SEATTLE -- The baseball world almost didn’t see Ken Griffey Jr. win the 1998 Home Run Derby at Denver’s Coors Field, but that’s no excuse for missing out on a second chance.
This is the Derby that will be remembered as much for the pre-event drama as what happened next. At the time, Griffey insisted that he wasn’t going to participate -- and it didn’t matter that he was the leading vote-getter in fan balloting for that year’s All-Star Game, that it was the first time the event was going to be televised live, or that he was coming off an American League Most Valuable Player Award-winning season with 56 big flies and had already slugged 35 more for the Mariners by the time the Midsummer Classic rolled around.
Griffey had taken part in five previous Derbies. He’d hit the Warehouse outside Camden Yards in Baltimore in a memorable moment in 1993, won the title at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh in ’94 and taken part in the '97 competition in Cleveland despite having only an hour or two of sleep after flying in following a night game in Anaheim.
The Mariners' star knew the toll that travel took on him, and he kept saying he needed a break in 1998, with his Seattle club once again playing a Sunday night game in Texas that gave him precious little time to get to Denver and take part in Monday’s press conferences and team workouts prior to the home run competition.
So what happened? Griffey first heard the boos of 51,231 fans at a sold-out Coors Field in mid-afternoon, when he accepted the trophy for earning more than 4 million votes -- the most of any player -- in the All-Star balloting process. And he heard more boos and jeers each time he stepped into the cage during the ensuing batting-practice sessions for each team.
How could the game’s most popular player become so unpopular so quickly? For Griffey, it didn’t ring right. So he changed his mind.
Two hours later, he re-emerged in front of the same fans and put on a show, clubbing 19 home runs en route to his second Home Run Derby championship and outslugging a field that included Mark McGwire, Jim Thome, Rafael Palmeiro, Chipper Jones, Vinny Castilla, Damion Easley, Javy Lopez, Moises Alou and his own Mariners teammate, Alex Rodriguez.
“I don't like getting booed," Griffey said of his last-minute turnaround. “I don’t think anybody does. This is not a time to be booed. If they want to see me in the home run competition, the fans, there's 4 million reasons why I did it. For them."
Griffey wound up winning over the Coors Field crowd as he advanced through the competition. He took the first round with eight homers, tied Thome for most in the second round with eight more after the field had been cut to four, and then defeated Thome, 3-2, in the finals.
It wasn’t just the fans who got Griffey’s attention. Numerous All-Star teammates encouraged him to take part. A chat with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson earlier in the day carried considerable weight, too.
"When a guy with his credentials talks, you listen," Griffey said.
The fans also came to see McGwire, and the big fella produced the competition’s longest blast, an estimated 510-foot shot in the first round. But McGwire -- who wound up setting the MLB record with 70 home runs that year -- hit just four homers and didn’t advance to the second round.