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Big Papi stole derby spotlight with Timber Rattlers

Ortiz outslugged Griffey, A-Rod in first full season in Minor Leagues
David Ortiz batted .322 with 18 home runs and 93 RBIs in 129 Midwest League games in 1996. (Brad Krause/Wisconsin Timber Rattlers)
January 25, 2022

This story was originally published in 2020. It's being resurfaced now in the light of David Ortiz's election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

This story was originally published in 2020. It's being resurfaced now in the light of David Ortiz's election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

It's the greatest story barely told.

And it took place at Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton, Wisconsin, on July 29, 1996.

Coming off a trip to the American League Division series and with a roster full of marquee names like Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez, the Mariners were a hot draw everywhere. And it was a fairly routine practice at the time for Major League teams to visit their Minor League affiliates in a show of good will toward the clubs and the communities that hosted them.

So on a travel day before they were to open a four-game road series against the Brewers, the Mariners and their stars arrived in this city of approximately 70,000, 135 miles north of Milwaukee for an exhibition game against their Class A affiliate. But it never happened.

Instead, rain created unplayable conditions and the teams pivoted to a 3-on-3 home run derby in which the Timber Rattlers' first baseman -- an unknown 20-year-old from the Dominican Republic who was in his first full season of professional baseball -- stole the show.

His name was David Arias. You may know him as David Ortiz.

"I'm getting old, so I don't remember a lot, but I sure remember that day," said Durham Bulls general manager Mike Birling, who held the same role with Wisconsin in 1996. "It was by far the biggest day in Timber Rattlers history and it was just a special moment for the entire community and just for me in my career to be a part of that. It was a moment that everyone there that day will never forget."

When the Mariners arrived on that Monday, there was a torrential downpour. Birling and Mariners manager Lou Piniella took a walk around the outfield and, as Birling described it, "It looked terrible. It just didn't drain."

But given the circumstances -- and the hype -- surrounding the event, the sides agreed to give the exhibition every chance to happen. The idea to play seven innings was tossed around before Piniella ultimately said [in words far more colorful] that there was no way he would allow his team to take that field in that condition.

In an effort to avoid turning the day into a total wash, Birling proposed a home run derby.

"Lou said he would be fine with that but had to talk to his team first," Birling recalled. "But they ultimately agreed and sent out A-Rod, Griffey Jr. and their catcher, Dan Wilson. I went to talk to our manager, Mike Goff, and we sent out our only real power hitter at the time, David, as well as outfielder Luis Tinoco [who was second on the team in dingers] and the team's hitting coach, Joaquin Contreras."

Rodriguez had ties to the area, having played his only Minor League season with the then-Appleton Foxes two years earlier. There was arguably no bigger name in baseball than Griffey, and Wilson had just been named an All-Star for the only time in his 12-year career.

Birling also recalled the silver lining in his plan B: "If we had just played an exhibition, these big names that everyone came out to see would have just gotten the customary one at-bat and then gone back into the dugout. This way, they were actually out there for a while and everyone got more of a chance to enjoy them."

At the outset, that's exactly what happened as Griffey took his hacks with his signature silky smooth swing and Rodriguez launched a ball over the scoreboard in center field that got the crowd roaring. The stars that drew the crowd of nearly 6,000 were shining.

That was until Ortiz picked up a bat.

"He was just a kid that we didn't really know anything about, and here he was competing with the big boys and just crushing balls," Wilson said. "He was hitting balls out of the ballpark. He really opened a lot of eyes that day."

"It was so fun to just watch all of them interact," Birling said. "When it started, it was all about Griffey and A-Rod, but as it went along, you could almost feel the crowd kind of shift and they were getting more excited for Big Papi."

Gary Horcher, a local sports reporter at the time, was on the field covering the event and said that after one of Ortiz's moonshots he heard Rodriguez say, "Look at that guy. I ain't got a chance."

The admiration didn't stop there. Birling recalled hearing Rodriguez also say that the team should bring Ortiz "back to the Kingdome" with them.

"It really speaks to what he did that day," Wilson said. "When you're just a Minor League kid and you have an entire Major League coaching staff and roster in front of you, you're going to want to impress them. I'm sure that's a big part of what he was thinking, and that's exactly what he did. He really showed what he could do and that raw power that he had ... and especially with the Kingdome and that short porch in right there, I'm sure more than one person was thinking, 'Let's take this kid with us.'"

The dimensions of Fox Cities Stadium are 325 feet down each foul line and 400 feet to dead center.

"I can't say this for sure, but people were saying he hit balls that landed on the highway that was beyond right field," Birling said. "I don't know, but he was hitting bombs without a doubt."

For all of the awe in the ballpark that day, one person who wasn't shocked by Ortiz's performance was Tinoco, his teammate and fellow derby participant.

"That was his game," said Tinoco, a scout for the Yankees in Venezuela. "I knew Papi back in [the Dominican Republic]. We started our careers together there and that's just what he always did -- he hit bombs."

Tinoco also didn't hesitate when asked about the reports of balls landing on the highway.

"Yes, absolutely," he said. "He hit some of those home runs to the freeway behind the stadium. No question."

The following day, the Appleton Post-Crescent reported that Griffey and Rodriguez combined to mash eight dingers in the first round of the competition and Ortiz launched seven by himself. In the final round, however, Wilson outslugged Ortiz, 3-0, to win the competition. But the result did nothing to remove the smile from Ortiz's face.

"We were laughing afterwards and he said to me, 'I was just having fun out there and I almost beat all of them,'" Tinoco said. "It was just so fun and exciting for us. I'll never forget that day. It was like a dream."

In 2016, Ortiz told ESPN Boston's Scott Lauber of the event:

"I was hitting balls onto the highway, bro. Like, it was crazy," he said. "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. ... 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."

Ortiz flirted with the Midwest League Triple Crown that year as he batted .322 with 18 long balls and 93 RBIs. The Timber Rattlers made it to the Championship Series, where they were bested by West Michigan. After that loss, Ortiz was notified that he was the player to be named later in the trade that sent third baseman Dave Hollins to Seattle a month earlier.

The following year, Ortiz climbed three levels in the Twins system and made his Major League debut on Sept. 2, 1997.

"I remember Bill Smith, he was the assistant GM at the time, he called me up and asked me questions about Papi," Birling said." They weren't from a baseball perspective but more about who he was as a person and all that. Next thing you know, they're making a trade with the Twins and a few years later, he's the Big Papi that we all know now.

"We knew David was a good player, but my first year with the team we had A-Rod and he was a can't-miss guy. David wasn't that way. But that day he put on as good a show as anybody. He just made balls disappear. ... I actually remember at the time being afraid that fans would call up and ask for a refund because the exhibition never happened.

But there wasn't a single call. I still have that behind the scenes. We had a videographer that day and I still have the VHS tape of it. And I still look back at that moment from time to time. It was special."

Rob Terranova is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter, @RobTnova24.