TACOMA — From the stands, the forest green wall rising up in the center field of Cheney Stadium doesn’t seem that sizable. From the press box, it doesn’t seem that far from home plate, despite the stark, white “425” denoting the distance in feet.
But if you walk across the field to the wall, which also serves as the batter’s eye, you realize it’s a full 29 feet tall. Up close, the blue coat of paint isn’t quite so pristine, either, with myriad white marks — the remnants of baseballs hitting it on the fly — pockmarking its face, though few are above about 15 feet.
And as you turn and look back to home plate, you realize why. It’s far — really far.
When players take batting practice at the South Sound stadium, they come to the quick realization that it would take one of their best blasts just to hit the wall on the fly.
And hitting one over the wall? It has to be impossible.
“I’ve only seen one guy hit the wall, and I’d never seen anyone hit it over,” outfielder Jake Fraley said.
Well, until Tuesday, that is.
Fraley and the rest of the limited number of folks allowed into the Mariners’ alternate training site in Tacoma — players, coaches, trainers, staff and a handful of media — witnessed a piece of stadium history from Austin Shenton.
During his first at-bat of the intrasquad game, Shenton stepped to the plate to face right-hander George Kirby, one of the Mariners’ top pitching prospects and a 2018 first-round pick.
Shenton, a fifth-round pick in the same draft and a standout at Bellingham High School, had a simple approach — look for one of Kirby’s high-90s fastballs.
In just his second intrasquad outing since baseball restarted, Kirby didn’t have great command and fell behind 3-0. Looking to get back in the count, he fired a 98-mph fastball that stayed in the middle of the zone. Shenton was all over the pitch, putting it on the barrel of his bat, resulting in a thunderous crack.
As the ball rocketed to center field, Braden Bishop sprinted backward and from instinct of playing many games in Cheney, stopped to play the carom off the wall. Instead, the ball carried over it, and Bishop stood there for a few extra seconds seeming unsure of what just happened while others gasped, then cheered.
Given what he’d seen in workouts, Shenton wasn’t thinking homer.
“Honestly, when I hit it, I knew I struck it well,” Shenton said. “I just kept my head down because I was just expecting to hear it clank off the wall or something and take my double or triple. Then I kind of saw Braden looking up, and then I was like, ‘Oh, gosh.’ I caught it good downwind. I got it up in the breeze. So that was good.”
The trackman data had it at 453 feet.
Sitting in the dugout, Fraley was stunned.
“You’ve got to hit that ball, obviously extremely hard, but you also have to have the right angle on it too, because obviously the wall is so high just get it over,” he said.
Like Shenton, others mentioned the breeze, but Fraley shrugged that off.
“I have seen the wind blow harder than that and guys hit the ball just as hard and that ball gets tracked down every single time, so it was impressive,” Fraley said. “That’s a big-boy home run right there. We definitely gave him a lot of credit when he came in the dugout, and we’ll be talking about it for days to come.”
Shenton didn’t seem to enjoy talking about it after happened, trying to remain humble about the accomplishment.
“I think it was a mixture of luck and Kirby throwing really hard,” he said.
He did admit that he and Kirby would discuss it on their short drive to the Tacoma hotel where they’re staying and perhaps in their next round of golf.
“Kirby is my boy,” he said. “This ride home is gonna be a fun one. Kirby is a great pitcher, and he’s got amazing stuff. … This is the first time I faced him, and I was trying to get a good pitch over the plate, stay true to my approach and just kind of treat him like another guy even though he’s not.
“I’ve seen it firsthand what he does. I just got a pitch over the middle and put a good swing on it.”
Shenton admits he hadn’t seen much in the way of results at the plate since participating in intrasquad games at summer camp and in Tacoma. He hit seven homers in 53 minor-league games last season. And his hitting profile isn’t pure power.
“Honestly, I haven’t really been hitting the ball extremely well so far; I’ve put in other good ABs, just not really found any results,” he said. “And so this was kind of just like a breath of fresh air in a sense, and some of the guys are just like, ‘Wow.’ They were kind of in disbelief, but it was just nice to get a good pitch and put a good swing on it.”
Why is a long home run in an intrasquad game such a big deal?
Well, over the stadium’s 60 years. Just four other players or known to hit a ball over the center-field wall.
Two came during batting practice — Jose Canseco as a member of the Tacoma Tigers and Jay Buhner while on a rehab stint in 2001.
A skinnier version of Mark McGwire played 78 games for the Tacoma Tigers in 1986 and hit 49 homers the next season as a rookie for the A’s. A less-bulky version of Jason Giambi played 52 games there in 1994. Neither did this.
“I know it’s probably been done a few more times in batting practice, but not in a game,” longtime Rainiers radio broadcaster Mike Curto said.
When Tacoma hosted the Class AAA All-Star game in 2017, not one of the home-run derby participants, including Daniel Vogelbach, even came close.
Surely the list of players to do it in real games against higher-velocity pitches must be longer, right?
Uh, no, that list is also just two players: A.J. Zapp and Shin Soo-Choo.
Zapp, a first-round pick of the Braves in 1996, had an unremarkable career toiling in the minors. In 2004, he belted 29 homers for the Rainiers, but his blast on Sept. 1 put him into Rainiers history as the first player to put one over the wall in a game. The estimated distance was 505 feet, longest in club history.
Then-Rainiers manager Dan Rohn told players at the beginning of the season that he would buy any player that hit one over the wall a steak dinner. Rohn never did make good on the bet.
The next season it happened again. On May 6, a frigid spring night with the wind blowing out, Choo sent a line drive to dead center that cleared the wall.
“I feel like those guys have a little more pop than me,” Shenton said of the homer club he joined.
To put it in perspective, think of some of the all-or-nothing sluggers the Mariners had in Tacoma over the years: Vogelbach, Carlos Peguero, Wladimir Balentien, Wily Mo Pena, Alex Liddi, Juan “The Large Human” Thomas, Bucky Jacobsen, Michael Morse and Bryan LaHair, who hit a memorable homer into the Foss High School tennis courts way beyond the right-field wall.
Once asked if he could put one over the wall in center, Adam Jones replied, “Yeah, if I was hitting from the pitcher’s mound.”