By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The late-’90s were a boom period for baseball. The summer of 1998 captivated the nation, with a record-shattering home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa front and center.
The following summer, now 20 years ago this week, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game came to Boston. And on a Monday night in the Fens, a backyard wiffle ball dream came to life as the game’s best sluggers took aim at the iconic Green Monster in the Home Run Derby.
Many of us watched from afar through the magic of television. In fact, the Derby had originated as a made-for-TV event, a concept hatched in the earlier days of the medium, with stars like Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays slugging it out for the chance at a handsome $2,000 check.
Baseball revived the competition during All-Star festivities in the ’80s, with the contest finding its way back to television soon after. By 1999, the ESPN telecast was midsummer must-see TV.
While later contests have produced more homers, the 1999 event was a unique showcase, thanks to the combination of the scenic backdrop of Fenway and the contextual backdrop of baseball’s offensive explosion.
And though it looked great in your living room, it was electric for those in attendance.
Jon Wallach, Boston sports anchor: I was standing on Landsdowne Street. It was like a block-long mosh pit. You didn’t even need to be in the ballpark – it was just a happening. You just wanted to be in the vicinity, in the area.
Maurice Baxter, Red Sox clubhouse attendant: I was the ball boy, out on the field. It was so bright and the crowd was so energetic, you knew you were in the midst of something special.
The betting favorites were probably the principals of the previous summer’s home run bonanza: McGwire and Sosa. Two-time champion Ken Griffey Jr. joined them to defend his ’98 crown, along with fellow Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell (449 career clouts) of the Astros, Larry Walker (383) of the Rockies, and Shawn Green (working on the first of three 40-homer campaigns) of the Blue Jays.
Green: It was right after the home run race, and I had to hit between McGwire and Sosa. It was probably the scariest thing I’d done to that point in my career. You’re used to taking batting practice during the day, but now the lights are on and there’s a full house.
Brian Jordan, Atlanta Braves: That was back when guys wanted to be in the Home Run Derby. You don’t really have that as much anymore. They definitely picked the right people for that one. It was the best field I’d ever seen.
Jeromy Burnitz was in the midst of an impressive stretch with the Brewers, John Jaha popped 35 homers that summer, and B.J. Surhoff turned in the best power numbers of his career in ‘99.
And then, you had the hometown hero, Nomar Garciaparra.
Jay Bell, Arizona Diamondbacks: I had a great respect for Nomar. There were a lot of things about him that I appreciated. He represented Major League Baseball extremely well. He represented the Red Sox really well.
Boston’s first round pick in 1994 had also cracked a combined 65 dingers in his first two full seasons. His aggressive hitting approach, natural ability and old school style of play quickly placed him among the brightest of Boston’s sports constellations.
Dan Roche, WBZ Radio: He had power, but he also had that high OBP back when we weren’t talking about it. And kids were fascinated by what he did with the whole dance: Feet tapping, adjusting the batting gloves, going back and forth, back and forth. Then he’d step in, first pitch, swinging.
After Walker took his cuts, Garciaparra strode to the plate. Red Sox first base coach David Jauss pitched to Nomar during the contest. Like the rest of us, Jauss had expected to be watching on TV.
David Jauss: We didn’t know he was going to be asked until a few days ahead of time. So Nomar goes, “Hey Jaussy, I just got asked to be in the home run hitting contest. Can you throw to me?”
My wife had rented a house on the Cape for three days. The kids were young and I got to spend very little time with them, so we were going to get away – the kids were looking forward to time with their dad and I was looking forward to time with them. So I said, “I don’t know, my kids might disown me and my wife might leave me – and not just for three days on the Cape!”
So Nomar goes, “Well, it’d mean a lot if you go home and ask.”
That night, I mentioned it and my wife goes, “My gosh, this is going to be a great experience for you.” So I think, well, maybe we can bring my two older kids out on the field, my youngest can sit in the stands, I’ll ask my dad to come. Maybe it won’t be all that bad instead of going to the Cape.”
Bell: I had the opportunity to get my son down on the field to watch with me.
Dan Duquette, Red Sox general manager: My son also got to be a part of the Home Run Derby.
Jauss: I go into the clubhouse on Monday with my kids and find out I’m throwing BP to Pudge (Ivan Rodriguez), Palmeiro, I think Jeter, maybe Bernie Williams. I wound up throwing to three groups, and they were loaded.
I went to my wife and said, “I’m gonna have a blast!” And I did. So did Nomar. It was just a riot that whole time.
With the lights and eyes of Fenway on its golden child (and Jauss), the shortstop smacked the first pitch into the netting above the Monster. The place exploded. He hit another toward the giant Coke bottles that once towered over left field. But as the television microphone picked up Nomar’s exhausted grunts and the outs piled up, it was clear he was overmatched.
Jauss: The reason he didn’t hit the home runs (in the contest) is he took batting practice about four times that day. He must’ve taken 120 swings. And as a smaller guy against those big guys, he was tired.
With Nomar stuck on two homers, Burnitz parked six baseballs into the stands, all to the southeast of the bullpens in right field. Then, Bagwell proceeded to send five home runs over the left field wall.
The late Stuart Scott, who interviewed each of the participants on the field that night, asked Bagwell about his mindset while at the plate. The slugger replied, “I don’t know, maybe that I could’ve been here at some time.”
