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Monday, July 12, 2010
25 greatest Home Run Derby moments

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Josh Hamilton
There it is! There it goes! Josh Hamilton smashed balls to the far reaches of old Yankee Stadium in '08.

It began 25 years ago as an afterthought.

It was squished in the middle of National League batting practice and American League batting practice. Nobody televised it. America barely noticed it. But look what it started.

That first Home Run Derby took place in 1985, in the Metrodome. But little did anyone know, it would change the culture, out-rate many postseason games and become the highest-rated cable-television event of the summer.

But that's where the Home Run Derby has taken us: on a wild and crazy, unforgettable ride on the Long Ball Express. So what better excuse, as we approach the 25th Derby (the 1988 edition got rained out), to look back on 25 classic Home Run Derby memories:

No. 1 -- Josh Hamilton, Yankee Stadium, 2008

Josh Hamilton
Josh Hamilton wowed his fellow All-Stars perhaps as much as the fans in 2008.

It was the last great homer show in the old Yankee Stadium. And it forever transformed Josh Hamilton into a magical baseball figure. OK, so officially, he may not have "won" this Derby (Justin Morneau did). But when Hamilton launched 28 home runs in one round, he deposited a Derby performance in our memory banks that ranks above all the others.

Before he reached the batter's box, only one man (Bobby Abreu) had ever hit 28 combined homers. Then Hamilton got rolling. He hit a home run on 13 swings in a row. And 16 of 17. And 20 of 22. And 22 of 25. He crushed five balls into the upper deck. He pounded another off the facing of the mezzanine, and two more into the seemingly unreachable black seats in center. And he mashed three 500-footers, including a 518-foot space shuttle that might have hit the Statue of Liberty if the top of the third deck hadn't gotten in the way.

"Obviously, I've never experienced a groove like that before," he said afterward. To which we can only ask: Has anyone?

No. 2 -- Mark McGwire, Fenway Park, 1999

We take you back to another time, a different era, when Big Mac was still baseball's most beloved, almost-mythical figure. And nine months after breaking the 70-homer barrier, he turned Fenway into his own personal Derby stage.

He, too, didn't "win" this Derby. (Ken Griffey Jr. did.) But in the first round, McGwire terrorized New Englanders from Kenmore Square to Kennebunkport with a then-record 13-homer round that amounted to 5,692 feet worth of bombage. His ultimate highlight: a 488-foot mortar that whooshed beyond the Green Monster, cleared the street, soared over a parking garage and hit a billboard above the train tracks, right next to the never-reached Massachusetts Turnpike.

"Once he got in his groove," said his personal pitcher that night, then-Padres coach Tim Flannery, "it was like feeding the great white shark."

Bobby Abreu
Bobby Abreu captivated Comerica Park in 2005 with his 41 homers -- 21 more than runner-up Ivan Rodriguez.

No. 3 -- Bobby Abreu, Comerica Park, 2005

In his regular life, Abreu is a man who has never hit more than 31 home runs in one season. So it's safe to say he wasn't your best bet in Vegas to go out and hit 41 Derby homers in one night.

But stuff happens sometimes in Home Run Derbies. And it sure happened this night. Of Abreu's first 14 swings, 10 left the park. One hit the facing of the upper deck. Another landed in the Pepsi Porch by the upper-deck foul pole. The last one traveled 517 feet, and nearly came down in somebody's rib platter at the Montgomery Inn, located across the concourse in the right-field upper deck. And that was just the beginning.

Abreu would have 14 more bombs in him, just in that round, which were followed by 17 more in the next two rounds. And at one point, as he was on the way to a Derby-record 41 homers, his Venezuelan countrymen -- Melvin Mora, Cesar Izturis and Miguel Cabrera -- actually raced to the plate and wrapped him in a flag. And that was before he won this thing.

"He might be the king now," Abreu's teammate, Jimmy Rollins, said afterward. "The king of Venezuela."

