Flashback Friday: Rattlers v. Mariners HR Derby (1996)

A scene from the 1996 home run derby. From left: Dan Wilson, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. (KIRO-TV)

By Chris Mehring / Wisconsin Timber Rattlers | November 8, 2013 5:14 AM ET

We are going to conclude this week of David Ortiz related content on the website with a look back at the suddenly remembered Home Run Derby that took place between the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Seattle Mariners on July 29, 1996 at Fox Cities Stadium.

The national media picked up on this home run derby this past summer when KIRO-TV in Seattle ran video of the contest from Gary Horcher, who was a "cub reporter" in Appleton. Horcher now works at KIRO.

The video was pretty cool to see, but this week's Flashback Friday is going back to the primary documents, the Post-Crescent Sports section from July 30, 1996. There are three parts to this week's Flashback:   First, a story by Jeff Sherry; second, a Rattlers Notes sidebar from both Sherry and Chuck Carlson; last a column from Carlson. Let's get started!

Home run derby saves day
The weather rained on the Rattlers' parade, but fans still were able to see some big names take some big swings

The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers' exhibition against the Seattle Mariners was rained out. Yet many people went home happy.

That scenario, as unlikely as it sounds, took place Monday night at Fox Cities Stadium. After a deluge of rain forced the highly anticipated game to be cancelled, the teams put together an impromptu home run derby. Seattle's Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. both hit in the derby.

The downpour didn't end up being such a downer after all.

"I think a lot of the fans really wanted to see Alex and Junior," Seattle director of player development Larry Beinfest said. "If we'd played the game, they both would've had one at bat and that's it. So (the fans) probably got to see more of them this way than if we'd actually played. It worked out pretty well. We were able to turn a difficult situation into a positive."

Seattle catcher Dan Wilson ended up winning the derby. Wisconsin was represented by outfielder Luis Tinoco, first baseman David Arias, and hitting coach Joaquin Contreras.

"We did more with the home run contest than we would've in the game," Rodriguez said. "It was a little more fun.   We got the chance to flirt with the crowd a little bit, and just hang out and enjoy yourself."

The game actually came close to being played on two occasions. The rain began only five minutes prior to the scheduled 5:30 p.m. start. It stopped about 15 minutes later, grounds workers cleared the infield tarp, and the field was nearly ready again by 6 p.m.

Timber Rattlers general manager Mike Birling said the teams were about to go ahead with a seven-inning game, but then the second round of rain came. The outfield was unplayable by the time it stopped, so they agreed to go ahead with the home run derby.

"This is a one-time thing, and we wanted to do something for the fans," Birling said. "The Mariners wholeheartedly agreed with us. I think the crowd enjoyed it. Considering the kind of day it was, I think they're happy with what took place.

But not everyone left the park feeling good about everything. For some people, especially the Timber Rattlers, the home run derby just didn't compare to the game they'd been hoping for.

Although Wisconsin's players thoroughly enjoyed meeting Seattle's players - the probably left the stadium with more Mariners autographs than the fans did - most of them were disappointed they didn't get to face the big-leaguers on the field.

"It's been my life-long dream to play for a major-league baseball team," Timber Rattlers pitcher Greg Scheer said. "Today was going to be my day where I could finally see what that would feel like. So it was pretty frustrating when it didn't end up happening. I may never get a chance like this again."

Wisconsin reliever Russell Jacobs was also upset about the game being cancelled. He was supposed to throw the third inning, which meant he had a decent shot of pitching against Seattle's regular batters.

"When that rain started, I got mad," Jacobs said. "This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I'll just have to work my way up there I guess."


Rodriguez an old-fashioned guy
The Mariners' all-star shortstop prefers Goodland Field to Appleton's new home for minor-league baseball

If Alex Rodriguez's taste in cars is anything like his taste in ballparks, his next vehicle will probably be a Pacer.

Rodriguez, who made his professional debut two summers ago with the Appleton Foxes, returned to the area Monday as an all-star shortstop for the Seattle Mariners. The 21-year-old participated in the home run derby after his team's exhibition with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers was cancelled by rain.

It was his first trip to Fox Cities Stadium and Rodriguez, who played at Goodland Field with the Foxes, had mixed thoughts on the team's new home.

"It's a night and day difference," Rodriguez said. "But for me, I like Goodland Field more. It was kind of like my first girlfriend. It was the first professional experience I had and it was a lot of fun. I love the mystique about that field."

"I love this field, but I play in a lot of nice stadiums in the big leagues," Rodriguez said. "They're nice, and their locker rooms are nice, but there's just something I like about old parks."

PROPERLY PAMPERED:  Timber Rattler officials have been working hard the last few weeks to make sure everything was just perfect for when the Mariners arrived. 

"Our whole purpose from when we got this game was to make them feel like this was a major-league game, like they just went to another stadium," Timber Rattlers general manager Mike Birling said. "We wanted them to have all the novelties here that they have at major league parks."

