— Mike Shannon
The second the ball left the bat, Mike Shannon began dictating directly into the record book. This was something nobody had ever seen before, and almost without question, will never see again. Fernando Tatis was not just the first player to hit two grand slams in an inning, he was almost certainly the first to even have the opportunity.
Some records represent a skill executed at its highest level, while others exist more as a quirk of extreme improbability - a whim of the Gods. The Tatis Inning was a combination of two incredibly unlikely events. Hitting two home runs in an inning and hitting two grand slams in a game are both extremely rare events. For Tatis to combine the two, it was like being struck by lightning while winning the lottery.
So what’s the most improbable part of this most unlikely of feats?
Hitting a home run takes a perfect confluence of technique and timing, even for the best hitters. Just getting a chance to bat twice in an inning happens rarely. To bat twice in an inning and to generate home run alchemy in both at-bats, that’s extremely rare. In fact, it’s only happened 58 times in baseball history.
Still, hitting two home runs in an inning is relatively common next to the rarity that his hitting two grand slams - even in the same game. That has only happened 13 times.
Batting around in an inning and stringing back-to-back home runs together - both are unusual, but they happen. Getting two chances to bat with the bases loaded? That’s almost unheard of. It requires a minimum of 13 batters to come to the plate.
In fact, of those 57 other times a player has left the yard twice in an inning, none began with a grand slam. Alex Rodriguez followed a three-run homer with a grand slam. Andre Dawson and Dale Murphy both hit two three-run homers in an inning. That’s as close as anyone has come.
It’s very likely that Fernando Tatis is not only the first player to ever hit two grand slams in an inning, he’s the first to even have a chance to do so. That’s how unlikely the scenario of multiple at-bats with the bases loaded in the same inning is.
But if we do see a batter get that chance again, we can be nearly certain it won’t be against the same pitcher. That’s the equally bizarre flip-side of the coin, that both Tatis’ grand slams were off Chan Ho Park.
How could a manager leave a pitcher in to take that kind of beating? Keith Olbermann says he heard Dodgers Manager Davey Johnson wasn’t in the dugout for part of the inning, so he couldn’t get a pitcher warmed up in time. Perhaps that’s true, although Johnson certainly wasn’t in the dugout for the second grand slam because he was ejected midway through the inning.
Much like Tatis, Park was a plaything of the fickle Gods that night. A number of factors were working against him. It seems clear that the Dodgers bullpen was gassed. Their relievers had given up eight runs in the previous game, and two games before, the Dodgers' starter couldn’t get out of the third. So before the game even started, Johnson knew he had to get innings out of his starter.
Coming into the third, Park had pitched two scoreless frames and was sitting on a two-run lead. The inning began with a single by Darren Bragg. Park hit Edgar Renteria, then gave up a single to Mark McGwire. So when Tatis swatted his first ball into the seats, it was only the third hit of the inning, and the Dodgers were still in the game.
Park retired J.D. Drew, then gave up another home run to Eli Marrero. He followed that with walks to Placido Polanco and Joe McEwing. This seems like the time to get a reliever up. On the other hand, the bullpen is gassed, it’s just the third inning, it’s only 5-2… Maybe Johnson was in the can and had no idea what was going on. Or maybe he saw the situation but left Park out there in the interest of saving his arms. Whatever was in Johnson’s head, the inning was about to get weird.
Cardinals Starter Jose Jiminez laid down a sacrifice bunt, but the throw went to third, where Polanco was called safe. Johnson argued the call and was ejected. At that point, we can assume the lineup card was handed over to the Dodgers bench coach, Jim Tracy. To this day, sportswriters and Twitter critics refer to the fact that Johnson left Park in the game to give up two grand slams. It’s not true. Johnson left Park in to give up six earned runs on four hits and a couple walks. The rest of the inning was on whoever took over, presumably Tracy.
Park was again the victim of bad luck, with Darren Bragg reaching on an error and driving in the sixth run of the inning. Edgar Renteria singled home the seventh. That brought Mark McGwire to the plate with the bases loaded.
This seems like the code red moment when it’s clear you must get Park out of the game. He’s given up seven runs, the bases are loaded and he’s facing a guy who hit 70 home runs the year before. But nobody comes out to rescue Chan Ho Park.
McGwire flies out to right. So now Tatis steps to the plate again with the bases loaded. Everyone knows what could be on the verge of happening. On the other hand, Park now has two outs and just retired Mark McGwire, so Jim Tracy or the equipment manager or whoever is in charge at this point rolls the dice one more time.
And Fernando Tatis makes history.
Two months after that game, Park would be part of another infamous encounter when he tried to jump-kick Tim Belcher of the Angels in the face. But Park would hang around the majors for eleven more seasons, earn an All-Star bid and eventually become the winningest Asian-born pitcher in history.
For Tatis, 1999 was the highpoint of his career. He finished the season with 34 home runs and a .957 OPS. After the next season, he was traded to the Expos, then bounced around between several teams, in the minors and majors, until 2010. He finished his career with 113 home runs. Eight of them were grand slams.