Commentary

The best Home Run Derby swatters

Ken Griffey Jr., David Ortiz, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi and Josh Hamilton

Originally Published: July 9, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Maybe this will be the night Jose Bautista sends three dozen home runs whooshing off toward Excelsior Springs.

Maybe this will be the night Prince Fielder hits a home run that blows up a fountain.

Or maybe this will be the night Andrew McCutchen and Mark Trumbo put on the kind of show that elevates their sweet swings into the national conversation the way Josh Hamilton's 2008 evening in the Bronx once changed his life forever.

Hey, you never know when the Home Run Derby comes to town. It's a place where rockets are launched, where memories are made, where dreams come true.

Uh, especially the part about the rockets.

The 27th Home Run Derby arrives in Kauffman Field for the first time on Monday night. The first 26 Derbies have given us 212 hitters pounding 1,543 majestic home runs, 22 different outright winners, four co-winners (back in the olden days), just one repeat winner (Kenneth Griffey Jr.) and, in case you hadn't noticed, countless hours of ESPN Classic programming from the overstuffed Derby vault.

But you know what else it has given us? A lofty standard for this year's field, and all future Derby swatters, to aspire to. So if Bautista, Prince, McCutchen, Trumbo and their pals really want to put on the kind of show we Derby lovers will be talking about 20 years from now, here's the group they need to emulate. Now presenting …

The first edition of our All-Time All-Derby Team:

KEN GRIFFEY JR.

Career totals: 8 Derbies, 70 HRs, 3 titles

[+] EnlargeKen Griffey Jr.
Doug Collier/AFP/Getty ImagesKen Griffey Jr. put on quite a show in the '98 Derby at Coors Field.

It's funny how most people's recollection of Griffey in the Derby revolves around 1998, the year he had to be practically headlocked into entering just minutes before show time -- and wound up winning.

But in retrospect, nobody did more to lift the profile of the Derby in the '90s than Griffey.

How many other players through the years have competed in EIGHT Derbies? Not a one. Just Ken Griffey. How many other players won this slam-a-thon three different times (or even twice)? Not a one. Just Ken Griffey.

And Griffey's 70 career Derby homers stood as the "all-time" record until David Ortiz blew by it just last July. Pretty cool. So since we're anointing him the captain of this team, he gets an extra-long highlight reel. Lucky him. Now we'd rank Griffey's three greatest Derby memories this way:

• 1998, Denver: After reeling in more All-Star votes than anyone else on either team, Griffey acted shocked to hear that the citizens of Colorado were irate that he'd decided to blow off the Derby. So after getting booed all through All-Star batting practice, he gave in. Naturally, he then went out and mashed 19 homers in 42 swings to beat an awesome field (including Jim Thome, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and hometown hero Vinny Castilla). So if ever there was evidence that booing was the most powerful fan force in existence, this was it: "I don't like to get booed," Griffey said. "I don't think anybody does. This is not a time to get booed -- the All-Star Game." Hey, ya think?

• 1999, Boston: We recall this Fenway classic as McGwire's show. Uh, just one thing we should note: Big Mac didn't even win that Derby. Griffey did -- for the second straight year -- thanks to a picturesque 10-homer show in the second round. But afterward, even he sounded practically embarrassed that baseball was declaring HIM the "winner" of this extravaganza: "After watching Mark hit his 500 feet, when you're only getting them over like 420-430," he said, "I mean, it's like his balls are doing the postal service -- just flying by and dropping mail off at your house."

• 1993, Baltimore: You want to make the case that 1994 -- the year Junior cranked five bombs into the upper deck in Pittsburgh in a span of five swings -- should have made this list? Hard to argue. Except for one thing … in '93, Kenneth Griffey did something that has never been duplicated before or since: He hit a baseball that departed Camden Yards, soared across Eutaw Street, sucked up some Boog's BBQ fumes and clattered off The Warehouse. On the fly. "It doesn't count," Griffey said, at his unimpressed best. "It wasn't in the game." Oh yeah? It counted enough for the Orioles to install a plaque. And that's good enough for us.

DAVID ORTIZ

Career totals: 5 Derbies, 77 home runs, 1 title

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz brought his power bat to the 2010 Derby in Anaheim.

It was a sad day in Derby history this year when Big Papi finally decided he was Derbied-out -- because very few mad bombers in modern times seemed to get the whole Derby shtick more than he did. He'd listen to all the wimps around him whine about how trying to hit home runs might screw up their finely tuned swings. Then he'd laugh and announce: "It won't affect ME, bro. I swing from my butt all the time anyway." Ortiz has had so many monster rounds, it's hard to pick just one. But here's our personal favorite Derby memory for the all-time Derby home run champ:

2010, Anaheim: He was bound to win this thing one of these years, right? Well, this was it. Big Papi whomped 32 home runs (third-most ever, at the time), and they traveled an insane 12,975 feet. He smoked 11 in the last round alone to tie for the most in a final round. And his signature blast was a 478-footer that cleared the "Going, Going, Gone" sign in right field. But that, he said, was no biggie: "I hit a homer here," he chuckled, "that went down the tunnel [way up in right field] once. But I was trying to hit our bus that was parked out there. So I kind of missed it."