4. Mark McGwire vs. Barry Bonds, Veterans Stadium, 1996

There were no big, black, PED clouds swirling over either of these men back in 1996. But there sure were a lot of home runs swirling around old Veterans Stadium, as baseball's two pre-eminent mashers put on maybe the greatest Derby duel ever.

Before they came along, the Derby was just another All-Star sideshow. They almost personally catapulted it into the must-see baseball event it is now, with a back-and-forth bomb-a-thon in which only the "oohs" outnumbered the "aahs."

McGwire led off the second round with nine transcontinental homers. Bonds stepped in next and pounded 10. That elevated them into the finals, where Bonds got within one out of losing -- and then crunched three spine-tingling homers in his final three swings. But while McGwire lost, he did hit two baseballs where none had ever traveled before -- into the altitudinous 600 level of the Vet's upper deck.

Asked afterward if he could remember the last time he'd hit a ball like that, McGwire joked: "I'd say in spring training -- with my new titanium driver."

5. Sammy Sosa, Miller Park, 2002

He was 87 miles up the interstate from his home turf. And Slammin' Sammy Sosa knew just what he was there for. So he took over Milwaukee's first Derby as only he could.

In the first round, Sosa squashed 12 home runs. And while that was only tied, at the time, for the third-biggest round ever, this was one round you needed to measure in mileage, not homers. Those 12 home runs traveled an average of (no kidding) 477 feet. And it seemed like more.

Sosa clattered a home run off Bernie Brewer's slide, another that sailed over the humongous center-field scoreboard and three home runs that exited a domed stadium (through the windows, that is). Seven of those home runs carried 500 feet-plus. Nine went 490-plus. So even the eventual "winner" that day, Jason Giambi, couldn't stop talking about Sosa.

"I don't think anything can hold him," Giambi said, "except Yellowstone."

6. Cal Ripken Jr., SkyDome, 1991

Any time you hear somebody in baseball whine about how the Derby screws up a guy's swing, we want to refer you to the great Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. Anyone remember who the MVP was in 1992? It was Ripken, all right. And he openly admitted that, in the course of hitting a then-record 12 home runs in 22 swings on the way to winning this Derby, he found something in the stroke that drove him all the way to an MVP award.

But don't take that to mean those 12 homers that day didn't shock him: "It's not easy to hit home runs, even when you're trying to hit home runs," Ripken said that day. "It's not easy to hit home runs, period. I just got halfway through, and I thought, 'This is kind of unbelievable. Am I really doing it?'"

7. Ryan Howard, PNC Park, 2006

As long as we're ranting about the Derby Curse being a myth, what better time to bring up Ryan Howard? This was the year he joined Ripken and became the second man to win a Derby and an MVP trophy in the same season. And he, too, might not have won it if it weren't for his triumph in the most water-logged Derby ever. On a Pittsburgh night when 15 baseballs wound up in the Allegheny River, Howard was responsible for splashing six of them -- two on the fly, four on the bounce.

"I was hoping he was going to kill some fish out in that river," said his personal Derby pitcher, then-Phillies coach Ramon Henderson. "And he did."

8. Ken Griffey Jr., Coors Field, 1998

Ken Griffey Jr.
The Kid, cap on backwards, outslugged Jim Thome to win the title in 1998.

It was the only Derby ever held at an altitude normally reserved for Boeing 767s. But what we remember most about it was a transformation that took place at an altitude of 75 inches -- the approximate location of Griffey's brain lobes. And it was there that a very famous lightning-bolt hit -- and led Griffey to winning this Derby.

Beforehand, our man was insisting -- as he had for weeks -- that he had no interest in taking part in this Derby, even though he was a beloved icon on the way to a 56-homer season and even though he was the leading vote-getter of all players in this All-Star Game.

Next thing he knew, he found himself running around on Workout Day, getting booed for every move he made. Whereupon, in possibly the greatest triumph by boo birds in the long, frustrating history of boo-a-thons, Griffey changed his mind, agreed to take part and won the whole thing with 19 homers in 42 swings.

