On a muggy Tuesday evening in O’Fallon, Missouri, Rick Ankiel, Kerry Robinson, Ray Lankford and Mark Whiten tested wooden bats, taking dry swings with each, trying to find the perfect one to play with.
Wait, what year is this?
CarShielf Field, home of the River City Rascals of the the Frontier League, an independent baseball team, hosted a home run derby. A one-time Cardinals favorite Jim Edmonds emceed the event, giving locals more laughs than home runs.
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Gone are the days of Edmonds over the shoulder catches in center, and Kerry Robinson’s mood swings after being benched by Tony LaRussa, or even Ankiel’s yips on the bump. On that special evening, the former Cards were giants among men again, if only for a short time.
There is a chuckle behind every joke Edmonds threw at his former teammates from his safe spot in the announcer’s booth. And while his former teammates are hardly in playing shape anymore, there was still that competitiveness in their eyes. Or quite possibly fear.
Per league rules, it was 90 seconds per round but with the same goal in mind: crush the damn ball. One half of the bracket was filled with eight Frontier League hittters. The other half, former Cardinals.
The home run derby had everything you’d hope for from a small town in America’s heartland that day. There was legends, beer flowing throughout the stands, the smell of hot dogs and slightly burnt popcorn, Little Leaguers in the outfield shagging baseballs and even a marriage proposal on the mound. Summer ball at its finest.
Ray Lankford’s approach to the derby was to rely on muscle memory. Unfortunately, the 1997 All-Star could only muster one dinger during his round, and it came on his last swing.
Kerry Robinson hit five home runs in the first round, two more than he hit during his whole eight-year MLB career.
The only Cardinal to hold his own was Ankiel. He ended up taking the eventual derby winner Trae Santos of the Gateway Grizzlies the distance, but came up short in the end.
There were a few that said Ankiel’s smooth left-handed swing could still compete in the bigs today. But after taking a 20-second timeout during his final round, where Edmonds ragged on him a little, it was clear those years are long gone.