The day the great wall of Cheney got Zapped
The long ball rules.
Yes, even in Tacoma, where Cheney Stadium’s spacious outfield dimensions have traditionally suppressed home runs.
During its 57-year stint in the Pacific Coast League, Tacoma’s Triple-A franchise has hit more than 6,650 home runs. Its opponents have accounted for more than 6,500 homers.
Based on the fact Cheney Stadium has played like a pitcher’s ballpark much of its existence, The News Tribune safely estimates that more than 6,000 of those home runs have been hit in Tacoma.
All kinds of dingers have been hit, too: Walkoff grand slams, long balls that have traveled ungodly distances, even one home run that was lodged indefinitely into the outfield scoreboard.
That does not include all the over-the-fence blasts logged in batting practice, in major-league exhibitions or in games featuring international, college or high school programs.
With the Triple-A All-Star home run derby set to take place Monday, The News Tribune revisits the five most memorable home runs ever hit in a PCL game at Cheney Stadium:
1. ZAPP’S MOONSHOT WINS WAGER
For years, the outfield at Cheney Stadium was the place fly balls went to die.
Former manager Dan Rohn had seen it so often, especially to straightaway center field, he made a guarantee to his hitters before the 2004 season began: Nobody would ever clear the monstrous center-field wall, which was 29 feet high and 425 away from home plate.
In fact, Rohn was so cocksure of himself, he placed a steak dinner on that declaration.
“He said it was impossible,” slugging first baseman A.J. Zapp said.
But on a warm, Sept. 1 night, Zapp proved Rohn’s assertion wrong.
In the bottom of the third inning, the left-handed hitting Zapp crushed a Joe Blanton fastball that got into a slight tailwind and carried over the big wall for a solo home run.
The estimated distance was 505 feet, which is still considered the longest home run ever hit at Cheney Stadium.
“We hit so many balls out there in batting practice, and they just died,” Zapp said. “But when I hit that one, I knew I hit it good.”
Zapp wasn’t sure how good it was, so he sprinted up the first-base line. When he made the turn to second, he looked up to see that Sacramento outfielder Matt Watson was just standing there.
I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I did it!’ ” Zapp said.
It was No. 28 of Zapp’s career-high 29 home runs that season. He ended up hitting 136 career blasts in the minor leagues.
That was Zapp’s only season with the Rainiers, too. He retired in 2006, and is now an Under Armour salesperson for BSN Sports, just outside Indianapolis where he grew up. He is married with three children, and coaches his son, Evan’s U-13 summer baseball team.
That mammoth home run still comes up a couple of times a year at family gatherings. He also has video proof of clearing the wall.
The one thing he has yet to see is that steak dinner from his former boss.
“He still owes me,” Zapp said.
2. ALOU FIRST TO HIT CHENEY HOMER
Outfielder Mateo “Matty” Alou wasn’t known for his power.
But on April 16, 1960 — the day PCL baseball returned to Tacoma for the first time in 55 years — Alou got up for the moment.
The Dominican Republic native slugged a two-run home run in the third inning off Portland pitcher Lynn Lovenguth to become the first hitter to hit a home run at the new Cheney Stadium.
It would be the only two runs of the game for the Tacoma Giants, who lost 7-2 in front of 6,612 fans at the ballpark.
It was a much-anticipated return for baseball in this town. In the days leading up to the opener, a welcoming parade was held downtown for the players and manager Red Davis.
The originally-scheduled home opener on April 14 was rained out, pushing the game back two days later as part of a day-night doubleheader.
“I remember the fans were super,” said Eddie Fisher, the Giants’ opening-day starting pitcher. “And it seems like we played a lot in the rain, but rarely got rained out in the first 15 days of the season.”
Fisher was aboard in that third inning when Alou, the leadoff hitter, came up. He nailed a low fastball from Lovenguth over the right-field wall for the two-run blast.
Alou ended up hitting three home runs in the series alone against Portland — and a career-high 14 long balls that season. He only hit 33 home runs in the minors during his career.
Alou died in 2011 after playing 15 seasons in the major leagues.
“He wasn’t known as a power hitter, but in certain situations, he could crank it up a little bit and put a little extra into it,” Fisher said.
