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Ken Griffey Jr. Home Run Derby history

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Long before Pete Alonso, Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge, Julio Rodríguez and other contemporary sluggers thrilled us with their prodigious power during All-Star Home Run Derby competitions, one name towered above the rest in the annals of Derby lore:

No one has won as many Derby titles as Griffey’s three. The combination of his immaculate swing, his ability to deliver under pressure, his status as the most exciting player in the game and, of course, that backwards cap, made him a Derby legend the likes of which we haven’t seen since.

With the Home Run Derby taking place in Seattle for the first time in more than two decades, Griffey’s memorable performances in the eight Derbies he participated in from 1990-2000 will serve as a fitting backdrop for this year’s competition, which takes place Monday night on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET at T-Mobile Park — also known as the “House that Griffey Built.”

Griffey, the face of the game in the 1990s and one of the greatest center fielders in baseball history, took some time to return to that unforgettable era and share his Derby memories, beginning with a moment that would be linked with him so closely that he even mentioned it in his Hall of Fame induction speech.

It was 30 years ago that Junior gave us arguably the most iconic moment in Home Run Derby history at Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards. While he didn’t win the 1993 contest, one momentous shot off his bat set the stage for a Derby career unlike any other.

1993: ‘It hit the warehouse!’

“I just thought it was way too far.”

Way too far? Is anything way too far for Ken Griffey Jr.?

Looking back, Griffey says the first thought that crossed his mind when he laid eyes on the historic B&O Warehouse that stands about 60 feet beyond the right field wall at Camden Yards was that he’d never reach it with a homer.

“I mean, it’s like 460 feet or something, and you have to clear a 20-foot wall, so I wasn’t expecting to hit it,” Griffey said. “I didn’t really hit that ‘oooh-eee’ type of home run. It’s more of a line drive that keeps going. I didn’t hit the Canseco-, McGwire-, Bonds-type homers.”

Back in 1993, the competition had one untimed regulation round, and according to the rules, each swing was either a homer or one of ten “outs.” Junior belted seven homers, but Rangers slugger Juan Gonzalez also hit seven, and for the first time there was a Home Run Derby tiebreaker.

Griffey and Gonzalez each launched four in the tiebreaker round, forcing another, which Gonzalez won. But it was Griffey’s final homer that stole the show.

Junior scorched a laser headed for Eutaw Street beyond the right field wall. As the ball sailed over the fence, it was as if the nearly 50,000 fans on hand knew this was going to be a special moment — the cheering abruptly hushed as the spectators waited with bated breath to see where this baseball would land.

Then, jubilation in the right-field stands. A few seconds later, the public address announcer, Jon Miller, broke the news: “It hit the warehouse!” he exclaimed. Griffey stepped out of the batter’s box and flashed his signature smile.

“That’s when I had to just sit back and start laughing,” he said.

The 465-foot shot remains the only home run to hit the warehouse in the air, either in an exhibition or in a game. While that homer is the most famous Griffey hit in a Derby, there were many others that were unforgettable, particularly the very next year.

1994: Home run homecoming

One of the most incredible pieces of baseball trivia involves Donora, Pennsylvania. The steel mill town of fewer than 5,000 people is situated about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh and is the birthplace of two of the greatest players in MLB history: Stan Musial and Ken Griffey Jr.

What’s even more amazing is that these two Hall of Famers were born exactly 49 years apart — Musial on November 21, 1920, and Griffey on November 21, 1969.

“We’ve got a lot of hits from that date in that small town,” Griffey said, referring to the combined 6,411 Major League hits between the two. “That’s probably a record. The crazy thing is, the sign when you come into Donora says ‘Home of Champions.’”

That would include Home Run Derby champions, particularly the winner of the 1994 contest in nearby Pittsburgh. Griffey hit seven homers at Three Rivers Stadium — five of which landed in the upper deck — to claim his first Derby trophy.

