Before we talk about 500-foot bombs, or 450-foot home runs hit with broken bats, or the time that Charlie Manuel was left speechless and the day Dave Winfield finally saw The Next Dave Winfield, a word to the reader: Don't believe every tale about Giancarlo Cruz Michael Stanton.
No, he wasn't a legendary high school hitter (he hit .200 and in the bottom of the order his junior year). No, contrary to popular belief, he was not offered a scholarship to play wide receiver at USC. No, he has never hit a 600-foot home run from his knees, and no, he did not kill a bear once with his bare hands.
Some stories about the Miami outfielder are true, however, and yes, some are rather amazing -- as former Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez says, "Every home run Michael hits is something to talk about." What follows is a look back at Stanton's greatest hits and the story of how the kid from Tortuga, Calif., went from being a complete nobody to the greatest young slugger in baseball.
It was a hot summer day at Blair Field in Long Beach, Calif., and one by one the nation's best high school players -- Mike Moustakas, Josh Vitters and Matt Dominquez among them -- were taking batting practice in front of an army of scouts at the Area Code Games. When a 6-foot-4, 165-pound rising senior from Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, Calif., stepped up to the plate, the scouts began checking their lists. "No one had heard of this guy," says Phil Van Horn, a coach who accompanied Stanton to the event. "One of the area scouts had even said that he wasn't good enough to be invited."
Baseball was not a top priority for Stanton in high school -- he was a three-sport athlete who excelled in basketball (he did get an offer from UNLV to play hoops) and football (he was a all-conference) -- but in the weeks leading up to the showcase event, Stanton spent hours with Van Horn in the batting cage, refining his swing. "He was a dead pull hitter in high school, everything was into foul territory," says Van Horn. "We talked about hitting the inside half of the ball -- getting his hands inside the ball and extending through the ball. The balls that he was launching foul started going to left center with great force. When he started understanding the concept of hitting the inside half of the ball, the change was instantaneous."
That day at Blair Field, Stanton took a total of 15 swings -- five in each of three rounds. "Blair Field is infamous for how cavernous it is, with metal bats," says Van Horn, "and he went up there and hit four balls into the trees beyond leftfield." Then Stanton socked one that sailed over the tall trees beyond centerfield, over an access road, and onto a golf course "about 450, 475 feet away," says Van Horn. "He stopped the entire place. No one came close to putting one on that golf course. There are people who'll tell you today where they were sitting when that happened. Here was a guy they barely wanted to invite, and afterward the whole place was buzzing. Everyone wanted to know who this guy was."
Afterward the scout who said Stanton didn't even deserve an invite walked up to Van Horn and said, "That kid's life is about to change forever."
Edwin Rodriguez's favorite Stanton story comes from 2008.
A year earlier, the Marlins had taken Stanton in the second round of the 2007 draft -- one of the men at Blair Field that afternoon in 2006 was scout Tim McDonnell, who convinced the Marlins to take the kid from Tortuga higher than most teams had him projected. "The first time Michael showed up in prospect mini-camp, in 2007, I thought, Man, a 6-5, 18-year-old kid with that body, I just pray that he can hit a baseball," says Rodriguez. "I was with Josh Hamilton in Tampa in 1999, and out of high school you could tell that Josh was a big-time baseball player. But even Josh didn't have Michael's body. Michael was the most impressive 18-year-old I'd ever seen."
In 2008, Stanton's first full pro season, "teams started seeing how good he was," says Rodriguez, who managed him at Double-A Greensboro in '08 and later in Florida. "They were scared to pitch to him. One game, it was tied in the seventh inning, and they walked him with no one on. It was still tied in the ninth, and they walked him again with no one on. It was still tied in the 12th, and with two outs, for some reason they decided to pitch to him. He hit it out on the first pitch, and the game was over."
That isn't Rodriguez's favorite story -- his favorite story comes from later that season. "We were in Lake County," he says. "And Michael hits one, and I'm sure that it's 425, maybe 450 feet. Very impressive. Later in the inning I see him in the dugout and he's walking over to me. And he says, 'I just looked at my bat and found out that it was broken.'"
Rodriguez pauses and laughs at the memory. "Yeah," he says, "he hit a 450 foot home run with a broken bat."
The massive scoreboard at Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium is 60 feet tall and over 400 feet from home plate. Tim Leiper was manager of the Double-A Jacksonville Suns the day Stanton, his cleanup hitter, hit a home run that sailed over it. "The other team brought in a reliever who we'd run on before earlier in the series, and the guy tried side-stepping, and I remember thinking, Oh boy, He's going to leave the ball up because his arm's not going to catch up, and sure enough he did," says Leiper. "You don't want to do that against Mike. The scoreboard sits on top of a hill, pretty far behind the left centerfield fence, and I swear the ball was going up as it was going over the scoreboard. I went out there the next day, out by a lake out there, to see where it could have landed. It was the longest home run I've ever seen. It was a 500 foot home run for sure."
There isn't video out there of the home run. But there is
Stanton was called up to The Show a month later.
Dave Winfield hears it all the time: There's this kid coming, and he's The Next Dave Winfield. This happens often, so often that Winfield just rolls his eyes and laughs when he hears it. So when he got a call from his friend, Phil Van Horn, and was told that he should go to Dodger Stadium to check out this 20-year-old kid on the Marlins who could be The Next Dave Winfield, the first ballot Hall of Famer laughed, of course. Van Horn wasn't the first to make the comparison: scouts, coaches, the media -- all began saying that about Stanton in 2010.
When the Marlins made a trip to L.A., Winfield decided to show up early to check the kid out. He was standing behind the batting cages when Stanton came up for his BP cuts. Winfield quickly saw the reasons for the comparisons: He could see the otherworldly bat speed everyone talked about, the quick-twitch, the golden swing. Stanton was already launching baseballs all over the ballpark when he then took one pitch and hit the ball over the stadium pavilion in leftfield and out onto the parking lot.
Winfield took his phone out, called Van Horn. He was laughing, mostly because he couldn't believe what he just saw. "You were right," he said.
There are other stories, of course. There was the day that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel saw Stanton for the first time. "Charlie was out there for BP, right behind the cage, and he asked me, 'Can I stick around a little bit?'" says Rodriguez. "He wanted to watch Michael take BP. Even Charlie, who's been around for a long time and seen everything, even he's just standing there shaking his head during the BP. After it, he said, 'I've never seen this before.' That same night, Michael hit a line drive to the gap in left-center that just kept going and going, and it was a home run. I looked straight into the other dugout to see Charlie's reaction, and I could see Charlie shaking his head."
There are also stories from this season, of course. Last month alone Stanton hit 12 home runs, drove in 30 runs and batted .343 (he's at .298 with 13 home runs and 40 RBIs overall). Which brings us to Stanton's latest greatest hit, a grand slam that came in the middle of one of the greatest months of hitting in Marlins history. In a game against the Rockies, Stanton stepped up to the plate against Jamie Moyer. The bases were loaded, the Marlins were down 4-2 in the fourth. The ballpark was loud, the count full, everyone on their feet. Moyer floated a 72 mph change-up over the plate, and Stanton rocked it over the seats in leftfield. "I've never seen a ball come off the bat like that," Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen said after the game.
Here's the thing about this 22-year-old star who not so long ago was a complete nobody: Even when the crowd is up on its feet, even when everyone in the ballpark is expecting the amazing, he does something that is even more amazing than anyone could imagine. The ball he hit in Miami that night was hit so far and hard that it knocked out a large block of lights on the scoreboard in leftfield. That night,
And that's a true story.