COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – The eight position players who were supposed to suit up for Montgomery Burns’ power plant softball team in a high-stakes championship game in 1992 combined to collect 16,762 hits in the major leagues, along with 67 All-Star Game appearances, 10 World Series rings, three MVPs, and three Rookie of the Year awards.
And yet Hall of Famers Wade Boggs, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ozzie Smith, along with Don Mattingly, Steve Sax, Mike Scioscia, Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry — as well as pitcher Roger Clemens — are at least as well-known for their quarter-century old exploits with a bunch of four-fingered cartoon characters than anything they ever achieved on a baseball field.
“That’s really crazy, isn’t it?” Simpsons executive producer Al Jean said May 27, shortly after Homer Simpson — who collected the game-winning RBI against Shelbyville Nuclear by getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded — was “inducted” into the Hall of Fame following a rollicking roundtable discussing the “Homer at the Bat” episode.
“When you consider what they’ve done on the field,” Jean added, “The Simpsons is often the second item. Hall of Fame first and Simpsons second. Oh, come on. That’s ridiculous. [It’s a] big drop to us.”
Actually, it’s not a drop at all, judging from the unbridled exuberance Boggs, Smith, and Sax, along with executive story director Jeff Martin, casting director Bonnie Pietila, director Jim Reardon and executive producer Mike Reiss, displayed during what Boggs called a “25-year reunion.”
“I tell people all the time now that [The Simpsons] is the second most-asked question,” Smith said. “The first one is ‘Can you still do the flip?’ And the second one is ‘How did you enjoy being part of The Simpsons?’”
The reunion brought together people from two different walks of life who happen to be among the best in the world at their respective professions and who appreciated how hard it was to do what they achieved together.
“The show has been such a force in our culture,” Scioscia, the Los Angeles Angels manager, said during an interview at Citi Field on May 21. “Having it recognized — I think it just points to how talented they are. Those guys are incredible.”
Today, A-listers recognize The Simpsons, the longest-running episodic television show in history, as a place to cement their status with a cameo. But creating “Homer at the Bat” in 1991 required cross-country Hail Mary games of telephone, famous detailed in Erik Malinowski’s Deadspin story from 2012.
Pietila didn’t get everyone on the show’s initial list. Future Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan, Rickey Henderson and Ryne Sandberg all turned down requests, with Henderson’s agent lapsing into Rickey speak by telling Pietila, “Listen to me lady, Henderson runs.”
But those who accepted were impressed by the detail with which the show was written, especially in the pre-Internet era, and amenable to falling into their zany characters.
“Roger comes in and pretty much the first thing I say is ‘Well, Roger, we need you to cluck like a chicken,’” Martin said. “And he just didn’t hesitate. He instantly started clucking.”
The writing cast, led by reclusive genius John Swartzwelder, was responsible not only for identifying Burns’ original dream team — filled with players dead for several decades or more — but also identifying traits consistent with the modern-day players.
Before Sax was arrested during a routine traffic stop and charged with every unsolved murder in New York City, Burns’ assistant, Waylon Smithers, found Sax playing with his band in a nightclub.
“I’ve been a drummer since I was nine years old,” Sax said. “So that’s how I kind of got on the set, being in the Steve Sax Trio. That was my entree to the show. They did their homework, there’s no question. Every little thing in there rung true with the players. They knew there was a little inside thing to it.”
Strawberry, the only player not befallen by a weird happenstance (unless you count Homer pinch-hitting for him in the bottom of the ninth), hit 10 homers in the championship game but shed a tear as Bart and Lisa serenaded him with chants of “DAR-RYL,” a la Red Sox fans during the 1986 World Series.
Canseco’s wife (or, more accurately, his future ex-wife) found his original fate — hooking up and oversleeping after a night with Edna Krabapple — too offensive, but missing the game because he was emptying out a burning house was appropriate for the overly muscled symbol of the steroid era.
Clemens was the one who was hypnotized into clucking like a chicken, even if Boggs was the Red Sox superstar who ate chicken before every game. But Boggs getting into a barroom brawl with Barney Gumble was likely a sly homage to Boggs’ ability to pound beers at a record rate, and a less embarrassing one than the writers first envisioned.
“Originally, he and Barney were having a belching contest,” Martin said.
Replied Boggs with a laugh: “Thank God you cut that from the script.”
The script for Mattingly proved to be prescient. Months after being kicked him off the team for his non-existent sideburns — yet declaring he still liked Burns better than Yankees owner George Steinbrenner — Mattingly was benched by the Yankees for wearing his hair too long.