But that isn’t why he considers it the most special of his Derby victories.

“All my friends and family were there,” Griffey said. “If I’d have lost, they would’ve given me some grief. So I didn’t have to worry about that.”

Griffey missed the 1995 and ’96 Home Run Derbies due to injury. In ’97, he was back, but after a Sunday night game against the Angels in California and a red-eye flight across the country to Cleveland, he was worn out and didn’t advance past the first round.

“I was mentally and physically drained from the travel and getting up and having to do the press conference early before workouts because I was the top vote-getter for the All-Star Game,” Griffey said.

“We got into town about 6:30 a.m., and the press conference was at 8:30. So by the time I actually got to the Home Run Derby, I was just exhausted. I still did it and got bounced and got booed, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s not doing me any good.’”

Junior initially decided not to participate in the 1998 Derby at Coors Field. But he not only changed his mind, he went and won it with 19 homers over three rounds, besting Cleveland slugger Jim Thome.

The following year at Fenway Park, however, it looked like it might be Cleveland all over again for Griffey. With one out to go in the opening round, he had only one home run. He needed two to advance to Round 2.

In Griffey’s case, there was more than just the pressure of being down to his final out with advancement out of the first round at stake. There was also the pressure of being Ken Griffey Jr., the superstar who always delivers.

Once you’ve set the bar as high as Griffey had set it, it can sometimes feel as though nothing you do after that is good enough. Excellence, if below that bar, is just not sufficient. But for Junior, the math was pretty simple.

“There are only two things that can happen,” he said of pressure-packed situations at the plate. “Either you do it, or you don’t. I know what I have to do.”

And he did what he had to do in Boston that night, belting a long homer to center field and one more over the Green Monster for good measure.

Griffey went on to slam 10 homers in Round 2 before launching three in the final round against the Brewers’ Jeromy Burnitz to capture his third Derby title.

Griffey’s swing seemed tailor-made for the Home Run Derby.

“He has such a natural home run swing that he really doesn’t have to change much for this competition,” said Hall of Famer Joe Morgan on the ESPN telecast in 1994. “He has a slight uppercut to his swing.”

But even for Griffey, none of it just happened — he didn’t just roll out of bed and win Home Run Derby competitions, as much as it seemed that way sometimes. Or hit 56 home runs in back-to-back seasons. Or win 10 Gold Glove Awards. Or do all of it with impeccable style.

“People think a baseball player’s day ends when the game’s over,” Griffey said. “But that’s when the next day starts. You might go 4-for-4, but if you go 0-for-4, you’re thinking about that on your drive home. You’re thinking about it at 11:00 or 12:00 at night if you had a day game.

“I worked hard at it.”

And that includes the pristine swing. Did Griffey alter it to make it more suitable for the Derby? Not exactly.

“I didn’t change it,” he said. “I just hit the ball three inches further out front. Because when I hit it three inches out front, I’m on the upslope of my swing.”

Those ‘oooh-eee’ homers

What might Griffey have done under the current Home Run Derby rules, in which you are allotted a certain amount of time to take as many swings as possible to rack up the homers?

It’s fun to think about. But if you’re Ken Griffey Jr., there’s no need.

“I don’t even worry about it,” he said. “It’s not for me to decide what I could’ve done. I just look at it as things have changed and the game has evolved. This is what the fans want and it generates a lot of excitement for the guys participating.”

In all, Griffey hit 74 homers in Home Run Derby competition. But even the Derby king is awestruck by today’s sluggers.

Especially when they hit those “oooh-eee” homers.

“Some of these homers guys are hitting nowadays, I’m like, ‘Wow, I wish I could hit them that high,’” Griffey said.

Surely Junior hasn’t forgotten about some of the more majestic of the 630 home runs he hit during his magnificent career, has he?

“No,” he said with a knowing smile. “But those were on breaking balls.”

Well, you don’t see many of those in the Home Run Derby.

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