Home Run Derby has evolved into marquee event
Posted: Tuesday July 11, 2000 02:10 AM
By Lonny Krasnow, CNNSI.com
One more day and then the stars come out.
First, though, the final prelude to the All-Star Game takes place tonight when baseball's sluggers take part in the always-anticipated Home Run Derby.
Based on a made-for-television concept from the late 1950s, the Home Run Derby was revived in 1985 by former commissioner Peter Uberroth as a preliminary event for the All-Star Game in Minneapolis.
The old black-and-white TV show featured contestants such as Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays hitting batting-practice home runs at a minor-league ballpark in Los Angeles.
From 1985 to 1990, the Home Run Derby was strictly a team competition-American League vs. National League. It was structured as a two-inning event with each player getting five outs per inning. The revival has gone through a series of transitions before settling into the current format, which now plays before sellout crowds on the day before the All-Star Game.
The popularity of the derby has mirrored the home run explosion in baseball over the last 15 years. Prior to 1985, only eight players reached the 30-homer plateau before the All-Star break. Since 1985, 30 home runs at the break has been accomplished 14 times.
In the 1985 derby, Tom Brunansky, Carlton Fisk, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice and Cal Ripken represented the American League. The National League featured Jack Clark, Steve Garvey, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker and Ryne Sandberg. Dave Parker led all hitters with six home runs, but the Junior circuit prevailed 17-16.
The following year the NL edged the AL 8-7 with rookie Wally Joyner and Darryl Strawberry hitting four home runs apiece.
Andre Dawson's four homers carried the National League to a 6-2 victory in 1987.
The event was canceled due to rain in 1988.
The NL won again 9-5 in 1989 with Eric Davis and Ruben Sierra going deep three times each.
At Wrigley Field in 1990, hometown hero Sandberg belted three home runs, leading the NL to another victory 4-1. Sandberg was crowned the first Home Run Derby "champion" even though it was still a team competition.
In 1991, each player was granted ten outs (swings that did not result in home runs) to hit as many home runs as possible. Cal Ripken Jr. took advantage and produced 12 home runs on 22 swings. Cecil Fielder was next-best with four, including two bombs that reached the SkyDome restaurant located in distant center field.
Mark McGwire dominated the competition in 1992 with 12 round-trippers, including eight on consecutive pitches. The longest home run came off the bat of Fred McGriff, who hit a 458-foot blast that landed two rows short of the scoreboard in Jack Murphy Stadium.
In 1993, Ken Griffey Jr. became the first player to hit the Camden Yards warehouse on the fly. Juan Gonzalez also reached uncharted territory-the facade of the upper deck in left field (473 feet) and the green wall behind the center-field fence (455 feet). Gonzalez needed two extra innings to capture the crown.
Frank Thomas highlighted the slugfest in 1994 with a 519-foot moon shot into the upper deck in left field-the longest ever measured at Three Rivers Stadium. But it was Ken Griffey Jr. who claimed his first derby title when all was said and done.
The derby format was revised again in 1995 to showcase baseball's biggest sluggers. The home run leaders at the All-Star break were invited and the players with the four highest homer totals after the first round advanced to a second round of five "outs." The two leaders-Frank Thomas and Albert Belle-met in the finals and the Big Hurt won the title 3-2.
The 1996 derby at Veterans Stadium turned into the battle of the Bay with San Francisco's Barry Bonds and Oakland's Mark McGwire providing the fireworks. Bonds smashed three home runs in his final three swings to edge Big Mac by one in the last round.
In 1997, Larry Walker belted 18 homers in the opening rounds, including a 479-foot shot into the right field mezzanine level of Jacobs Field. However, Tino Martinez bested Walker 3-1 in the finals.
At Coors Field in 1998, McGwire managed just four home runs and failed to get past the first round. Griffey, who planned on skipping the competition until he was booed mercilessly during workouts, won the event by beating Jim Thome 3-2 in the final.
Last year at Fenway Park, McGwire put on an awesome display, launching 13 homers over the Green Monster. The eight longest shots belonged to Big Mac, all 450 feet or longer. But in the end, lefty pull hitters ruled-Ken Griffey, Jr. beat Jeromy Burnitz 3-2 in the five-out final.
After 15 years of derby madness, it's hard to imagine an All-Star Game without a home run hitting contest. It's even harder to imagine a Home Run Derby without Mark McGwire, who will rest his sore knee this week.
Ken Griffey Jr. is also bothered by a bum knee and will miss the All-Star Game, but he will be allowed to defend his Home Run Derby title.
Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero and Chipper Jones will join Junior on the NL side for the derby, taking on Carlos Delgado, Ivan Rodriguez, Carl Everett and Edgar Martinez.
Mac or no Mac, the Home Run Derby figures to be the highlight of All-Star Week.