3. CRUZ DELIVERS CRUSHING BLOW
The day Nashville was going for a PCL championship sweep of the Rainiers — Sept. 16, 2005 — young slugger Nelson Cruz received some delightful news.
As soon as the best-of-five playoff series was decided, he was slated to join the big-league club in Milwaukee for the first time.
“I remember I was going to be called up,” Cruz said, “so I had to get the game over with.”
And he did, delivering a crushing three-run home in the 13th inning, leading the Sounds past Tacoma, 5-2, and to their first PCL title.
The game was tied 2-2 when Tacoma shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera made a throwing error in the 13th inning, allowing Cruz a crack to put the Rainiers away.
“We put somebody on, and I had to end the game,” Cruz said. “And look, I hit the home run to win the game.”
Admittedly, 12 years later, Cruz said he recalls very little about the moment.
“Just flashes,” he said.
He could not remember who threw the fatal pitch. It was Cha-Seung Baek.
“Oh yeah?” he said. “My memory is not that good.”
Tacoma fans remember vividly. Cruz’s blast denied Tacoma the chance to win its first outright PCL title since 1969.
Cruz was also named the PCL championship Most Valuable Player. He hit four home runs and had 11 RBIs in the postseason before joining the Brewers the day after winning the league crown.
He has played for four big-league teams in Milwaukee, Texas, Baltimore and the past three seasons with Seattle. In fact, he hit his 300th career big-league home run with the Mariners on Friday, and will be an American League All-Star himself this week in Miami.
4. CHOO GOES OVER BIG WALL, TOO
It took 44 years for a hitter (Zapp) to clear the center-field wall at Cheney Stadium in a game.
And it took just over eight months for a second player to match that feat.
Hotshot prospect Shin-Soo Choo made his Rainiers debut in the 2005 season. And on May 6, he sent shockwaves through Cheney Stadium on one swing.
Facing right-hander Scott Schneider in the eighth inning, Choo’s solo home run carried deep into the night, and over the gigantic wall in center field.
“The wind was helping a little bit,” Choo said. “As soon as I hit it, I thought maybe it was over the center fielder’s head.”
Choo never imagined it had a chance to leave the ballpark. So he kept chugging around the bases with his head down, and only slowed up when he saw the field umpire signaling it was a home run.
The South Korean outfielder never did see the baseball clear the fence, even on video.
“I asked, ‘Did I really do that?’ ” Choo said. “In the dugout, everyone was looking at me, going, ‘Choo, you hit it over the center field wall.’ ”
A few days later, Choo donated the bat with which he hit that home run to the organization.
That was the first of two seasons Choo played in Tacoma, finishing with 13 home runs in 375 at-bats. He now plays for the Texas Rangers.
5. A-ROD’S BLAST SIGNALS CHANGE
Plenty was going on around baseball in 1994.
The big leagues went on strike. And when the Mariners were in action, their home ballpark — the Kingdome — was literally falling apart.
And in Tacoma, one association was coming to an end.
The Tigers had been the Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics since 1981, a span of 14 seasons.
But when Seattle’s farm team — Calgary — came into Cheney Stadium for the final home series of the season with budding 18-year-old shortstop Alex Rodriguez aboard, many fans came out to cheer the Cannons, not the Tigers.
And during a day game Aug. 31, Rodriguez sounded the siren on what would become inevitable — Tacoma was a Mariners town.
Rodriguez hit a two-run home run in the top of the 10th inning that was heartily cheered by a record 6,496 fans as Calgary dumped the Tigers, 5-3.
At the time, that was the largest attended mid-week afternoon game in club history.
“It was the perfect storm,” said Frank Colarusso, who was the Tacoma general manager at the time. “The roof had fallen in on the Mariners, so there was no baseball in Seattle. And Alex was coming through for the first time.
“We darned near sold out all four games, which was unheard of from a ticket sales standpoint.”
Selected No. 1 overall by Seattle in the 1993 amateur draft, Rodriguez was an instant draw. By the time he and the Cannons arrived in Tacoma, he had already played for four different teams, including the Mariners for a short stint.
In that 10th inning, after Quinn Mack walked, Rodriguez lined Tim Smith’s first pitch over the left-field wall for the game winner.
Two weeks later, Tigers owner George Foster and Mariners president Chuck Armstrong brokered a deal that made Tacoma the Mariners’ new Triple-A affiliate.