"I don't like to get booed," Griffey said, after magically converting those boos into a standing ovation. "I don't think anybody does. This is not a time to get booed -- the All-Star Game." Hey, good point.

9. Frank Thomas, Three Rivers Stadium, 1994

You know you've hit a memorable home run when the place where it landed is preserved, even though the stadium it was hit in lost a rendezvous with dynamite years ago. And that's a 100 percent true story in the case of the home run Thomas launched in this Derby -- an upper-deck lunar orbiter to left-center, nine sections over from the foul pole.

It was estimated at 519 feet, the longest ball ever hit in Three Rivers. It was such a momentous blast that the Pirates put a star on the seat, later had Thomas and the coach who served it up, Rich Donnelly, sign the star, and then auctioned it off before they blew up the stadium.

"Frank Thomas is just too big," laughed former major leaguer Gregg Jefferies afterward. "If you're over 260 pounds, there should be a rule -- that you have to play football."

10. Lance Berkman vs. Miguel Tejada, Minute Maid Park, 2004

A funny thing happened to this Derby, which was supposed to feature every active member of the 500 Home Run Club: It came down to two guys who didn't have 500 homers combined.

It was the winner, Tejada, who would set records for most home runs in one round (15, in Round 2) and in one Derby (27). But it was the hometown hero, Berkman, who set an unofficial record -- for most home runs that came down on the streets of an otherwise-innocent American city. That would be five (in seven swings) after the roof was opened for Round 2.

When asked afterward if he was worried he might hurt somebody outside, an innocent-sounding Berkman replied: "I'm pretty sure they had a disclaimer hanging out there: 'Stand out here at your own risk.' Something like that. And even if they didn't, how would they know who hit it? It could have been me. Could have been someone else. They wouldn't even know who to sue."

11. David Ortiz, Comerica Park, 2005

It's funny how nobody except Big Papi seems to remember this. But just minutes after Abreu finished putting on his 24-homer show in the first round in 2005, Ortiz had himself what would have been viewed as the greatest Derby round ever -- except that it wasn't even the greatest Derby round of that particular Derby round. Nevertheless, the Papster's 17 homers still rank No. 3 on your handy-dandy list of most prodigious rounds in Derby history. And what we particularly admire is that he never, ever whines about the Derby fouling up his stroke.

"It don't affect me," he said. "I swing from my butt all the time anyway."

12. David Wright, PNC Park, 2006

Ryan Howard won this thing, but Wright's 16 homers in the first round still rank as the fourth-biggest Derby round ever -- an especially amazing feat in a park with a gigantic left field. And in a move nobody saw coming, the man he chose to serve them up was his teammate, Paul Lo Duca, who was so proud of all those home runs he threw that he announced afterward: "When my career's over, I'm going to come back as a special Home Run Derby BP thrower."

13. Ken Griffey Jr., Camden Yards, 1993

Back in 1993, the Derby was still a one-round team competition -- National League versus American League. But Griffey and Juan Gonzalez forced the first mano a mano grand finale by tying for the individual lead with seven each. Eventually, Gonzalez won the mash-off, but it was Griffey who left us with the most memorable moment when he cranked the first ball to hit the fabled B&O Warehouse, on the other side of Eutaw Street, on the fly. There's still a plaque on that warehouse that marks the spot.

14. Cecil Fielder, SkyDome, 1991

We'll concede that, for most of the planet, the big memory from this day was Ripken's 12-homer extravaganza. But for some folks (like us, for instance), our favorite moments from this Derby were provided by Big Cecil, who crushed two home runs that came down in the Sight Lines bar, located way, way, wayyyy out there in the third deck in center field. We've also never forgotten possibly the greatest Home Run Derby quote ever -- from A's quipmeister Dave Henderson -- which was inspired by those bombs.

