When it comes to the Home Run Derby, I’ve always been a big fan of watching and covering them, especially when MLB wised up and began to use juiced baseballs to ramp up the action. I’ll throw an “allegedly” in there, but I believe it (and support it) wholeheartedly.
Who didn’t get amped watching Giancarlo Stanton skyrocketing balls at Petco Park in 2016, or the epic battle between Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Joc Pederson in Cleveland two years ago, which young Vlad won 40-39?
By virtue of my job, I’ve had the good fortune to witness about 15 Derbies up close and personal as part of my newspapers’ All-Star Game coverage. I was there when Ken Griffey Jr. launched one off the warehouse at Camden Yards, when Cal Ripken Jr. blew away the field at Toronto’s Skydome and when Josh Hamilton put on the greatest power display I’ve ever personally witnessed with 28 in the first round at old Yankee Stadium.
But there’s no question that the Home Run Derby that sticks most vividly in my mind occurred July 6, 1998, in Denver. Twenty-three years later, the event returns Monday to the rarefied air of Coors Field, and happily I’ll be back there in the press box. But even with the presence of slugger extraordinaire Shohei Ohtani, this Derby is highly unlikely to surpass the intrigue, drama, hype and general weirdness that prevailed that night.
At least not from my perspective.
Because the turmoil centered on the Mariners’ Griffey, and I was in my second season working at The Seattle Times, I was keenly tuned to following Junior, then 28. Remember, Griffey was not just the face of baseball in those years, in his absolute prime and coming off 56 homers and an American League MVP award in 1997, but he was smack in the middle of the chase to break Roger Maris’ home-run record of 61.
Entering the All-Star break, Griffey stood at 35 homers, just two behind Mark McGwire and third-most in history at the break (behind the 37 of McGwire and Reggie Jackson).
That year, it was not just chicks who were digging the long ball; everyone was. The home-run chase was all the rage, helping to restore baseball’s luster after the long player strike just four years earlier.
McGwire, of course, would go on to destroy Maris’ record with 70 homers. Sammy Sosa (who opted out of the Derby because of a shoulder injury) was right behind him with 66. And Griffey finished well back with 56, not so much a case of having faded but simply being overwhelmed by the other two. In retrospect, of course, we know that both McGwire and Sosa were almost certainly artificially enhanced. I steadfastly believe that Griffey never succumbed to the lure of steroids, and I think the arc of his career backs that up.
At any rate, everyone was eagerly anticipating a Griffey-McGwire showdown in the Home Run Derby. Only one problem: Griffey had announced as far back as May that he wasn’t going to participate. As the All-Star Game approached, he reiterated that stance, telling Seattle reporters, “I said a month ago I’m not doing it. And I’m not changing my mind.”
Griffey was irked that a year earlier, the Mariners before the break had played in the Sunday night game in Anaheim, California, meaning he had flown all night to get to Cleveland for the All-Star Game. The result was that he was fatigued for the Home Run Derby and didn’t make it out of the first round.
Griffey asked union officials to make sure that it didn’t happen again, pointing out that the Mariners already traveled more than any other team because of their remote location. But in 1998 the Mariners were playing in Texas on the Sunday night before the All-Star break, which fueled his decision not to do the Derby.
“They didn’t do what I asked,” he told reporters in Seattle, “so why should I do something for them?”
Griffey remained adamant in that conviction when he got to Denver. But Griffey was stunned (and so was I) when he came out for American League batting practice Monday and was roundly booed on every swing by the sellout crowd of 51,231. And during a ceremony to honor Griffey for being the leading vote-getter with 4,202,830, the boos were deafening. Griffey was visibly shaken.
There was a short break after batting practice, maybe an hour, to set up for the Home Run Derby, which was being televised live for the first time that night. What happened to sway Griffey will forever be shrouded in mystery, but when the Derby participants were introduced — by the “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble” guy, Michael Buffer, no less — lo and behold, there was Griffey. He trotted out, hat backward and grim-faced, next to last, right before McGwire.
