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23 years ago: Griffey Jr. turned Colorado boos to HR Derby cheers

The superstar was not going to participate in the highly anticipated Coors Field event, but the fans changed his mind. Rockies' Vinny Castilla finished third.

DENVER — Of all the games and exhibitions of skill showcased from the four major sports, the ultimate feat of strength has to be Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby.

It requires muscle, a sweet swing (a slight uppercut helps), a well-placed meatball from the batting practice pitcher (a livelier than usual basket of baseballs helps), good timing, (rarefied, mile-high air helps), the natural adrenaline rush from 50,000 fans in attendance.

And in the case of superstar Ken Griffey Jr. twenty-three years ago, an ample amount of sensitivity.

In a matter of hours on Monday, July 6, 1998, Griffey went from Colorado’s No. 1 villain to the reestablished No. 1 star of our national pastime.

Considered baseball’s best and most popular player leading into the highly-anticipated Home Run Derby at power-freakish Coors Field – four years before engineer Tony Colwell invented the humidor – Griffey had stated a month prior to the contest he would not participate.

Wait, what?

Never mind that other sluggers like Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa and Greg Vaughn used various excuses to not participate, or that Griffey cited fatigue from the arduous travel teams from Seattle must endure. A Home Run Derby at Coors Field was simply a too-hyped event for the game’s best player to not participate.

During the American League batting practice session early Monday – a few hours before the start of the Home Run Derby – Griffey was roundly booed by the Coors Field fans. Those boos, and a talk from Hall of Famer Frank Robinson who advised Griffey to give the fans what they want, changed Griffey’s mind.

And being the great player that he was, Griffey not only participated, he won the darn thing, hitting a combined 16 homers in the first two rounds, then beating Jim Thome, 3 home runs to 2 in the finals.

It was an upset of sorts as Mark McGwire was the heavy favorite. Big Mac brought 37 homers into the All Star break, on his way to a record 70. Griffey had 35 homers at the break on his way to a second consecutive 56-homer season. McGwire wasn’t in sync with his BP pitcher though, and apologized to the crowd after he was eliminated following the first round.

It wasn’t just Griffey who won the HR Derby, though. This was a major victory for Colorado’s baseball fans, whose voices were heard, and rewarded.

"I don't like to get booed," Griffey said then. "This is not the time to get booed - at the All-Star Game. … I usually get booed on the road. In this situation, the All-Star Game, I really didn't like it. But you know, they felt they wanted to see me in the home run competition, so I did it. … I wasn’t expecting to win.”

From the hometown Rockies, third baseman Vinny Castilla acquitted himself well, hitting 12 homers in the first two rounds to finish third overall.

1998 Home Run Derby at Coors Field results

Hitter, team …….……. 1st round … Semifinal … Final … Total

Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners .… 8 …….....… 8 ………….… 3 … 19

Jim Thome, Indians …….… 7 …….....… 8 …………..… 2 … 17

Vinny Castilla, Rockies …... 7 ……....…. 5 …………..… - … 12

Rafael Palmeiro, Orioles .… 7 ……...…. 3 …………..… - … 10

Moises Alou, Astros ……..… 7 ………. - …………….…. - .… 7

Javy Lopez, Braves …..…… 5 ……….. - ……….…...…. - … 5

Alex Rodriguez, Mariners … 5 ………. - ……………...… - … 5

Mark McGwire, Cards …….. 4 ………. - …………..….… - … 4

Damion Easley, Tigers ……. 2 ……… - ……………...…. - … 2

Chipper Jones, Braves ……. 1 ……… - ……………..…. - … 1

The Home Run Derby will return Monday night to Coors Field. Participants include heavy favorite Shohei Ohtani, defending champion (from 2019) Pete Alonso and the Rockies’ Trevor Story.

Among the heavy hitters who have reportedly declined to participate are Aaron Judge and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Come on, Colorado baseball fans. Let ‘em have it. Boooo!

Credit: Major League Baseball
1998 MLB All-Star Game

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