Monday, July 17, 2006

Bobby Bonds' Grand Entrance

Courtesy of
Candlestick Park / June 25, 1968
By Nathan Hale

1999 was supposedly the Year of the Grand Slam, but it was 31 years ago -- during the Year of the Pitcher -- when one of the more remarkable bases-loaded blasts was hit.

Bobby Bonds, a 22-year old outfielder just called up by the San Francisco Giants, announced his arrival in grand fashion, clearing the bases in the sixth inning with a homer off Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Jack Purdin. The hit came in Bonds' third career at-bat and made him the first player in 70 years to hit a grand slam in his first major-league game.

Bonds arrived in San Francisco hotter than a pistol, leading the Pacific Coast League with a .367 batting average before his call-up from Triple-A Phoenix. In his debut, he joined a powerful Giants lineup that included Willie McCovey, Willie Mays and Jim Ray Hart. McCovey had just been voted the starting first baseman for the NL All-Stars by his fellow players on account of his .307 average (eighth best) and league-leading 18 HR and 48 RBI. Mays finished nine votes behind Hank Aaron and his .236 BA in the voting for outfielders despite having 12 homers; Hart also stood among the leaders, tied for second with 14 round-trippers.

The Dodgers-Giants rivalry wasn't much to speak of in 1968. On this night, fans saw a face-off between two pitchers who would share the league lead at season's end with 18 losses apiece: Ray Sadecki and Claude Osteen. Sadecki emerged victorious, racking up 10 strikeouts and allowed just two hits in the Giants' 9-0 victory.

Osteen did not fare as well, allowing six hits, three walks and hitting Bonds with a pitch before giving way to Purdin in the sixth. Purdin was in the midst of the best season of his four-year career, finishing the year with a 3.05 ERA. But Purdin wasn't so reliable this time, and Bonds made him pay with a grand slam into the Candlestick Park seats.

BONDS' HOMER SIGNALED THE ARRIVAL of a legitimate offensive threat. Never one to wait for a home run, Bonds would set a major-league record (broken by Rickey Henderson in 1988) with 30 career leadoff homers. He would achieve 30 homers and 30 steals in a season a record five times (matched by his son Barry in 1997) but consistently struck out at an alarming pace. At his best he smacked 39 homers and swiped 43 bases in 1973; at his worst he whiffed an unprecedented 189 times in 1970.

However, no player, Bonds included, has ever matched the clutch hitting and good fortune of Bill Duggleby, who remains the only man ever to hit a grand slam in his first at-bat. The right-handed pitcher, who would later come to be known as "Frosty Bill" due to his less-than-warm-relationship with teammates and a tendency to wear dark suits in the summer, found the bases juiced when he stepped to the plate for the first time as a member of the Philadelphia Nationals on April 21, 1898. He returned to the dugout after a quick circuit of the bases to make him the only player ever to hit a grand slam in his first major-league at bat.

Duggleby finished the 1898 season with just one homer and six RBI. He would go without another round tripper until 1904 but finished his career with six dingers in eight years. His record on the mound was an inauspicious 93-100, and he led the NL in home runs allowed with 10 in 1905.

SINCE THEN, ONLY TWO ROOKIES HAVE come close to matching Bonds and Duggleby, both putting up a four-spot for their first big league hit. In 1982, Seattle's Orlando Mercado entered the majors with a bases-clearing shot off Steve Comer. And less than two weeks after Fernando Tatis became the first man to swat two grannies in an inning in April 1999, Red Sox rookie catcher Creigton Gubanich knocked a grand salami of his own off a first-inning offering from Oakland's Jimmy Haynes on May 3. (Gubanich had gone hitless in three at-bats in his major-league debut on April 22.)

A typical good-field, no-hit catcher, Mercado lasted eight seasons in the majors despite a meager .199 lifetime batting average and only seven career home runs. So what's due in the books for Gubanich remains to be seen. Perhaps the best thing he's got going for him is that he is one of two graduates of Phoenixville High School in Pennsylvania currently playing catcher in the majors. The other is Mike Piazza.

Gubanich's first-hit grand slam almost didn't happen. With two outs, Oakland A's third baseman Olmedo Saenz dropped a pop foul by Reggie Jefferson, who subsequently walked to load the bases for Gubanich. Bonds enjoyed similar good fortune. Had he debuted a day later he would have found not Osteen and Purdin on the mound, but big Don Drysdale toeing the rubber.

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