Among the novelties the Mariners received were free hats, free T-shirts, pregame and postgame meals…the list goes on and on.

"Each player had to have three towels, they had to have gum in their lockers, shavers - all kinds of things that normally we don't really provide for the teams here," Birling said. "It's all the little things that these guys have gotten used to in the major leagues that minor leaguers don't get."

All the extra work seemed to pay off. Birling said the Mariners were very complimentary about the treatment they received.

"They've been very pleased," Birling said. "Everything they've said has been positive so far."

KINDER AND GENTLER:  There was a time not so long ago when Mariners manager, the volcanic Lou Piniella, could work in expletives the way some artists work in oils.

As a player and then as a manager, he made his reputation as a fiery, bawdy, take-no-prisoners type who would just as soon pop his cork than look at you.

But, apparently, that's all changed thanks to his new religious awakening.

"I've found the Lord," he said. "He has taught me what my priorities in life are."

Piniella admits that sometimes it hasn't been easy following the straight and narrow.

"There are days," he said with a smile, "when I take two steps back and three steps forward. But I feel great."

SIGN HERE:  It was hard to tell who was more excited about the Mariners being in town - the fans or the Rattlers players.

Just about every Rattlers player had his picture taken with Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Jr. or Jay Buhner as well as procuring a raft of autographs.

"It's weird," said pitcher Kevin Gryboski, who was toting four baseballs to be autographed. "Even though you see these guys in spring training, just to get an opportunity to play against them is an honor. I know I'm a professional baseball player, but watching these guys makes me feel like a little kid again."

Rattlers try to keep a sunny disposition

In barely 45 minutes, two years worth of work was washed away.

Literally, figuratively, meteorologically.

It was supposed to be the glorious capper to a wonderful season for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. After two years of negotiating, begging, and wrangling, the Ratt;ers had finally worked out a way to get their big club, the Seattle Mariners, in town for an exhibition.

And Monday evening, Ken Griffey, Jay Buhner, prodigal son Alex Rodriguez and all the other big-leaguers would give the home folks a treat they wouldn't soon forget.

Well, forget it.

The weather, horrendous weather, which has tortured this team all season, got in one more shot and ruined yet another important night for the Rattlers.

And this one really hurt because it seemed the weather, which had toyed and taunted with the game all day, seemed ready to behave itself. 

The Mariners arrived, took batting practice and fans oohed and aahed as Griffey, Buhner, Rodriguez and others sent rockets over the stadium walls.

But it was all just a cruel hoax. Five minutes before the game was to start, the skies unloaded and the rains came.


Just as they had a month or so earlier during the second most important night of the Rattlers season - the Midwest League All-Star Game.

Remember? It poured that night too, but at least the Rattlers by working all night, were able to get the field playable and the game in the next night.

There will be no such reprieve for this one.

"If we're lucky, maybe we'll get (the Mariners) back in six or seven years," said John Wollner, president of Appleton Baseball Inc.

Luck? The Rattlers? Please.

"Thank God I'm young and my heart is strong," said Rattlers general manager Mike Birling, who has watched nine precious home dates rained out this season after only five all of last year, "It's so disheartening, but I guess that's life in Northeastern Wisconsin."

After the initial 10-minute deluge, Mariners manager Lou Piniella was still willing to play a seven-inning game, though without most of his key players. But when the second round of rain came through, that clinched it.

"Timing is everything and our timing was lousy," Birling said.

But it wasn't a total disaster.

The Mariners agreed to participate in a home run derby, with Griffey, Rodriguez, and Dan Wilson against Rattlers Luis Tinoco, David Arias, and hitting coach Joaquin Contreras.

For the record, Wilson won, beating out Arias in the final round.

But while it wasn't exactly what the fans had shown up to watch most of the sellout crowd stuck around to observe.

"That shows how big an event this was," Birling said. "Thank God the Mariners agreed to the home run derby because it would have been a disaster for us and the community. Just to get the Mariners on the Fox Cities Stadium field was something. It's a once-in-a-lifetime change.

You really have to feel for these guys.

First was the cold and wind of April and May. Now it's been the rain of June and July.

What will August bring? Locusts? A plague or two? Who Knows?

As for the Mariners, they hopped on their bus afterward and headed for a four-game series in Milwaukee that starts today. The Rattlers hit the road for a game in Beloit.

And the forecast for today? More rain.



The final totals in the home run derby were:

Round One Mariners:
Wilson: 8
Griffey: 4
Rodriguez: 4

Round One Rattlers:
Arias: 7
Tinoco: 6
Contreras: 6

Wilson: 3
Arias: 0

Past Flashbacks:

Second Half Preview (1966)

How the Foxes Got Their Name (1958)

McKeon named Foxes Manager (1958)

Down to the Wire (1969)

First Half Playoff Game (1969)

Foxes win the Pennant (1969)

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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