How a young Big Papi beat Griffey, A-Rod in the greatest home run derby you've never heard of

ByScott Lauber ESPN logo
Monday, July 11, 2016

Twenty years ago, on the last Monday in July, baseball's biggest superstar and his heir apparent came to a rain-soaked field 100 miles north of Milwaukee. Nearly 6,000 people crammed into Fox Cities Stadium to get a glimpse of them -- backward-cap-wearing Ken Griffey Jr. and skinny, fresh-faced Alex Rodriguez -- in an exhibition game for the Seattle Mariners.

It was as hot a ticket as there ever was in the decadeslong history of minor league baseball in Appleton, Wisconsin.

"And then," David Ortiz says, "I stole the show."

Ortiz wasn't Big Papi then. Heck, he wasn't even David Ortiz. As a 20-year-old first baseman in his first full season of pro ball after the Mariners had signed him four years earlier out of his native Dominican Republic, he went by David Arias, his mother's maiden name.

But on this night, with Junior and A-Rod in town, Ortiz and his teammates with the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers might as well have been anonymous.

At least until Ortiz lifted his bat.

This is the little-known story of the seminal moment in the career of a slugger who was barely a glint in the Mariners' eyes but went on to become one of the greatest hitters of his generation.

The buildup

It seems almost inconceivable now, given the risk of injury and the overall unwillingness of most big leaguers to give up a precious day off. Back then, though, two years after a players' strike wiped out the World Series, in-season barnstorming trips to minor league affiliates weren't uncommon.

The Mariners, fresh off an appearance in the American League Championship Series in 1995 and contending again in '96, were set to play a doubleheader July 30 in Milwaukee. After wrapping up a homestand on July 28, they traveled to Appleton, where the Timber Rattlers had demonstrated their commitment to the Mariners by building a new ballpark two years earlier.

DAN WILSON, MARINERS CATCHER: When you're playing a big league schedule -- and it's even a little bit different out in Seattle because you're traveling so much -- your off days are pretty cherished. It's somewhat of a sacrifice for big league guys to go and do something like that. On the other hand, to be able to take part in the minor league program of your organization, to be part of their development, to give young guys a chance to see what they're shooting for also makes you feel good in a way, too. For me, personally, it was kind of a neat deal.

ALEX RODRIGUEZ: It was a lot of fun, especially for me. Two years before, that's where I started my career -- in Appleton. The fans were great. They just put that new stadium in. That's why we came in. I think it was the Mariners' way of showing their appreciation.

MIKE BIRLING, TIMBER RATTLERS GENERAL MANAGER: [The Mariners] felt that we did a lot for them by getting a new stadium built. We had no public funding to build that stadium. We were doing anything we could to get it done, and I think that was just a reward for that partnership. The people had become Mariner fans in that small, little area just because we were with them for a while. You saw all these great guys come through. So, [the Mariners coming] was definitely the talk of the area, without a doubt. It just so happened the schedule was perfect.

The weather, on the other hand ...

BIRLING: Everything was sold out, everything was great, and all of a sudden that afternoon it started pouring pretty hard. After it stopped, we thought we were going to play the game. Lou Piniella was the [Mariners] manager at the time. Him and I were walking through the outfield and he says, "We'll go ahead and do it, but we'll play a seven-inning game instead of a nine-inning game" because it was already delayed and they needed to go after the game. We're literally getting ready to take the tarp off and another downpour came. Even though it was pretty much a new ballpark, the outfield was just terrible. It never drained at all. From my perspective, all you can think of is just having to refund all these people. And as a Single-A minor league team, we were counting on that game for a long time.

GARY HORCHER, TV REPORTER FOR WBAY, ABC AFFILIATE IN APPLETON: I'd never been that close to Lou Piniella before, but man, he went on a little bit of a tirade. Every other word was, "I am not f---ing putting my f---ing players on that f---ing field. I'm in a pennant race." He turned the F-bombs on. That was kind of stunning to me.

JOHN McLAREN, MARINERS THIRD-BASE COACH: The word was we weren't going to be able to play but we're going to try to give the fans something to grasp onto. Someone came up with the idea of doing a home run derby, so we went looking for hitters. Griffey and A-Rod, them guys didn't want to hit. Danny Wilson hit. Alex had played there and was extremely popular, so he definitely was going to take a few swings. But Dan Wilson was the main guy that was hitting the home runs on our side.

WILSON: I don't remember how the whole selection process went. I think we all felt like we'd come that far and it would be a shame not to do something, so there was a willingness on some guys' part to do a home run derby. To be honest, I don't know how I got in that thing. I was like, well, I've never done a home run derby, so I thought it might be kind of fun. And it turned out to actually be pretty fun. It was a neat deal.