"Ever heard that saying, 'There's a fly in my soup?'" Henderson laughed afterward. "Well, there was a fly ball in that guy's soup."

15. Prince Fielder, Busch Stadium, 2009

There has been only one father-son combo to take part in a Derby. And that's the Fielders. But unlike Cecil, his kid Prince actually won a Derby, which happened just last summer in St. Louis. Unlike his father, however, Prince didn't hit a single home run that came down in anybody's piña colada.

Nevertheless, he did pound 10,087 feet worth of homers, which was enough to win this thing. One of them was a 503-foot satellite that cleared the right-center-field bleachers and was later described this way by his personal pitcher, Sandy Guerrero, in an apparent bid to narrate a future potato-chip commercial: "It sounded like a cannon," Guerrero said. "Not as loud, but very crispy."

16. Sammy Sosa, Turner Field, 2000

To most people, Sosa's signature Derby was the 2002 show in Milwaukee. But this one still ranks as the personal favorite of the only real Derby historian we know -- the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR's David Vincent. As the Sultan ducked for cover in the auxiliary press box out in left-center field, Sosa fired eight NASA shots that either landed in the upper deck or hit the facing. And he punctuated his only Derby title with a 508-foot monster mash over the home of the center-field TV cameras, which we're still pretty sure was located closer to Savannah than home plate.

17. Jason Giambi, U.S. Cellular Field, 2003

Giambi didn't win this Derby. He just saved it. After the first seven contestants threatened to nod most of America to sleep by averaging a whopping three homers in Round 1, Giambi stepped up to whomp 10 in 12 swings, en route to a 23-homer performance on the night. We've always had a soft spot for guys who unabashedly love the Derby. And Giambi loves it more than any player we've met. He pumped 68 Derby homers in three years (second all time to Griffey's 70), and reached double digits in four different rounds in three years.

"I just enjoy it," he said. "I like to go out there, have a good time. And it's not really much different than my swing out of my shoes in the games."

18. Albert Pujols, U.S. Cellular Field, 2003

Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols hit the most homers (26) in 2003, but Garret Anderson edged him 9-8 in the final round.

Giambi didn't just wake up the crowd that night in Chicago. He also woke up Sir Albert. This was Pujols' first Derby and he scuffled in the first round, hitting four and barely advancing. But then he got matched up in a one-on-one with Giambi in the second round. And he knew what to do when he got out there.

He slashed 14 homers in his first 20 swings, a record for any round at the time. And the cool, Pujols-esque part of that display was that he hit them to every part of Chicago except Pizzeria Uno -- six to left field, six to right and two to center. Eventually, he lost in the finals to (no kidding) Garret Anderson. But this may have been the night Albert Pujols proved to America he was the greatest, most complete hitter on Earth.

19. Darryl Strawberry, Astrodome, 1986

It was the first truly memorable Derby homer. In the second Derby ever staged, Strawberry unfurled one of those trademark uppercut hacks of his -- and lofted a baseball so high and so far to right field that it did something only one other fair ball had ever done in Astrodome history: clank off a speaker hanging from the roof.

That speaker was located 350 feet from home plate in deep right-center field, 140 feet above the ground. And there are folks who will claim that this ball was still going up when that speaker got in the way. Those folks could be making that up, of course, but who cares? If we're still talking about that homer all these years later, then it had to be pretty darned cool.

20. Bill Murray, Wrigley Field, 1990

Yeah, we're talking about that Bill Murray. The guy from "Caddyshack." He wasn't actually allowed to compete in the only Derby held at Wrigley. But he was allowed to serve as the P.A. announcer. And it was a good thing, because otherwise, this would have been the least-interesting Derby ever. Only five home runs got hit in the whole Derby. But that just enabled Murray to take over and serve as the Babe Ruth of this day.

