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Bleachers to Diamonds: A success story

Although America is focused on the Super Bowl, and the many predictions and picks being offered on the NFL’s biggest game, on its grandest stage, in the bitter cold of February, we will turn our attention to a little-known, patchwork game of Home Run Derby that occurred over a quarter-century ago featuring some of the greatest players to ever wield a stick.

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David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox
David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox - Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/AFP

Little Papi Flexing for the Big Leagues

David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, was an unheralded prospect in the Mariners’ organization, plying his trade with the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. But back in ’96, he went by the name of David Arias, only changing it to Ortiz once he became the player to be named later in a trade with the Twins a short while after.

But on a rainy July afternoon in Appleton, Wisconsin, the future Hall-of-Famer would get an unexpected opportunity to shine in front of the MLB’s biggest bangers. The Seattle Mariners would make a pit stop at their Single-A affiliate’s brand-new home, Fox Cities Stadium, to play an exhibition game with the prospects, something that would be unheard of in this day and age.

And on that team, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. would appear in front of a max capacity 6000-seat stadium to show the kids how it’s done in the bigs. But a downpour wreaked havoc on those plans and after a lengthy delay, the major leaguers wanted to hit the bricks and get out of the sticks.

However, a plan was devised to give the fans something for their money besides a refund that would cost the Class A ballclub badly needed financial resources. Thus, a Home Run Derby was quickly cobbled together in lieu of the exhibition game. Dan Wilson, A-Rod, and Junior volunteered to compete against the Rattlers’ hitting coach, Joaquin Contreras, outfielder Luis Tinoco, and a 20-year-old named David Arias who was in the midst of a breakout season.

A-Rod and Junior would go yard eight times, combined, in the opening round while Papi slammed seven dingers that not only left the ballpark but wound up traveling the interstate which lined Fox Cities Stadium. As Rodriquez and Griffey Jr. looked on and marveled at the ferocity of Ortiz’s blasts, A-Rod could clearly be heard saying, “I ain’t got a chance.”

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Ortiz reflected on the memory and said, “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.”

Big Papi’s 541 career home runs are 17th in MLB history and he was the only player elected to the Hall of Fame on the 2022 ballot with over 77 percent of the vote. And maybe, just maybe, the 20-year-old kid from the Dominican Republic realized on that showery afternoon in the middle of Nowhere USA, he could trade bombs with the best in the world and his big-league dreams were closer than he had ever imagined.

Fans hold up signs during David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox last regular season game against the Toronto Blue Jays
Fans hold up signs during David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox last regular season game against the Toronto Blue Jays – Rich Gagnon/Getty Images/AFP

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