Once, a manager was so frightened of Giancarlo Stanton crushing a baseball over the fence that he ordered his pitcher to walk him intentionally all five times he stepped to the plate.
“Then there was one time where I hit three home runs in a game and they intentionally walked me the fourth time I was up,” Stanton remembered. “And so I turned around and batted lefty so that I could get pitched to, and hit the ball off the fence.”
Stanton was 12 years old then.
Thirteen years later, Stanton is still striking fear in opposing pitchers and managers. When he steps into the batter’s box shortly after 4 p.m. Monday at Marlins Park in the season-opener — digs in for the first time in a real game since a fastball smashed into his face in Milwaukee — he’ll be wearing a new, custom-designed helmet and mask guard to prevent a repeat.
Based on his spring training performance, Stanton is showing no sign of any effects from that gruesome experience (he hit .313 with four home runs). He sustained facial lacerations and fractures and broken teeth.
Clearly, the Miami Marlins aren’t worried he’ll turn gun-shy. In November, two months after he lay in a pool of blood, they awarded him a 13-year deal totaling $325 million. It is the richest contract ever for a North American pro athlete.
The reason? The Marlins are betting that he will continue to supply rare power while restoring credibility to the franchise after years of turmoil.
“If he stays healthy, he’s Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron,” said former major-league general manager Jim Bowden, now an analyst for ESPN. “He’s got a shot at being the all-time home run king, that’s how good he is.”
The Marlins have a long history of infuriating fans by trading their top players. They dealt Miguel Cabrera, a likely future Hall of Famer, in 2007 after his salary began to climb. And they enraged fans in 2012 by systematically tearing up the roster — trading José Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Hanley Ramírez and others — just one season into their new publicly financed ballpark.
“You learn when [Cabrera] left that you can’t let that happen,” Bowden said. “Imagine if you had ‘Miggy’ and Giancarlo still together?”
This time, the Marlins have taken a new approach, making Stanton the cornerstone of the franchise and building around him with new acquisitions such as Dee Gordon, Mat Latos and Michael Morse. They also signed young outfielder Christian Yelich to a 7-year deal worth $50 million.
Stanton’s clout is even more coveted now in an era of rigid testing and harsher penalties for performance enhancing drugs, one in which small infielders are no longer launching homers in staggering numbers and Major League Baseball is taking a hard look at the sharp drop-off in scoring.
Teams averaged 4.07 runs per game in 2014, the lowest scoring average since 1981, and 50 fewer homers over the course of the season than in 2000.
“We have thought hard about the trends on the offensive side of the game,” said new MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “We know what the numbers look like. We’re at the point in time of where we’re trying to decide, do we have a trend that’s going to be persistent in terms of less offense? Or do we have a development where there’s a little less offense and hitters are going to adjust and it’s going to go back in the other direction? So we’re really not at the remedy phase.”
Stanton is a one-man, one-swing remedy.
Despite missing the final 17 games of last season, he still led the National League with 37 homers, the first Marlin ever to do so. He is tied with Dan Uggla on the Marlins’ all-time list with 154 home runs.
“I’m still trying to figure out why we had the same amount of homers after five years, and he got $325 million, and they only offered me $48 million,” Uggla said, joking. “What the heck?”
The Marlins traded Uggla to Atlanta after he turned down their $48 million offer in 2010. He is now with the Washington Nationals.
Uggla knows full well the reason for the discrepancy.
“He is just beyond talented,” said Uggla, whose final year with the Marlins was Stanton’s first. “He’s got more pop than anyone in the game.”
Like most, Uggla shakes his head at the enormity of Stanton’s power.
Of the 50 home runs measured at 450 feet or longer last season, seven belonged to Stanton. No other player in the majors had more than two such tape-measure blasts.
Uggla wonders how many more homers Stanton would belt if he didn’t play half his games at cavernous Marlins Park.
“It would be fun to watch [him] in a smaller ballpark just to see what he could do, in this era with no steroids or anything,” Uggla said. “If he played in Philly or Cincy, it would really be scary what he could do. But, with him, it really doesn’t matter. If he gets it, he gets it.”
Bowden said the Marlins made a smart move by securing Stanton for years, though Stanton’s contract is structured so that he can opt out after 2020 and become a free agent.
“As a former [general manager], you look at Giancarlo Stanton, and that’s what you want to build a franchise around,” Bowden said. “That’s the superstar. That’s the future Hall of Famer. That’s the Mays, Mantle, Aaron, and Ted Williams that my dad talks about. When you get those guys, who come around once in a generation, you have to keep them, no matter how much it hurts.”
The Marlins are far from the first team to recognize Stanton’s pop.
Stanton said that when he was 9 years old, organizers of the Tujunga Little League in southern California encouraged him to play in the 10- to 12-year-old age group. He rejected their offer because he wanted to play with friends his age. Once he advanced to the next age group, it didn’t take long for him to display his power. He hit his first over-the-fence homer when he was 10.
“No one in the league hit a home run in the first half, and I wanted to be the first to hit a home run — before the 12-year-olds,” Stanton said.
Stanton wasn’t the first, but he finished the season with four homers — and the blasts kept on coming. The payoff in the end was a contract that will keep him financially secure for the rest of his life.
Other than an onslaught of media requests — he posed on a recent cover of Sports Illustrated in body paint and agreed to do a modeling shoot for Ocean Drive magazine — Stanton said life hasn’t changed for him.
“I try to kick back as much as possible,” he said. “Yeah, there’s been more magazines, a lot of stories. My name is more well-known. But I try to minimize it, pick the right opportunities and minimize the distractions.”
He said he hasn’t gone on a buying binge.
“The most expensive thing I bought?” Stanton asked. “Probably some T-shirts and some shoes. I haven’t bought anything out of the ordinary since I signed. Not one thing.”
By design, Stanton’s enormous contract is heavily backloaded, with most of the payout coming in the latter part of the deal. His $6.5 million salary this season is actually lower than six of his Marlins’ teammates.
But many feel he’s worth every dime.
“For a franchise to have a guy like that, I think that’s pretty cool,” Uggla said. “That shows that they’ve committed themselves to him. I think it’s a great sign. If [he] stays healthy, he’s going to do special things in this game.”
Kings of Swing
As a young player, Giancarlo Stanton is in good company when it comes to his home run totals before his 24th birthday.
1. Eddie Mathews190*
2. Alex Rodriguez189#
3. Mel Ott176*
4. Jimmie Foxx174*
5. Mickey Mantle173*
6. Ken Griffey, Jr.172%
7. Frank Robinson165*
8. Albert Pujols160#
9. Orlando Cepeda157*
10. Giancarlo Stanton154#
11. Johnny Bench154*
* -- Hall of Famer
# -- Still active
% -- On next year’s Hall of Fame ballot for first time
*Year McGwire/Sosa broke Roger Maris’ HR mark
Tied at the top
Giancarlo Stanton enters 2015 as the Marlins all-time co-home run leader:
T1. Giancarlo Stanton
T1. Dan Uggla
3. Hanley Ramirez
4. MIke Lowell
5. Miguel Cabrera
▪ First Marlin to lead the league in home runs with 37 last season.
▪ Among active players, has second-most multi-HR games (13) before age 25, second only to Alex Rodriguez (14).
▪ Ninth-fastest to 100 home runs in MLB history.
▪ Finalist for the 2014 Gold Glove Award for right fielders.
▪ His 494-foot home run on 8/17/2012 at Coors Field in Colorado represents the longest hit in Major League Baseball during past five seasons.