MIKE GOFF, TIMBER RATTLERS MANAGER: Honestly, I don't think they were happy about having to be there, period. There were a lot of great guys over there, don't get me wrong. [Jay] Buhner, Griffey, they're great guys. But half of them wanted to get the hell out of there. They didn't want to do it in the first place, like most major league teams don't like going into affiliate cities and doing that.

The derby

Rodriguez, who hit 14 homers in 248 at-bats in Appleton's old ballpark in 1994, volunteered to participate. And by popular demand, Griffey was talked into competing, too. The Timber Rattlers countered with outfielder Luis Tinoco, hitting coach Joaquin Contreras and Ortiz, who was in the midst of a breakout season in which he batted .322 with 18 homers, 93 RBIs and a .901 OPS.

DAVID ORTIZ: The first team that I signed with was Seattle, and Ken Griffey was everybody's favorite, especially a left-handed hitter like me. Now he's there in Appleton to have a home run derby. It's Griffey and A-Rod, and I'm going to be a part of it. Everybody was excited.

GOFF: Davey was a guy that kind of came out of nowhere. This kid was in rookie ball the year before, and they weren't going to let me take him to the Midwest League. The only reason he got on my club was because I didn't have a first baseman, I didn't have left-handed hitting [first baseman]. I had to fight for him to just make that team that year, and he ends up within a couple of percentage points of winning the Triple Crown. You could see it; what this kid had was special. From the first day I saw him, watching how he handled situations, to his infectious personality where people just loved to be around him. The only thing I tried to do was hold the guy accountable and not let him screw up the opportunity that was going to be presented to him because he was so talented. I was hard on him. I was harder on him than anybody else on that ballclub.

WILSON: We heard about him, that he was a good player and had some pop. But he was pretty young at the time. In some ways, I think we kind of got spoiled with guys like A-Rod and Junior and Jay and Edgar [Martinez]. These guys were some of the elite players in the game. You're spoiled in the sense that you saw great power every day. But I think we were all pretty amazed at his ability at that point and his swing. To see that kind of power at the Single-A level, it stood out.

McLAREN: I remember [Ortiz] was a tall, lanky kid. He looked like a young Willie McCovey. He was tall and lean and agile, long arms, and his wingspan was just enough. He had this huge smile and just had fun. And then he started hitting. Well, let's just say he opened some people's eyes.

Fox Cities Stadium was built for $5.5 million in 1994-95. The dimensions are fairly straightforward: 325 feet down each foul line, 400 feet to center field. Interstate 41 runs alongside the ballpark on the first-base side, and Highway 15 runs behind the outfield.

According to a recap in the July 30, 1996, edition of the Appleton Post-Crescent, Ortiz went deep seven times in the first round of the derby. Griffey and Rodriguez hit eight homers -- combined. Wilson outhomered Ortiz, 3-0, in the final round, according to The Post-Crescent. But there wasn't any doubt about which slugger was the most impressive.

ORTIZ: I was hitting balls onto the highway, bro. Like, it was crazy. I could see they were impressed with what I was doing, and they were the guys in the big leagues. I was just playing A-ball. It was fun. I'll never forget that.

GOFF: Davey always loved the stage. He always loved to put on a show and prove people wrong. I was throwing the home run derby for my guys, and I remember throwing to him. He had a couple sweet spots that I would try to throw to. I knew if I could get it to that point, he was going to make the ball disappear like he always did.

HORCHER: Ken Griffey Jr. was standing by A-Rod when Ortiz started hitting his first couple shots. It was a different noise. Some guys, it sounds like a thunderclap, and other guys it doesn't generate the same sound. This was like a hammer clattering against something really percussive. I remember everybody kind of winced. We looked over for Griffey's reaction, and I remember Griffey kind of looking up and smiling. But A-Rod was going, "Oh my god!" I remember after one of Ortiz's shots, A-Rod was like, "Look at that guy! I ain't got a chance."

RODRIGUEZ: I think we were all wondering why he wasn't coming back with us to the Kingdome. We wanted to take him on the plane with us.

HORCHER: Dan Wilson ended up winning, but he was hitting them just adequately enough to get over the fence. A-Rod hit one over the scoreboard, which was pretty breathtaking. But Ortiz, they were just so high. I remember, it was like he had that natural uppercut, and they were like golf shots. A lot of "oooohs" and "ahhhhs" from the fans. He hit one, I remember, and he didn't even look at it. It was almost like, drop the mic. His English wasn't that good then, but that body language smack talk showed he was very confident in his ability.

GOFF: I can't remember how many he hit, but I know he hit a bunch. He wasn't just hitting them to right field. He was hitting them all over the ballpark, and it was a good-sized yard. It wasn't a small yard. To hear that Alex said, "We should take him back to the Kingdome," I think that's bulls--- to be honest. I think some of [the Mariners] were embarrassed by what Davey did to them in that competition -- and I loved every single minute of it.