But the episode was produced shortly after Steinbrenner showed off his ability to laugh at his reputation by hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live that aired the same night Lou Piniella (one of the many managers fired by Steinbrenner) won the World Series with the Cincinnati Reds.
“He had a sense of humor about stuff like that,” Mattingly, now the Miami Marlins manager, said during an interview at Citi Field on May 6.
There was no reality attached to the fates suffered by Griffey (gigantism from an overdose of nerve tonic), Smith (fell down Springfield’s Mystery Spot), and Scioscia (acute radiation poisoning). But Scioscia managed to chip in a little personal trait to his cartoon likeness, who took pride in carting nuclear waste around the power plant.
“They were saying … if you’re just working and you’re whistling something, what kind of stuff would you whistle?” Scioscia said. “I said ‘I don’t know. How about ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame?’ They go ‘Hey, that’s perfect.’”
Scioscia and Mattingly, the only members of the softball team still wearing major league uniforms, are recognized as often for their Simpsons exploits as for what they do in a dugout. Scioscia said he still signs stills from the show. And Mattingly found out he was an international celebrity when the Dodgers visited Australia to open the 2014 season.
“They’re yelling at me [he fashions an Australian accent] ‘Shave those sideburns!’” Mattingly said. “I swear to God. Australia knows me, definitely, more for that.”
Sax’s cameo, meanwhile, saved him money during at least one real-life traffic stop.
“I got pulled over in Virginia and I was in the middle of nowhere,” Sax said. “Some guy pulled me over, this young officer, and he recognized my license from California and he was a baseball fan. And he said ‘You’re Steve Sax, right?’ And the first thing he said was ‘Loved you on The Simpsons.’”
It paid off.
“And I didn’t get a ticket,” Sax said.
Like any reunion, the 25th anniversary of “Homer at the Bat” is a reminder not everyone stays in touch with their alma mater. While Scioscia still watches the show regularly and guested again in the 2010 episode “MoneyBART,” Mattingly’s never seen a full episode. And that the once-familiar surroundings have changed in the intervening years.
The Simpsons grew more cynical and biting along with an increasingly hardened America. The first big baseball cameo following “Homer at the Bat” was made in the 1999 episode “Brother’s Little Helper,” during which Bart has a psychotic reaction to ADHD drugs and believes Major League Baseball is spying on Springfield.
After Bart shoots down an MLB satellite, Mark McGwire (less than a year removed from setting a single-season home run record that would eventually be tainted by his admission of steroid use) shows up to distract the masses before swiping the evidence collected by the satellite.
“Do you want to know the terrifying truth?” McGwire asks. “Or do you wanna see me sock a few dingers?”
The idea of The Simpsons predicting the future with Mattingly’s sideburns kerfuffle sounds downright quaint after the show foretold a Donald Trump-ian candidacy and a Trump presidency.
Simpleton Ralph is pursued by both the Republicans and Democrats to run for President in the 2008 episode “E. Pluribus Wiggum,” when he says he wants to use the parties “…to make this country great again.” Eight years earlier, in “Bart to the Future,” Lisa becomes President and takes over a country that went broke under President Trump.
The Simpsons’ latest Trump-themed short debuted days before the “Homer at the Bat” roundtable provided gentler reminders of the show’s irreverent tone and willingness to take on the establishment. The Hall of Fame takes very seriously the task of presenting baseball in the best possible light. but there was Jean invoking one of the game’s biggest scandals in explaining why the residual checks are so small for the episode’s guest starts.
“We’re the Charles Comiskey of paying baseball players,” Jean said.
The roundtable ended with someone in a 10-foot Homer Simpson costume walking on to the stage to receive his Hall of Fame plaque. Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, who stands alongside often-weeping inductees as their plaques are read during Induction Sunday, couldn’t help but crack up as he stood next to Homer.
“That’s gigantism to the 10th degree,” Idelson said with a laugh later.
It took 25 years, but Homer Simpson is once again peers with Griffey and the rest of his teammates, even if the rest of us never stopped associating them with each other.
“It’s transcended two generations, not only mine and my children growing up, but the new generations that watches The Simpsons,” Boggs said. “And now they get a little flavor of what it was like 25 years ago, when we took on this project and jumped on the vessel and sailed across unchartered waters to make something turn out funny.”
“I think that as you can see here, we all had a great time being a part of this,” Smith added, sitting alongside Boggs. “We are very appreciative of the opportunity that we had to be a part of something so special.”