On April 16, 1960, Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium played host to its first game, between the Tacoma Giants and the Portland Beavers. Though Tacoma’s new ball club, which had moved from Phoenix over the winter, ultimately fell short in that contest, at least one significant first was recorded for the ballpark. Matty Alou smacked a two-run shot that would go down as the first home run in Cheney’s history. A Dominican who stood just 5’-9” feet tall and weighing just 160 pounds, Alou was never known for his power. He amassed just 31 career homers over 6,220 trips to the plate at the Major League level as one-third of San Francisco’s notorious Alou brothers outfield. Nevertheless, for that brief moment in history, he was the only man to ever send one over the outfield walls at the then brand-new Cheney Stadium.
Fifty-seven years later, that feat has now been repeated thousands of by hundreds of players. But not until Monday had any of them done it as part of the Triple-A Home Run Derby. No, that honor was reserved for six young sluggers from the Pacific Coast and International leagues: Pawtucket’s Bryce Brentz, Charlotte’s Danny Hayes, Columbus’ Richie Shaffer, Nashville’s Renato Nunez, Reno’s Christian Walker, along with Tacoma’s own Daniel Vogelbach.
The format for the Derby gave each contestant four minutes per round to hit it over the fence as many times as possible, with two hitters being eliminated in each of the first two rounds, leaving just two hitters left for the final showdown. Homers hit in round one carried over into round two, but everything reset to zero entering the final round.
Surprisingly, Nunez and Walker, who entered the night with the highest homer totals of the contestants at 24 and 22, respectively (the former mark leads all of minor league baseball), were the two to get eliminated first; they hit just five and six homers, respectively. Richie Shaffer belted a solid nine homers in the first round, including a last-second buzzer-beater over the left field seats that might’ve been the longest blast of the night. Shaffer spent a few days as a member of the Mariners’ organization this offseason when he was acquired in the same trade that brought Taylor Motter to Seattle. He was designated for assignment shortly thereafter, however, and eventually landed in the Indians’ organization, where he’s found a home with Columbus. Former Oregon State Beaver Danny Hayes matched Shaffer with nine, advancing to round two. The top performers of round one were Bryce Brentz (who led all Div. I collegiate hitters with 28 homers in 2009), who blasted fifteen homers despite not hitting a single one in the first 1:15 of the round, and Daniel Vogelbach, who coasted by with 13 homers, including one that smashed against the Tacoma Weekly’s own sign on the right-center field scoreboard, and three shots off the right-field light tower.
Hayes’ second round was largely forgettable as he was able to leave the yard just three times, but it was memorable for the peculiar timing of those homers: he hit zero during the first two minutes, with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” playing, but hit his three almost immediately after the music switched to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. With just 12 home runs between the two rounds, less than Vogelbach and Brentz had posted in round one, Hayes was the competition’s first casualty – even if Vogelbach and Brentz had hit zero homers in round two, they would’ve had enough to eliminate Hayes. Shaffer was able to make things a bit more interesting, matching his first round total of nine homers, giving him eighteen total. Both Vogelbach and Brentz were able to quickly match and exceed that number, however, as both were left with time to spare, which they forewent in order to conserve their energy for the final round.
With both hitters’ scores reset to zero, Brentz would swing first in the final round. Brentz hit just one homer in the first fifty seconds, but blasted seven in the second minute and stayed hot through the final two minutes, putting on a show with eighteen homers – topping his impressive round one to give him the two highest scoring rounds of the night.
Brentz would prove a tough act to follow for Vogelbach. Needing 18 long balls to force a ninety-second tiebreaker or 19 to win outright, the stocky slugger stepped up to the plate. He was never quite able to get things going in the final round, finishing with eight, well short of the mark set by Brentz, giving the crown to the Pawtucket slugger. With Brentz’s win, Pawtucket became the first franchise to win the Derby in back-to-back seasons (Chris Marrero brought home the gold for Pawtucket in 2016).
Hey now, you're an all-star:
In addition to the sluggers present for the Home Run Derby, the All-Star break festivities brought many more of the best young talents in baseball to Tacoma, including 12 of Baseball America’s Midseason Top 100 Prospects: Memphis’ Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly, Oklahoma City’s Willie Calhoun and Alex Verdugo, Fresno’s Derek Fisher, Las Vegas’ Amed Rosario, Norfolk’s Chance Sisco, Durham’s Willy Adames, Gwinnett’s Ozzie Albies, Lehigh Valley’s Jorge Alfaro and Rhys Hoskins, and Charlotte’s Yoan Moncada, the consensus top prospect in the game. Though both sent two top-100 prospects to the all-star game, Oklahoma City and Lehigh Valley each made probably their biggest contribution to the game by way of the two starting pitchers: Tom Eshelman of Lehigh Valley for the International League, and OKC’s Wilmer Font for the Pacific Coast.
Up with the big club:
It wasn’t just Triple-A taking it’s all-star break this week, as the MLB also hosted its festivities. The highlight for Mariners fans came when second baseman Robinson Cano gave the American League the title with a game-winning solo home run off Cubs closer Wade Davis in the 10th inning, earning the Ted Williams All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award in the process. Cano was joined by teammate Nelson Cruz on the American League roster.