Can the Home Run Derby Ever Be the Same Without the Steroid Era?
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"Back, back, back, back, back...GONE!"
That's a home run call we're bound to hear come Monday's Home Run Derby (lookin' at you, Chris Berman). It's fair to wonder whether the derby remains as captivating as it once was, or if the appeal, like the baseballs that will be launched out of Citi Field, is gone.
Back in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, the theory goes, sluggers like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds made the event must-watch theater.
Of course, back then, the stench of performance-enhancing drugs hadn't yet infiltrated our then-naive noses, so everyone enjoyed tuning in to see how far Big Mac, Slammin' Sammy, The Kid and Mr. 73 could hit 'em.
Now, though, we know better. Many—but not all, to be clear—of those performers were just a bit, well, enhanced. Such is life in baseball amid the (hopefully) post-steroid era.
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Who could forget McGwire hitting towering shots at Fenway Park in Boston in 1999? His 13 in the first round established a record for any one round at the time, and each homer seemingly went farther than the last as they soared over the Green Monster.
As Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote in recalling the 25 greatest derby moments:
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."
The following year, there was Sosa at Turner Field in Atlanta, where he walloped a whopping 26—the most in derby history at the time.
Again, here's Stark:
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.
Sosa also did his thing at Milwaukee's Miller Park in 2002, bashing 18 total, including 12 in Round 1, averaging, oh, just 477 feet.
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."
Meanwhile, Griffey—who doesn't have the same PED link, direct or indirect, that other derby participants did—was perhaps the poster boy for this everybody-loves-long-balls event. He won in 1994, 1998 and 1999 and remains the only three-time champ. His most memorable derby moment, though, might have come in one he didn't win, as Stark notes:
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.
Since the last time any of those three participated in 2004—Sosa was eliminated in 2004 after hitting just five in the first round, while Bonds hit 11 through two rounds but fell short of the finals—Major League Baseball has tried out a few different tactics in an effort to maintain the interest level.
It was almost as if the league realized that with many of the greatest sluggers of the generation either at or nearing the end, there would need to be something else to keep fans tuning in.
And so in advance of the inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic, there was the experimental World competition in 2005 when all eight players hailed from different countries.
And as you're well aware, the latest innovation came in 2011, as the derby adopted an American League versus National League format and introduced the captain concept, whereby one player from each league—this year, it's Robinson Cano for the AL and David Wright for the NL—is chosen ahead of time and offers personal invitations to others to compete on his side.
While these various tinkerings may help add intrigue and/or interest, let's be real: It's the performances that make a derby memorable.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there have been a few of those since 2005, too, that show the Home Run Derby has been—and can still be—as fun and exciting as it used to be.
Like...Bobby Abreu at Detroit's Comerica Park in 2005, as he...just...kept...hitting...homers. In Round 1, Abreu totaled an incredible 24 dingers. That set a new mark for the most in a round, essentially laughing in the face of Miguel Tejada's 15 from the previous year. (By the way, David Ortiz also hit 17 in the first round.) Abreu's 41 four-baggers in total also set the all-time derby record, which still stands.
Like...then-breakout star Ryan Howard at PNC Park in Pittsburgh in 2006, when Howard, on his way to a 58-homer campaign and the NL MVP, put on a show by beating Wright by one homer, 23-22. Cooler still, one of Howard's mammoth shots actually hit the banner beyond the bleachers in right-center field that read "Hit it Here 500 Flights" to win the promotion for fan Bert Brooks of Plum Borough, Pa.:
Like...The Josh Hamilton Show in 2008, which happened at old Yankee Stadium in its final season. That night, in which he smashed 28 home runs in the first round to break Abreu's record, Hamilton looked like he was wielding a graphite four-iron rather than a wooden stick. It never really mattered that Hamilton wound up losing to Justin Morneau in the finals.
Like...when Ortiz went pretty freakin' nuts at Angel Stadium in 2010, mashing 32 overall and doing so pretty consistently: He slugged eight in Round 1, then 13 in the semis and 11 in the finals to hold off Hanley Ramirez by six.
Like...Cano winning it in 2011 at Chase Field in Arizona, thanks in no small part to his father, Jose, a former big league pitcher, throwing him perfect batting-practice fastballs down and in. The smiles and embrace after the derby-winning launch to defeat Adrian Gonzalez made the moment all the more special.
Like...Royals fans booing Cano at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium last year for not inviting their own Billy Butler to participate. Maybe it got to him: A year after taking the crown, Cano wound up getting shut out, the first time a player hung a zero since Brandon Inge did so in 2009 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. That '09 derby, by the way, was won by Prince Fielder. He reclaimed the title last year to extend a rather noteworthy run by lefty sluggers, who have won five straight derbies and 10 of the past 12.
This year, that bodes well for lefty mashers like Chris Davis, who has an MLB-high 35 homers so far, or Pedro Alvarez, who will be a last-minute replacement for Carlos Gonzalez, or Fielder, who will be aiming to join Griffey by wearing the crown for a third time.
The Home Run Derby may not have a McGwire or Sosa anymore, but there have been plenty of memorable moments since—and in some ways, the event actually is better off for it.
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