5 legendary Home Run Derby moments

July 12th, 2021

When news landed that this year’s All-Star Game was going to be held at Coors Field in Denver, the first thing on many baseball fans’ minds was: Whoa, the Home Run Derby is going to be amazing!

The T-Mobile Home Run Derby is exciting anywhere, but to put it in Coors Field, where the mile-high elevation causes balls to loft endlessly into the Colorado night, made homer-happy baseball fanatics salivate.

And why wouldn’t it? Everyone remembers the last one.

The last time the All-Star Game was in Colorado was in 1998, which, as you may recollect, was a pretty exciting year for home runs in Major League Baseball. But your usual suspects flamed out a bit: Mark McGwire went out in the first round, and Sammy Sosa wasn’t a part of it at all. But all anyone remembers today, of course, is the show that Ken Griffey Jr. put on.

Wearing his hat backwards, Griffey launched homer after homer in front of a screaming, electric Coors Field crowd, beating Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Thome, Alex Rodriguez and Damion Easley to win his second Derby title. (He’d win again in Boston the next year.)

It’s often forgotten how close we came to not having that experience at all. For weeks, Griffey had said he wouldn’t be a part of the Derby, citing a difficult travel schedule for the Mariners and a desire to get some rest. The Coors Field crowd wasn’t pleased and made it known when Griffey took batting practice.

The boos hit a crescendo when he accepted the award for the most All-Star Game votes. It prompted him to ask Manny Ramirez if he could have his slot in the Derby because he didn’t “like to get booed.” Manny obliged … and history was made.

It still seems crazy that people booed Ken Griffey Jr. at the All-Star Game, doesn’t it?

It’s one of the many historic, memorable events in Home Run Derby history. Here’s a look at five other immortal moments in HRD history. With any luck, we’ll get another one this year. We’re certainly in the right ballpark for it.

1999, Fenway Park, Boston
The year after Griffey’s big display, he won again. But, alas, Griffey was not the story this time.

This was the year after the McGwire-Sosa home run chase, and those two were the obvious stars. McGwire, who had struggled in the 1998 Derby, more than made up for it at Fenway, as he launched homer after homer in the first round, many long onto Landsdowne Street. (The cars on the passing-by Massachusetts Turnpike had to be a little nervous, too.)

McGwire was so hot, in fact, that Pedro Martinez -- who would have himself quite the memorable game the next night -- sneaked behind him to take his bat away, hoping to give Martinez’s fellow Dominican Sosa a chance.

As tended to be the case a lot in this era, McGwire and Sosa overshadowed Griffey, even if Junior ended up winning the Derby title. Also, it is an indeed wacky fact that this star-packed Derby also featured John Jaha and Jeromy Burnitz.

2005, Comerica Park, Detroit
You would think that Comerica Park -- a stadium that players have long believed stifles the long ball -- wouldn’t be the perfect place for a Home Run Derby. But it turned out to be just that, thanks largely to Bobby Abreu.

Abreu was underrated during his career, and remains underrated today, but this was his night to shine.

In an event that was billed as the most multinational Home Run Derby ever -- seven of the eight competitors were from different countries, and the eighth was Ivan Rodriguez, from Puerto Rico -- it was Abreu who electrified Venezuela with a total of 41 homers, edging out Pudge.

Johan Santana, also from Venezuela, was in attendance and said his home country was “paralyzed” as it watched Abreu do them proud. Abreu might have been out of homers by the time the Derby was over, though: He had 18 heading into the break, and only six afterward.

2008, Yankee Stadium, New York
You knew the last All-Star Game at the old Yankee Stadium -- past ASGs at the Stadium had included Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Ted Williams -- was going to have something memorable happen. But the odds of Josh Hamilton, who had been through so much to lead him to that warm Bronx night, being the one who made those memories happen veered toward the impossible.

But not to Hamilton.

Before the Derby, he told reporters that he wanted to hit a ball completely out of Yankee Stadium, something that no one -- not Ruth, not Mantle, not anyone -- had ever done.

“You know that little opening [in right field], where you can see the subway?” he said at the time. “Watch out.”

Well, Hamilton did not, in actuality, hit a ball out of the old Yankee Stadium. But he did just about everything else. Hamilton, insanely, absurdly, hit 28 home runs in the first round of the event, with looping, arching, mammoth shots that felt instantly iconic and legendary with every one that went up, and a couple of which certainly headed in the direction of the subway.

The crowd went crazy, the players watching lost their mind, and the Stadium had one last eternal memory before closing forever.

Hamilton didn’t even end up winning this Derby -- it was Justin Morneau, if you’re pedantic enough to fret over such matters -- but Hamilton’s the one who will always represent this Home Run Derby … and maybe all of them.

2016, Petco Park, San Diego
Legitimate question: Is there anyone who has ever played baseball who has hit the ball harder, and farther, than Giancarlo Stanton? It’s a fair thought, isn’t it?

If you subscribe to the idea that baseball players are bigger and stronger and more powerful than they have ever been, and you probably should (no offense to Babe Ruth’s six-pack abs), then don’t you have to go under the assumption that Stanton, who has hit the ball harder than anyone else for a half-decade, is the most powerful of all time?

He sure looked like it in 2016 in San Diego, when he did a historical rarity: He bashed more homers in the first round than anyone (24), and then hung on to beat everyone else in the next two rounds, ultimately outlasting Todd Frazier to win in the Finals.

Fittingly, this was the first year for Statcast at the Home Run Derby, and Stanton sure did put it to the test, hitting 20 of the longest 21 homers of the Derby. Who says the ball doesn’t carry in San Diego?

2018, Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.
It’s always fun when a player from the home team makes a run in the Home Run Derby.

Bryce Harper went full superstar in 2018, taking advantage of the timed competition by maximizing it for dramatic value. He edged Freddie Freeman in the first round by one homer and did the same to poor Max Muncy in the semifinals.

But the real explosion came during his battle with (future National) Kyle Schwarber in the final round. Schwarber hit 18 homers during his turn, and Harper struggled to keep up. But he got hot late, and then, with time expiring, hit a home run to tie on the very last pitch. Then came bonus time, when Harper hit one last shot, giving him the victory in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans who were fully aware that he’d be hitting free agency in the coming offseason.

But for that night, he was the hometown favorite who represented the best the franchise had to offer.