Gonzalez won the derby and hit the longest home run, some 473 feet into the upper deck. But a foggy observer could be forgiven for remembering Griffey as the winner, because in every sense but the scoreboard he did win. And he did it with one iconic swing.
It is impossible to think of Baltimore’s Camden Yards and not think of the oblong B&O Warehouse running the length — and then some — of right-center field.
But in fact there was a time when stadium planners did just that. As the Orioles contemplated new stadium proposals over the years, many renderings either reduced the warehouse’s size or left it out entirely.
By the time Camden Yards was ready for its debut, in 1992, the issue of the warehouse had been solved. But before any games could be played, there was still fortification to be done.
Team officials had long viewed the 1,116-foot-long warehouse — said to be the longest building on the East Coast — as a target for lefty hitters. At first the idea of baseballs smashing through windows seemed romantic. But pragmatism eventually won the day, and to prepare for the inevitable, the first four stories of the warehouse were outfitted with shatter-resistant glass.
“We are thinking about the next generation of Bo Jacksons on the left-handed side,” one of the architects told the Baltimore Sun in 1992. “Or George Brett in his younger days.”
Ken Griffey Jr., was not exclusive to the Pacific Northwest in 1992, but it’s understandable that he didn’t merit special recognition.
Griffey was just 22 and had played in two All-Star Games. But he had hit only — yeah, only — 60 career home runs and never had more than 22 in a season.
By the 1993 All-Star Game, 428 home runs had cleared the walls at Camden Yards, including four from Griffey. None had tested the windows at the B&O Warehouse.
Naturally, with the Home Run Derby held in Baltimore that year, the questions about the warehouse’s vulnerability — or, perhaps, invincibility — arose in earnest. Even among the powerful lefties in the derby field, Bobby Bonilla predicted the warehouse’s greatest threat was Griffey.
Griffey shot back that he could hit the warehouse only if he stood at second base and used a fungo bat. He was not convincing.
The ’93 derby had its share of mashers — Barry Bonds, Cecil Fielder, Mike Piazza — but in the end, it came down to Juan Gonzalez and Griffey.
According to newspaper articles, Gonzalez won the derby and hit the longest home run, some 473 feet into the upper deck. But a foggy observer could be forgiven for remembering Griffey as the winner, because in every sense but the scoreboard he did win. And he did it with one iconic swing.
If you can, pull up the YouTube clip of that swing. It’s only 37 seconds long, and it’s perfect.
There’s Griffey: backward hat, shimmering earring, bat rotating in tight, rhythmic circles before the pitch. He swings, and his eyes sternly track the arc of his labor.
The camera cuts to the crowd in right field, in front of the warehouse, and then the ball disappears behind them. But as soon as it does, people raise their hands and jump. They know what has happened.
Griffey does not. When the camera cuts back to him, he taps his bat on the plate, looks at the pitcher — and then starts laughing, so much so that he steps out of the batter’s box.
A reporter on the field puts a mic in his face, and Griffey laughs and says, “Uh, yeah, I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just trying to get it up and out.”
But this is what he remembers 23 years later: “The crowd started jumping up and down, and I hear the announcer say, ‘Did he just hit the building?’ And somebody else yells, ‘Yes!’ and that’s when I started laughing.”
And this is what Milton Kent, who wrote the story for the Baltimore Sun that day, will say 23 years later: “The idea of hitting that warehouse, it looks so inviting; it really does. And that was the whole idea, I’m sure, but nobody has done it. Except for him.”
The Orioles have played nearly 2,000 games at Camden Yards, and yet in the 24-year history of the park, Griffey’s shot stands alone.
There are so many avenues to explore Griffey’s greatness, almost all of which are more meaningful than a home run during the Home Run Derby. But in some ways, it is the perfect Griffey metaphor.
It wasn’t just that he was an awesome player. It was that he made playing baseball look awesome, and he did that by doing awesome things.
He had that swing of dreams, so visually perfect that kids mimicked it across the country. He wore his hat backward, and kids mimicked that, too.
Griffey hit a once-abandoned warehouse in an exhibition contest, and everyone thought it was awesome, except Griffey.
“It doesn’t count,” he told reporters. “It wasn’t in a game.”
The ball from that home run is still displayed in Baltimore’s Babe Ruth museum.
It got there because a 17-year-old high-school senior in the bleachers needed a break from the oppressive heat and found shelter against the warehouse.
Next thing he knew, he was at the bottom of a pile with a baseball pressed against his stomach.
He is Mark Pallack, and he is 40 with a wife and baby daughter. This year he took his daughter to an Orioles game and pointed to the plaque on the warehouse marking Griffey’s home run — a part of history, sure, but also part of a legend.