The Mick Foley tactic worked, and the Fenway faithful popped for their former fourth-round pick, dealt during the summer of 1990 for bullpen help en route to an AL East crown. With the fanbase starved for a World Series win that had eluded their team across 81 summers, a simple acknowledgement from one of the game’s best was sufficient to win friends and influence people.
Toolsy Orioles outfielder Surhoff also enjoyed a career-high 28 homers in 1999.
Jauss: Surhoff didn’t have a guy so I threw to him as well. He was hitting like .480 against us during the season, so Duquette told me, “go ahead and throw to him and figure out how to get him out!”
Next up was the man who’d spent the previous season toppling Roger Maris’ 37-year-old single-season home run mark, as McGwire stepped to the plate.
Green: McGwire’s the one guy everybody wanted to watch take batting practice when you played against him.
The flashbulbs popped, a hum of anticipation awaiting his mighty hacks. The crowd roared for the violent crash of bat upon ball, for big flies that would scrape the evening sky, plummeting to drive dents into cars parked on the streets outside the venue.
McGwire turned the event into a personal showcase for a few minutes that felt like an ecstatic hour, launching his first two swings over the Monster, with his third bomb clanking off a light tower in left.
Marshall Hook, reporter, Forever Baseball: In the old days at Fenway, before they built out the second deck, there was a camera position on the roof in left. Fenway security would let anyone through with a press pass. I knew about that and figured, “I’ll just walk out there.”
Nobody stopped me. I wasn’t bugging the camera guy. So I stood on the very corner of that roof, which put me over the stands and right on the wall. It was a perfect place to see all those McGwire home runs that cleared the wall, cleared the street, bounced off the parking garage, cleared the parking garage. It was a fantastic show.
Wallach: They didn’t have seats then (on the Monster), just a screen, so you saw them coming. A ball landed near me during the McGwire show, but I had no chance at it. It was just a sea of people.
At one point, McGwire cranked five in a row to set a then-single round record of 13. Chris Berman nearly had a coronary on the telecast.
Tony Massarotti, Red Sox beat writer, Boston Herald: With McGwire, you had the prototypical uppercut, right-handed power hitter taking aim at the wall. The whole thing was awesome.
Matt Williams, Arizona Diamondbacks: We were really close, sitting what felt like 10 feet from home. I don’t know which swing it was, but early in the round, McGwire broke his bat. We all knew it at the time, but folks watching on television had no way to know it was broken. He didn’t care. He just continued to launch balls into the street.
As the hysteria cooled to a buzz, in stepped Green, a first-time All-Star and left-handed swinger with power to all fields.
Green: I was excited to be out there as a skinny guy against all those massive, strong home run hitters. My strategy was to hit home runs in batting practice to the middle of the field. I never pulled home runs in batting practice. So I was just trying to get the bat out and hit the ball as far as I could and not worry about the Monster.
I learned a lot about hitting for power from (teammate) Carlos Delgado – trying to hang with him, playing Home Run Derby in practice and working on hitting them to center field and left field.
While Green hit an impressive shot to straightaway center, he also stalled after two home runs. That would be more than Sosa, however, who took a back seat this night with just a single long ball.
Griffey tallied nine outs before hitting two homers and finishing with three to escape the first round, moving on with McGwire, Bagwell and Burnitz.
The righties were, of course, pulling the ball over the Monster. But lefty Griffey, as with Burnitz before him, had little interest in using the opposite field porch to his advantage, instead driving the ball well past the deepest right field fence in all of the game.
Williams: In a game, you don’t know what’s coming. You don’t know what the pitcher is thinking, and the velocity is increased. So you get a ball out and over that you can hit the other way, off the wall, and get a double. But everybody has more power to their pull side, generally, than they do the other way.
It probably wasn’t even a thought for Jeromy or Ken, not to get up on the dish and hit it over that right field wall. They certainly didn’t have any trouble doing it. Those were a couple of big, strong guys who could hit the ball a long way.
After Burnitz muscled six more shots out to right, Griffey, hat turned backwards, found his groove in the second round, lofting 10 big flies into the right field stands. While the feat didn’t register quite as high on the Richter scale as McGwire’s thunderous first round, it would be Griffey, along with Burnitz, moving on to the final, as Bagwell and McGwire’s bats went silent.
Hook: Nearly everyone remembers it as the “Mark McGwire Home Run Derby,” even though he didn’t make it past the second round.
Mike “Sarge” Riley, voice of the Needham Rockets: McGwire put on the show, but Griffey won!
In the end, Griffey walked away with the trophy, defeating Burnitz 3-2 in a closing round where the participants received five outs apiece. It would be one of the Hall of Famer’s last great moments in a Mariners uniform, as Seattle finished under .500 in ’99 (despite Griffey’s 48/134 line) and he moved to Cincinnati the following offseason.
McGwire would finish with an amazing 65 homers and 147 RBI that summer, his last healthy one before retiring two years later. The ’99 Home Run Derby would serve as an iconic moment for his career as well, though the merits of his achievements would later be called into question.
Jordan: They brought baseball back. Mark was a great guy with a team-first attitude, even with all the media hype in the clubhouse those days. I loved watching that part but hated seeing him go through the fall, later.
Whether you view it in retrospect as too good to be true, the product of an era – or the work of baseball’s most outstanding talents, dropped into an antique stadium on the edge of the millennium, delivering goosebump moments that neatly wrap an otherwise messy historical narrative – it was a heck of a night at Fenway Park.
Roche: It was like they were using rubber-coated baseballs.
Wallach: I still remember getting elbowed in the head like it was yesterday.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.