With the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby taking place tonight at Target Field in Minneapolis, it’s impossible for New England not to recall a summer night 15 years ago and one of the most memorable long ball contests in league history. The 1999 Home Run Derby at Fenway Park was like a backyard wiffleball dream come to life, with our favorite muscle-bound superstars taking aim at the Green Monster. It was the apex for the made-for-TV event.
Time has taught us not everything was as it seemed. We were all so innocent then. But, oh, what a contest it was…
The National League team boasted the two heroes of the summer of ’98, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, along with Jeff Bagwell, himself no slouch with 449 career dingers to his credit. Larry Walker, who, not surprisingly, put up the best power numbers of his career in Colorado, rounded out the roster along with Milwaukee’s Jeromy Burnitz.
The American League team didn’t have the depth of the NL squad, but were led by the best all-around player in the game, Ken Griffey, Jr. Nomar Garciaparra got the hometown nod, but fared only slightly better (two homers) in his second Derby appearance than he had in 1997, when he put up a goose egg in Cleveland.
Shawn Green, he of 328 career round-trippers and in the midst of the first of three 40-homer campaigns, rounded out the AL representatives along with a resurgent John Jaha (a classic Billy Beane signing even then, as he pounded 35 homers for the ’99 A’s after two injury-plagued campaigns with the Brewers) and B.J. Surhoff(!)
Things got off to a bang (quite literally) as McGwire looked to make the contest a personal showcase. In contrast to Sosa, who managed just one dinger, Big Mac parked 13 balls, launching impressive moon shots high over the Monster and into the evening sky, landing dangerously close to the windshields of cars passing on the Mass Pike. Chris Berman nearly had a coronary. Burnitz totaled an impressive six long balls to move on with Bagwell (five) and Griffey (three) to the semifinal round.
But McGwire tired after his first round rampage. Meanwhile, Griffey caught fire: the lefty smashed 10 dingers in round two, while Burnitz, of all people, moved into the finals with six more.
The exhibition may have been the highlight of Burnitz’s career. A first-round flameout with the Mets who fell victim to the Indians’ outfield/first base glut of the mid-to-late 90’s (hello Brian Giles, Richie Sexson, and Russell Branyan), Burnitz starred in relative obscurity in Milwaukee, bashing 30-plus homers four consecutive years for some terrible Brewers teams seemingly waiting for Miller Park to be constructed before they would bother to contend again. The ’99 All-Star Game was his only trip to the Midsummer Classic, and today he’s one of those forgotten sluggers.
Sitting in my living room with my friend Will, visiting that week from the West Coast, I was squarely in the corner of the underdog. But Griffey brought home the trophy will a relatively uneventful final round, prevailing 3-2.
Like I said, it was an innocent age. I was a 16-year old seamhead squarely in the midst of the Steroid Era. What we watched on the old Magnavox that evening was downright incredible. We found out later it was too good to be true. But in the annals of the Home Run Derby, McGwire’s king-sized clouts, Griffey’s characteristically cool performance under pressure, and the undercurrent of Jeromy Burnitz, of all people, gunning for the title with the Green Monster looming in left, made it one of the more memorable contests in history.