The date: Aug. 6, 1998
The place: North AmeriCare Park (Buffalo, N.Y.)
The situation: In every way, the Red Barons seemed to be ready to play out the stretch. The 1998 season was winding down, a losing record seemed inevitable, and for the ninth time in their first 10 seasons, they weren’t going to the playoffs.
For a team in that position that always seemed to lack offensive punch to that point in its history, the Red Barons sure were on the verge of one of the most talked-about games in franchise history.
The lead-in: In the first eight years of his professional career, Red Barons catcher Gary Bennett averaged a whopping 2.6 homers per season. So he might’ve been the least-likely of players to have the kind of game he had that night in Buffalo.
Known primarily as a defense-first catcher, Bennett was in the midst of easily his best season ever at the plate, a five-homer campaign. That’s somewhat ironic, because a seven-homer game is exactly what the Red Barons needed to overcome Buffalo that night.
Bennett and teammate Darren Burton hit back-to-back homers in the second inning against Bisons starter Mike Matthews, but Buffalo still had a seven-run lead after five innings. Power, though, got the Red Barons back in business. David Doster, a legendary Red Barons slugger, hit one. So did Adan Millan, a corner infielder who played parts of three seasons with the Red Barons and hit only that one bomb. In the eighth, Bennett hit his second of the game, going back-to-back with first baseman Dan Held against reliever Ben Blomdahl. It marked the first time in franchise history, to that point, that the Red Barons hit back-to-back homers twice in the same game. More importantly, though, it set up a wild extra-innings game, which the Red Barons came back from that seven-run deficit to tie it, 10-10.
Bennett wasn’t done making history.
The moment: The Red Barons came to bat in the top of the 14th inning in the midst of what turned into an out-of-nowhere stalemate. They had gone five innings without scoring, but exploded — sort of — against reliever Huck Flener.
Flener walked four batters in the 14th, including two back to back with two on and two out. He intentionally passed Wendell Magee Jr. to load the bases with those two out, but then he walked Burton to force in Jose Flores to make it 11-10.
Up came Bennett, with designs on putting the game away. And he did, launching a Flener pitch to left for his third homer of the game for a grand slam, a team record that has never been surpassed. The Red Barons went on to win, 15-10.
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
The Red Barons actually had two seven-homer games in 1998. We’ll talk more about the other one later. But they never had a hitter smash three home runs in the same contest.
In fact, it would be 16 years before anybody would do it again.
RailRiders slugger Zoilo Almonte matched the mark at Gwinnett on July 23, 2014, and nearly two years later, Tyler Austin smashed three in an extra-innings win over Pawtucket.
This past April 7, RailRiders first baseman Mike Ford matched Bennett’s feat in the same stadium Bennett set the standard, smashing three homers in a 10-2 win over the Bisons.
In 30 years, no Scranton/Wilkes-Barre player has ever hit three homers in a game at PNC Field.
Bennett became a serviceable big-league catcher after the 1998 season. He played 13 seasons for eight different teams, winning the World Series as part of the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. He never hit more than four homers in a major league season.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT