“That’s ridiculous,” exclaimed Mets slugger Dave Kingman. “Do you have to hit it out of the stadium to be ruled a home run?”1 Kingman had good reason to be annoyed after the June 1, 1977, game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.2 He had just become the first player to hit a ball off the concrete service ring, which was a dizzying 160 feet above the playing surface.3 His long drive to left field had escaped the view of third-base umpire Bruce Froemming, who eventually called it a foul ball. Some, including Expos catcher Gary Carter, believed the ball was fair, although it was difficult to be sure with the foul pole being so far from the service ring.4 Game officials declared that in the future, a ball hitting the service ring in fair territory would be a ground-rule double.5
The Expos decided to address the controversy. Before the start of their next homestand, workers had completed the unenviable task of painting orange “Kingman lines” from the top of the foul poles to the service ring along the concrete overhang.6 The ground rule was also modified so that a fair ball hitting the service ring would be a home run. It took almost 11 years for the revised rule to be applied.
On April 4, 1988, the Expos and Mets opened the season in Montreal. It was the first time Nos Amours had ever started their season at home.7 Thanks to the long-overdue installation of the orange Kevlar roof in April of 1987, the schedule-makers were much less concerned with the possibility of frosty conditions in Montreal in early April. As luck would have it, the (nonretractable) roof wasn’t needed for the 1988 home opener, as unseasonably mild weather had the game-time temperature hovering near 60 degrees outside the stadium.8 Instead of shivering through another Expos home opener, the 55,413 fans in attendance were treated to relatively balmy conditions. The huge turnout was the second largest crowd for a home opener in franchise history, trailing only the 57,592 fans who witnessed the stadium’s inaugural baseball game in 1977.9
Mets broadcaster Rusty Staub threw out the ceremonial first pitch.10 Le Grand Orange was the perfect man to perform the honor, having been the Expos’ first superstar and one of the most popular players in team history. He was also a beloved Met during his nine seasons in New York.
The game’s starting pitchers, Dwight Gooden and Dennis Martínez, were both making their third Opening Day start. The 33-year-old Martínez had earned the honor with an impressive 1987 season in which he amassed a 3.8 bWAR, the highest such mark up to that point in his career.11 He had been particularly good in the second half of the season, posting a 7-3 record and a 2.72 ERA. The 23-year-old Gooden went 15-7 with a 3.21 ERA in 1987 despite spending the first two months of the season in rehab.
Montreal’s lead was short-lived, as Darryl Strawberry led off the top of the second by crushing a curveball from Martínez 425 feet to straightaway center field for a home run. Although Strawberry was only in his sixth big-league season, it was the third time in his career that he had homered in his first regular-season at-bat.
The Mets added another run an inning later on Kevin McReynolds’ RBI infield single. New York extended its lead to 4-1 in the top of the fourth inning on a two-run homer by Kevin Elster. As was the case on Strawberry’s earlier home run, Elster’s four-bagger came on a curveball, which was normally Martínez’s out pitch. It was a clear indication that the Nicaraguan hurler was pitching without his biggest weapon.
Martínez wasn’t the only pitcher to have a disappointing outing in the game. In the bottom of the fourth, a struggling Gooden was touched for a run on Tim Raines’s RBI double. Montreal tied the game, 4-4, an inning later on Tom Foley’s RBI groundout and catcher Jeff Reed’s RBI single. Gooden was fortunate to surrender only four earned runs. He allowed a career-high 11 hits in his five innings of work, but the Expos stranded nine baserunners.12
Dave Magadan pinch-hit for Gooden with two outs and a runner on first in the top of the sixth inning. In an intense 10-pitch at-bat, Magadan battled Martínez for a well-deserved walk. The next batter, Lenny Dykstra, fell behind the count 1-and-2, a situation that normally would have Martínez throwing his curveball. He came in with a fastball, and Dykstra smacked a pivotal three-run home run to put the Mets up 7-4.
Randy St. Claire replaced Martínez on the mound in the top of the seventh. With one out and nobody on base, St. Claire threw a first-pitch fastball to Strawberry that was belt-high and over the middle of the plate. Strawberry creamed the pitch high and deep to right field, and just after the ball had reached its apex, it struck the stadium’s concrete service ring to the left of the Kingman line for a home run. Expos center fielder Webster didn’t know what to do. “It came down off the roof [sic], so I just threw it in like it was still in play,” he explained. “I couldn’t believe it.”13 Strawberry, thinking it was a ground-rule double, briefly stopped at second base before continuing his trot around the bases.
The very next pitch from St. Claire was clubbed by McReynolds deep to left field for a solo home run to give the Mets a 9-4 lead. It was New York’s fifth homer in less than seven innings.
Brooks narrowed the gap to 9-6 when he hit a two-run home run off David Cone in the bottom of the eighth.14 In the top of the ninth, McReynolds hit his second homer of the game, a solo shot off Jeff Parrett, to close out the scoring. Randy Myers tossed a one-two-three bottom of the ninth inning to secure the 10-6 victory.
New York’s six home runs set a major-league record for the most round-trippers on Opening Day. It was another 30 years before the achievement was matched, which is remarkable considering the record endured through the steroids era. On March 29, 2018, the Chicago White Sox tied the mark by homering six times against Kansas City.15 Just one year later, on March 28, 2019, Los Angeles obliterated the record by whacking eight homers against the Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium.16
Strawberry’s home run off St. Claire traveled about 340 feet horizontally before it hit the rim of the stadium on its descent.17 The next day McGill University physicist Robert Moore was asked to estimate how far it would have gone had it not struck the service ring. By his calculations, Strawberry’s blast would have landed between 500 and 550 feet from home plate.18 The Expos arbitrarily split the difference and called it 525 feet, leaving it 10 feet short of Willie Stargell’s mammoth 535-foot round-tripper at Olympic Stadium in 1978.19 In any event, it was easily the longest home run of Strawberry’s 17-year career.20
In his five plate appearances, Strawberry walked, singled twice, and slammed a pair of homers a combined distance of 950 feet. It was a sign of things to come for the 26-year-old outfielder. For the second consecutive year, Strawberry led the Mets offense by hitting 39 home runs, breaking the century mark in RBIs and runs scored, and stealing at least 29 bases. His potent bat helped New York to a 100-win season and the NL East Division title.
No player, including Strawberry, was able to hit a ball off Olympic Stadium’s roof — until July 17, 1994. In the third inning of that day’s game, San Francisco’s Matt Williams hit a towering fly ball to right field, and Larry Walker was set to make the catch when the ball ricocheted off the roof and was caught by second baseman Mike Lansing. It was just an extraordinarily high popout. Williams, who was threatening to break Roger Maris’s single-season home-run record at the time, was nonchalant about it. “You certainly want to be known for something else,” he remarked.21
Strawberry’s moon shot was duplicated nine years later. On June 15, 1997, Expos left fielder Henry Rodríguez walloped a homer off the service ring in right field against Brian Moehler of the Detroit Tigers. It too was estimated at 525 feet.22 As of 2020, Strawberry and “Oh Henry!” were the only two players to accomplish the feat.23 Given the margin of error in the estimated distance of the blasts off the service ring, it was still unclear who had hit the longest home run in the history of Olympic Stadium.24 Was it Stargell? Strawberry? Rodríguez? We’ll probably never know for sure.25
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Ian MacDonald, “Expos Drop Another to Mets,” Montreal Gazette, June 2, 1977: 23.
2 The June 1, 1977, game between the Expos and Mets was only the 21st major-league game played at Olympic Stadium. The stadium had no roof yet because construction of the support tower hadn’t been completed. The concrete service ring played no role in supporting the roof. The roof was finally installed in April of 1987, nearly 11 years after the Montreal Olympics.
3 The concrete service ring (or “technical ring”) contains the stadium’s lights and ventilation system, split across two floors.
4 Michael Farber, “Rim Shot Heard ’round the World,” Montreal Gazette, April 5, 1988: E-1; Robert Kravetz, Baby Boomer Baseball: True Stories from the Golden Age of the Game, (Bloomington, Indiana: Archway Publishing, 2019).
6 “Clubhouse Not Ready for Expos,” Montreal Gazette, June 16, 1977: 13. The foul “poles” at Olympic Stadium weren’t poles; narrow netting hung from the rafters instead.
7 The Expos were supposed to open the season at home against the Cubs in both 1972 and 1974. Those plans were scrapped by the 1972 players strike and snow that wiped out a two-game series against Chicago in 1974. French-speaking fans referred to the Expos as Nos Amours. The English translation is “Our Loves.”
8 Olympic Stadium’s orange Kevlar roof was supposed to be retractable. It was successfully retracted in 1989, but various problems caused it to be opened and closed only 88 times during its lifespan (1987-1998). Rory Costello, “Olympic Stadium (Montreal),” SABR BioProject, sabr.org/bioproj/park/477659, accessed June 8, 2020.
9 As of the end of the 2019 season, the Olympic Stadium crowd of 55,413 on April 4, 1988, was still the second-largest for a home opener in Expos/Nationals franchise history.
10 Canadian Press, “Expos Overpowered by Mets in Opener,” Globe and Mail, April 5, 1988: A-19.
11 The acronym bWAR stands for Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. Dennis Martínez’s bWAR of 3.8 in 1987 is remarkable given that he re-signed as a free agent on May 6, and he didn’t make his first start for Montreal until June 10. He was in the early stages of a career renaissance following his recovery from alcohol-related issues. In his eight seasons in Montreal, Martínez made three All-Star Game appearances and accumulated 30.0 bWAR.
12 Dwight Gooden gave up 11 hits in a game eight more times in his career. He allowed a career-worst 12 hits in the first game of a doubleheader against the Phillies on September 28, 1992.
13 Don Campbell, “Strawberry Stirs the Mets,” Ottawa Citizen, April 5, 1988: E-1.
14 David Cone entered the game in the bottom of the sixth inning. The 25-year-old hurler was relegated to the bullpen until an injury to Rick Aguilera opened up a spot in the rotation. Cone moved into the starting rotation permanently on May 3, 1988.
17 Paul Carbray, “Strawberry Creams Expos,” Montreal Gazette, April 5, 1988: E-1.
18 David Johnston, “Gone with the Wind Appearing at Big O,” Montreal Gazette, April 6, 1988: E-1.
19 Willie Stargell hit his 535-foot home run into the second deck of Olympic Stadium on May 20, 1978, off Wayne Twitchell. As of 2020, it was generally regarded as the longest home run in the stadium’s history, and Stargell was still the only player to hit a ball into the stadium’s second deck. However, it is worth noting that home plate was moved back by 40 feet prior to the 1992 season. Although the Expos moved to Washington for the 2005 season, the Toronto Blue Jays played preseason games at Olympic Stadium from 2014 to 2019. Exhibition games between the Jays and Yankees were to be played in Montreal in March of 2020, but they were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
20 Bill Jenkinson, Baseball’s Ultimate Power: Ranking the All-Time Greatest Distance Home Run Hitters, (Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2010), 37. Andrew Gould, “The Longest Home Runs in MLB History,” Bleacher Report, March 22, 2017, bleacherreport.com/articles/2698852-the-longest-home-runs-in-mlb-history, accessed June 12, 2020.
21 Gordon Edes, “Corked-Bat Affair Not So Shocking,” Orlando Sentinel, July 24, 1994, orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1994-07-24-9407230758-story.html, accessed June 4, 2020.
22 Canadian Press, “Guerrero Homers Twice but It’s Not Enough to Give Expos the Win,” Sault Star (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario), July 29, 2003: A-7.
23 Henry Rodríguez’s nickname was “Oh Henry!” It was a Montreal tradition to throw Oh Henry! candy bars on the field whenever he hit a home run.
24 Estimating the distance of a home run hit off the Olympic Stadium service ring would have been easier had data such as the launch angle and exit velocity been available at the time.
25 It’s also possible that Dave Kingman’s fly ball off the service ring would have been the longest home run at Olympic Stadium had it been called fair by Bruce Froemming.