With this year’s MLB All-Star Game in my beloved team’s home (Citi Field), I’m more excited than usual for it. For those that can remember as far back as the All-Star games in the 1980s, I feel the game doesn’t have the juice or excitement that it used to. I remember in 1984 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco when Mets rookie Dwight Gooden showed the stuff that made him one of the 80’s most dominant righthanders. Speaking of dominant righthanders, there was Roger Clemens striking out five straight and retiring the first nine NL hitters in 1986 at the Astrodome. There was Tim Raines’ game-winning triple in extra innings in 1987. How about Bo Jackson’s moon-shot in the first inning of the 1989 game in Anaheim, and there was the lone highlight of the strike-shortened 1994 season; Moises Alou’s game-winning double in the 10th inning that scored Tony Gwynn with the winning run in Pittsburgh. Then there was 2002’s tie…but we won’t go there. In any event, as much as the All-Star Game may have lost its sizzle from past years one part of the festivities that opens everyone’s eyes is Monday night’s Home Run Derby.
The Home Run Derby concept isn’t a brand new one. It used to be a syndicated TV show back in the 1950s and 60s where future Hall of Fame sluggers would go to a minor league ball park and crush balls over the fence into some old lady’s back yard. The concept returned as a novelty for the 1985 Midsummer Classic in Minneapolis. It wasn’t televised (it wouldn’t hit ESPN until 1993) but it was a special treat for the fans that flocked to the “Homerdome” for this inaugural Derby. I bet none of you can remember who won. Maybe? Honestly I didn’t either until I looked it up. It was Dave Parker of the Cincinnati Reds. The first HRD I remember was in 1991 at Skydome in Toronto when Cal Ripken Jr. continued what would be an MVP season with a victory in the Derby. The game itself was still a must-watch into the early 2000s but it was becoming second fiddle to Monday night’s incredible power display.
The standard bearer for the Home Run Derby will always be Ken Griffey Jr., who still holds the record for most Derby victories with three, the first coming in 1994 in Pittsburgh. He would win back-to-back titles in 1998 and 1999. In fact he was originally not going to participate in the 1998 competition at Coors Field since his Mariners had played the ESPN Sunday night game the evening before. After talking to Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson he changed his mind and won his second Derby title in Colorado’s thin air. He would repeat as champ the following year at Fenway Park. Speaking of 1998, the year Mark McGwire had set the single season home run record with 70 dingers, Mark hit just four homers in that year’s Derby, in DENVER! I could make a comment but I’ll hold off. Other notable sluggers include my favorite non-Mets player of the 1990s, “The Big Hurt” Frank Thomas who won his only Derby title in 1995 at the Ballpark at Arlington, beating the hated Albert Belle in the finals. Then there was also Tino Martinez’s performance in 1997, the year he hit 41 home runs for the Yankees.
As the 2000s dawned and the 90’s names began to fade, new stars came on the scene to forge their power legacy, and in some cases with debilitating results. Jason Giambi provided the lone highlight of 2002’s debacle in Milwaukee by clubbing 26 homers to win the title in his first season with the Yankees. Albert Pujols won 2003’s competition in his first try at US Cellular Field. The Derby record for homers in a competition took place ironically at a ballpark where home runs are hard to come by. In the 2005 Home Run Derby at cavernous Comerica Park in Detroit, Bobby Abreu of the Phillies hit a record 41 bombs, including 24 in the first round. However for a guy who customarily doesn’t hit home runs, many felt he wrecked his swing. Although he would maintain a decent average and drive in runs, his power numbers dropped. The same could be said the following year for David Wright. Not known as a big time power hitter, he went swing for swing with the Phillies’ Ryan Howard in the 2006 Home Run Derby in Pittsburgh. He lost by one homer, but many fans (mostly Mets fans of course) felt the extra energy he took to try and win that year led to his fading in the postseason when his heavily favored Mets lost the NLCS to the Cardinals.
The most incredible display had to be in 2008 at old Yankee Stadium. It was the final year the “cathedral” hosted the Classic, its fourth (tied with Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium for most All-Star games hosted). Texas’ Josh Hamilton reminded my dad (a Yankees fan since the 1940s) of the tape measure shots Mickey Mantle used to blast out of Ruth’s house in the 1950s. He would break Abreu’s first round record with 28 dingers, some of which almost went completely out of the Stadium. Talk about taking advantage of the short porch in right field. He would win the competition with 35 total, and was a crowning achievement for a superstar with a troubled career (and life) to that point.
In case you’re a stat junkie like me and you’re wondering…the record for most all-time Derby home runs is Big Papi himself. David Ortiz has 77 lifetime Derby bombs, including 32 in his 2010 win at Anaheim. Griffey is second with 70, followed by Giambi with 69.
Prince Fielder has emerged as the current HRD stud, winning two titles (one for each league) in the past four years including last year in Kansas City. He’s in the competition this year to try to match Griffey’s record of three titles. Citi Field isn’t a home run ballpark so it will be interesting to see who can rip one over the “Pepsi Porch” in right field. So for a game that used to be a crown jewel of the baseball season, it’s the pregame festivities beforehand that have taken center stage.