(WFRV) – What was supposed to be an exhibition game in 1996 between one of the most talented teams in MLB and their single-A affiliate turned into a home run derby, but it wasn’t any of those stars at the time who stole the show.
25 years ago, the Seattle Mariners were led by Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Back in 1996, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers were the single-A affiliate of the Mariners and they had planned to face off against one another at Fox Cities Stadium on an off-day for Seattle.
With the anticipation from fans to see, then, 6-time All-Star Ken Griffey Jr. and a promising young player within Alex Rodriguez play in Northeast Wisconsin, Fox Cities Stadium saw it’s biggest crowd ever.
“It was one of those when we were selling tickets, you felt like you just had to keep selling tickets”, says former Timber Rattlers General Manager Mike Birling. “I knew it would be a little uncomfortable but people just wanted to be there. It was very rare for a team to have those type of superstars come to Appleton, Wisconsin.”
After so many fans packed into Fox Cities Stadium in preparation to see a show highlighted by some of the brightest stars in baseball, it started to rain out. The Mariners manager at the time was Lou Piniella. Former General Manager of the Timber Rattlers Mike Birling remembers that conversation with Piniella in the outfield as fans wouldn’t leave the stadium, despite the rain.
“So here I am as a 24-year-old, walking in the outfield with Lou Piniella, and Lou is sitting there saying ‘We aren’t going to play’, and I’m saying ‘We have to play because this is the most people we ever had. You guys flew all the way in’, and just out a whim I said, ‘Could we do a home run derby'”, said Birling.
Birling told Local 5 that proposing the home run derby gave the large crowd of fans the opportunity to see the stars even longer on a bigger stage.
Piniella agreed to the home run derby proposal from Birling. It was a three-on-three style at Fox Cities Stadium. Piniella went to the dugout and grabbed Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Dan Wilson to compete in the derby meanwhile the Timber Rattlers grabbed three players.
“We kept making comments saying ‘Oh, Griffey is going to be the first player to hit on the highway’, and he completely struggled”, Birling explained.
Fans expected to see both Griffey and Rodriguez put on a show in the home run derby but it was the complete opposite.
It was a 20-year-old, single-A player on the Timber Rattlers that stole the show. His name? David Arias.
“He was definitely one of our up-and-coming players at the time and I knew the Mariners were really high on him, so he had the tools”, says Birling. “So yeah, he was our natural home run hitter that we would’ve stuck in this home run derby.”
After parking baseballs well beyond the fence at Fox Cities Stadium, Arias got the crowd excited and “wow’d” every Mariners player there including Griffey and Rodriguez.
No one may of known who David Arias was at the time, but fast forward 25 years later from July 29, 1996 and everyone now knows who that kid is that was putting on a show in Appleton.
That was a young David Ortiz. The 10-time All-Star, 3-time World Series Champion, and Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer, David Ortiz.
“As he showed his entire major-league career, he preforms on big stages. That’s what he’s known for and this was his kind of first big stage”, says Birling. “He showed the Mariners front office, and the Griffey’s, and A-Rod’s of the world that I may be here in single-A but you will be seeing me soon.”
Ortiz spent one season with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. In 1996, he batted .322 with 18 home runs and 93 RBI.
Another funny part of this home run derby story? It wasn’t even Ortiz that won it all. It was Mariners catcher Dan Wilson that won it all, but Ortiz was the one that made everyone go ‘who is this guy?’.
“It was something I’ll never forget in my 27-years in Minor League Baseball”, says Birling.
What was supposed to be an exhibition game between a MLB team and their single-A affiliate turned into an impromptu home run derby that 20-year-old David Ortiz had Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in awe right in Northeast Wisconsin.