He introduced Ryne Sandberg as "perhaps the greatest Chicago second baseman since Tony Taylor." He announced Matt Williams as "a man who wears no sunblock." He said Strawberry was a guy who "hit 21 home runs last week." And after a Cecil Fielder blast landed on the warning track, Murray announced: "Cecil, that's a home run in Osaka, right?"

21. Round 1, Coors Field, 1998

You bring the Home Run Derby to pre-humidor Denver, and you know what's coming: namely, a whole lot of baseballs soaring toward distant mountaintops. And that's what we got at Coors in a 53-homer first round that still ranks as the third most prodigious Derby round ever. Javy Lopez crunched one that cleared an exit ramp in center field. Jim Thome "oohed" and "aahed" a ball halfway up the third deck in right. And of course, McGwire mashed one of his standard 510-footers.

"Halfway through the first round," said then-Marlins coach Rich Donnelly, who pitched to three of the eight contestants, "we had to call Budweiser and say, 'Get that blimp up about 100 feet.'"

22. Cove 1, Derby 0, AT&T Park, 2007

Never in Home Run Derby history have so many kayaks floated in vain. Even though Barry Bonds balked at including himself in this Derby, which was held in his very own home park, that didn't stop approximately 4.8 trillion paddlers -- a group that even included Arizona outfielder Eric Byrnes and ESPN.com adventurer Jim Caple -- from cramming themselves into McCovey Cove.

Alas, the three left-handed bombers in this thing -- Howard, Prince Fielder and Justin Morneau -- left them all sailing around for naught. We counted 45 swings by that trio, but zero baseballs bobbing in the Cove. "What can I say?" Howard said, sadly, afterward. "Uh, sorry."

23. Vladimir Guerrero, AT&T Park, 2007

At least the Man from Vlad didn't have to apologize that night in San Francisco. Somebody had to win this Derby in the least homer-friendly park ever to host one. And it might as well have been a guy who hits right-handed and swings so hard at every pitch that he needs his own personal Richter Scale -- and that was Vlad. Every time it looked like he was in trouble, he'd do stuff like crunch five home runs in seven swings. And eventually, he was the last masher standing. "I was just trying to swing the bat hard," he said, "like I always do." Good idea!

24. The Zero Heroes -- Mike Piazza, Jason Bay, Bret Boone

Jason Bay
Canadian bagel: Not one single Jason Bay fly ball cleared the wall at Comerica Park in 2005.

In truth, these three guys aren't the only men who ever hung a bagel on the scoreboard in a Home Run Derby. It's happened many times. In 1990, for instance, more contestants (five) didn't homer than those who did (three). But these three just happen to be the most famous Zero Heroes in Derby history.

Piazza went homerless in 1993 and never took part again, even declining an invitation to be Team Italy's representative in the 2005 edition that was supposed to promote the first World Baseball Classic.

Bay, on the other hand, agreed to be the Team Canada contestant that night and went 0-for-10 (thanks, clearly, to spectacular goaltending) and announced later: "I'm probably not the ideal Home Run Derby guy."

And then there was Boone, the only member of the Boone family to take part in a Derby and, undoubtedly, the last, after firing 10 blanks in 2003. Afterward, Boone revealed he'd heard immediately from his brother Aaron, who, shockingly, "told me I stunk. And my son told me I stunk. And I haven't even dealt with the wife yet."

25. The dawn of the Derby, Metrodome, 1985

A quarter-century later, it's hard to believe an event this humongous could really have started this quietly. But in an attempt to answer the NBA and its slam-dunk extravaganza, baseball decided to stage a simple long-ball contest -- NL versus AL, five hitters from each league, 10 swings apiece. The AL won 17-16. Dave Parker led the pack with six homers.

The special admission charge for what used to be looked at as a low-key workout day: two bucks. For charity. All these years later, we don't know anyone who remembers anything about that day. But just look what it started: one of the most memorable baseball events on the calendar. And it doesn't even count.

Except, of course, on the ratings meter and, more importantly, in the memory banks.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.