the field is fair with the humidor,'' Atkins said. ``It's still a good place to hit. Maybe the ball doesn't jump over the fence a lot, but there's still a lot of hits out there. You're just not going to get as many cheap home runs as you probably would have in the past.''
Colorado slugger Todd Helton's power numbers have diminished in part because of the humidor, but he insists he's a fan of it anyhow.
``Oh yeah, games are shorter, thank God,'' Helton said. ``I think it's just sort of leveled the playing field.''
Diamondbacks infielder Jeff Cirillo, who played in Colorado from 2000-01, said he's no longer such a critic of the humidor, which he believes has helped baseball in general and Colorado in particular.
After the Rockies' playoff run, he thinks it's only going to gain favor across the league.
``I'll tell you what, if the Rockies get through us and reach the World Series or even win it, there's going to be a lot of general managers that are going to be thinking about adding a humidor,'' Cirillo suggested. ``Everybody's a copycat.''
He wonders if that would give other teams a homefield advantage.
``I'm still a big believer that a ballpark should play the way it's going to play. Petco Park is big, it's heavy air at night, the Padres, there's elements to their game. If the ball's heavier there, do you lighten the ball?'' Cirillo asked.
``So, is the humidor a good thing? Ultimately, for the integrity of the game? No. But for the good of the game? For sure.''

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