MARK MCGWIRE

[+] EnlargeMark McGwire
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesMark McGwire lit up the New England sky during the '99 Derby.

Career totals: 7 Derbies, 56 home runs, 1 title

Every BP session was a Home Run Derby for Big Mac. So no wonder he put on so many memorable Derby shows.

He hit seven in seven swings to win the 1992 Derby. He squashed two into the never-before-or-again-reached 600 level of the upper deck in Philly in '96. He fired an epic 510-footer at Coors in '98. But is there any doubt -- any -- about what will go down as McGwire's ultimate Home Run Derby memory? Be serious.

1999, Boston: What a show. He hit a baseball off a light tower, 100 feet up in the New England sky. He clanked a home run off a billboard, across the street from the Green Monster. He hit four 470- to 488-foot homers in four swings at one point, 10 in 12 swings in his best stretch and 13 in all, just in the first round. It was, at the time, the most prodigious Derby round ever. Asked to describe what it was like to serve up that many epic homers, Big Mac's personal pitcher, Tim Flannery, replied: "Once he got in his groove, it was like feeding the great white shark."

JASON GIAMBI

Career totals: 3 Derbies, 68 homers, 1 title

The Home Run Derby record book -- wait: IS there a Home Run Derby record book? -- will always tell us that Jason Giambi won only one of these Derbies. But it seemed like he was the centerpiece attraction of all three he entered (2001, '02, '03).

[+] EnlargeJason Giambi
John Zich/AFP/Getty ImagesJason Giambi won the 2002 Derby in Milwaukee but was at his best during the '03 Derby in Chicago.

Giambi is still the only man to reach double figures in the first round of three straight Derbies. He's still the only man to bop at least 20 homers altogether in three consecutive Derbies. And what we appreciate most is that he never acted like it was some sort of inconvenience to be asked to flail away in the Derby: "I'll tell you what," he said. "When you get a little hot, you get fired up out there. You get that adrenaline. The fans start getting into it. You start getting on that roll. And it's a lot of fun, just feeding off that." So what was Giambi's greatest Derby memory? Tough call, but we'll go with this one:

2003, Chicago: He didn't win this Derby. But somebody had to save this snoozer from sinking into Lake Michigan. And Giambi was just the man for the job, finishing his first round with 10 home runs in 12 swings and mashing 23 altogether in 43 ferocious hacks. So this one was a lot more memorable than the 2002 Derby, which Giambi technically won in Milwaukee -- because all anybody remembers from that smoke-off is Sammy Sosa hitting SEVEN 500-foot home runs, including one off Bernie Brewer's slide. Talk about getting upstaged. "You know," Mike Lowell said afterward, "I actually felt bad for Giambi. And he WON."

JOSH HAMILTON

Career totals: 1 Derby, 35 homers, 0 titles

Originally, we weren't going to include anyone on our fun little All-Derby team who didn't take part in multiple Derbies. But that turned out to be impossible, because how the heck can any self-respecting All-Derby collection NOT include Josh Hamilton's magical night in the old Yankee Stadium? So fine, we're relenting, because there's no way to deny the Greatest Round in Derby History its place in our official collection of memory-book Derby moments:

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty ImagesJosh Hamilton became a Home Run Derby legend at Yankee Stadium in 2008.

2008, The Bronx: Once upon a time, years before, Josh Hamilton had a dream. It was a crazy dream, because he was suspended from baseball, recovering from drug addiction, with no assurance he would ever wear a major league uniform. Still, he had dreamed he was taking his hacks in a Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium. And then, somehow, on this storybook night, this man's dream came true. In real life, he pounded 28 unforgettable home runs just in the historic first round. Off the black seats in center. Deep into the upper deck in right. Even off the Bank of America sign 502 feet away. He got so hot, he hit a home run on 13 swings IN A ROW. And 16 of 17. And 20 of 22. And 22 of 25. "Obviously," he would say later, "I've never experienced a groove like that before." To which we could only reply: "C'mon, Josh. Has ANYBODY?"

But Monday night in Kansas City, another Derby will rev up its engines, so you never know, right? That's why they swing those Louisville Sluggers. And that's why we watch. For Jose Bautista, Mark Trumbo and the Derby-ites around them, their moment in time has arrived. May the memories await.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com