McLAREN: Buhner could hit them as long as anybody. I don't remember if it was Buhner or Griffey because they were all standing there together, but one of them said, "Who is this kid?" I mean, he was hitting huge bombs. It was raining and stuff. It was just a dull day, and everybody didn't care about playing any game. But [Ortiz] got their attention. He kind of made the moment there. Some people on the major league staff and the players, they'll have that memory of when was the first time they saw David Arias or David Ortiz. That would be the moment.

WILSON: David had power that was amazing in and of itself. But the competitive side of it, too, to see him sort of rise to that challenge and step up, that kind of opened your eyes about what kind of player this kid could be.

RODRIGUEZ: I go back 20 years with David, and whether it was Appleton, Wisconsin, or Escogido with the Dominican Republic, or obviously with the Red Sox, he's had a flair for the dramatic. Big Papi put on a show. He always does.

The aftermath

What could have been a nightmare for the Timber Rattlers, a washout of their highly anticipated exhibition against the Mariners, turned into an event that left Appleton buzzing for weeks. A month later, on Aug. 29, Seattle acquired third baseman Dave Hollins from the Minnesota Twins for a player to be named. And on Sept. 13, after the Timber Rattlers lost to West Michigan in the Midwest League finals, Ortiz was sent to Minnesota to complete the deal.

GOFF: We come off the field after losing the last game and my phone is ringing. I looked at my pitching coach, Pat Rice, and I think we both had the same bad gut feeling. I pick the phone up, and I'm not going to mention who was on the other end, but the phone call was, "Don't let Arias leave the ballpark." I'm like, "Don't tell me he was the player to be named later," and they said he was. And I lost it. I had to call Davey in, and it was like telling my son that he got traded. We sat there that night, and I'm not going to lie, we had several beverages until about 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. It was one of the worst trades ever made.

ORTIZ: It was tough, man. Ken Griffey Jr. was everybody's favorite. I'm pretty sure a lot of kids at the time wanted to hit like him. But I always dreamed of playing in the big leagues with Ken Griffey Jr. It never happened.

McLAREN: I remember Lou Piniella commenting later on, something like, "John, how did we let this guy get away?" But we had no idea. He really wasn't on our radar screen. I know the minor league people liked him and stuff, but he was in A-ball, and, back then, they didn't have the minor league rankings and the big hype like they have today. He wasn't somebody that we talked about in our plans going forward because that was low- A ball. Obviously we didn't know what we had or we wouldn't have made that deal. But at the time we needed a third baseman, and Hollins was a proven veteran player.

WILSON: It was something a few of us talked about. Because when you hear about the trade, you're like, "Oh, that's the kid in Single-A who was putting them on the highway in that home run derby." You were definitely able to put a face to a name or an ability to a name.

Ortiz jumped three levels in the Twins' farm system in 1997 and made his big league debut that September. He hit 20 homers for the Twins in 2002, but it wasn't until he signed with the Red Sox that he emerged as one of the most feared sluggers in the league, eventually joining Griffey and A-Rod in the 500-homer club.

Save for those who were in Fox Cities Stadium on July 29, 1996, few people were aware the derby even happened. In 2013, Horcher, who had moved to Seattle to work for KIRO-TV, dug up footage from that night in Appleton and reported a story on the station's website, bringing some attention to the long-lost event.

McLAREN: I've been telling this story for years and years and years, but this was an event that never really was recorded. I actually just told the home run story last week to [Philadelphia Phillies bench coach] Larry Bowa. We were talking about Dave Hollins, and I said, "The first time I saw Big David, he was David Arias and he was hitting some kind of bombs in Appleton, Wisconsin." And Bowa says, "He was traded for Dave Hollins? Are you sure?"

BIRLING: I've worked in the minor leagues a long time, and you know how careful everybody is. To think these guys would have come out in really miserable conditions and still go out and do a home run derby, that just doesn't happen. It was a special moment for that area. It was a special moment for all of us that were there, something we'll never forget.

GOFF: It was a great day, man. For fans that were looking to see a game, they got something so much better with a home run derby. You look back on the guys that participated in that and where they're going to end up when it's all said and done, in Cooperstown, that doesn't happen very often.

RODRIGUEZ: Everybody loves David. He's a great ambassador for our game, and he's been that guy from Appleton, Wisconsin. He's always had that special "it" factor. His smile is contagious. And it was the same way back then.

ORTIZ: Ken Griffey was the best player in the game, and Alex, everybody knew how special he was. But that day, I'm telling you, everybody saw what's up. It was fun, man. I'll never forget that.

Related Video