Griffey being Griffey, he was equal to the moment and won the Home Run Derby, winning over the fans in the process. From a mixed chorus of boos and cheers when he was initially introduced, Griffey coaxed a standing ovation when he hit his final home run to beat Jim Thome in the finals, 3-2.
After all the hype, McGwire had fizzled in the first round, eliminated by hitting just three, albeit one of them a 510-foot tape-measure job that was the longest of the night.
Griffey never cracked a visible smile the entire night, except perhaps in privacy when he hugged his 4-year-old son, Trey, after advancing to the second round with eight homers. He also had eight in the second round before dropping his bat and dropping his head in relief when he surpassed Thome.
So what changed Griffey’s mind? That’s the million-dollar question, one that is complicated, as many of Griffey’s signature moments tended to be. When I had talked to him before the game, Griffey put forth a gamut of reasons he wasn’t participating: Not just the travel issue, but also a sore wrist, and the fear that the Derby would mess up his swing.
In a postgame interview with ESPN’s Harold Reynold, his former Mariners teammate, Griffey said it was the boos that ultimately swayed him.
“I felt coming into BP if I felt OK, I would do it,” he told Reynolds. “I don’t like to get booed. I’ve got 4 million reasons why I did it.”
There was more to it than just the boos, however. About a half-hour before the Derby, Griffey was spotted huddling with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, whose word meant a lot to him.
“I listen to the guys with those types of numbers and credentials,” Griffey said afterward.
But I heard from my sources that it was Joe Morgan, a teammate of Griffey’s dad on the Big Red Machine and part of ESPN’s Derby announcing crew, who talked to Griffey and swayed him. Morgan had the total respect of Griffey and no doubt was influential in changing his mind. I was part of the post-Derby interview scrum when Morgan stuck his head in the room and said, “I’m proud of you.”
Griffey, for all his baseball brilliance, was incredibly sensitive and even seemed borderline insecure at times. He often complained of not being fully appreciated for his exploits, and at the same time he would rail against the loss of privacy that came with superstardom.
On this particular night, I felt (and still do) that he was unfairly treated. A local columnist, Bob Kravitz, had stirred up Denver fans by writing in the Rocky Mountain News in the lead-up to the Home Run Derby:
“It wasn’t so very long ago that you looked at Ken Griffey Jr. and you thought: ‘Here is the new face of baseball. He is engaging. He is electric. He is telegenic. He is the future of post-strike, fan-friendly baseball.’
“But now you hear he won’t participate in Monday’s All-Star home run hitting contest because the travel demands are too taxing — poor baby! — and suddenly, your view changes.
“Now you look at Ken Griffey Jr., and you think, ‘Punk.’
“You think, ‘Typical spoiled brat jerk ballplayer.’
“You think, ‘Just like the rest of them.’
“And you know what? You’re right.”
For some reason, no one was upset that Sosa, Juan Gonzalez (who reached the All-Star break with a record 101 runs batted in) or Barry Bonds weren’t participating. Just Griffey, who had every right to decline. Many superstars have done so over the years, including Guerrero and Fernando Tatis Jr.
“Isn’t this an invitation?” Griffey had said during his pre-Derby interview session. “Don’t you have the right to say you don’t want to do it? They don’t hold a gun to your head and say, ‘You’re doing it.’ I said a month ago I wasn’t going to.”
Griffey also astutely pointed out that many NBA stars had stopped participating in slam-dunk contests without inducing rancor and scorn.
“Michael Jordan didn’t do the slam-dunk competition, and he didn’t catch as much flak as I have,” he said. “Now you got people writing that I’m a high-priced, spoiled brat and a punk. What am I supposed to do?”
In the end, Griffey did, reluctantly, what everyone had desperately wanted him to do in the first place. Covering Griffey was always an adventure, and this Derby might have been the quintessential example.
He made you sweat, made you think, made you squirm, made you shake your head — and then delivered fully.