The Home Run Derby is pretty dumb. We like to pretend it means something – or at least the league does – but really, it’s just a batting practice competition. Sure, it can be fun to see your favorite players participate, or to see a wide-eyed, first-time All-Star taking it all in with his video camera in foul territory. But that’s about it.
So when David Ortiz decided he would no longer partake in the Derby, telling WEEI he “wouldn’t do it” if American League captain Robinson Cano asked him to join the team, it didn’t really shock or disappoint me. Ortiz is by no means the first slugger to have dissed the opportunity to compete in the long ball exhibition, and he won’t be the last. The competition itself means virtually nothing to these guys – the All-Star festivities are about relaxing and having fun.
That said, there’s still something to the allure of the massive dinger. Batting practice or not, watching anyone crank a baseball 500-plus feet into previously unchartered depths of a ballpark has at least some entertainment value. But if I’m ever going to sit down and watch a complete Home Run Derby from start to finish (I believe the last time I did this I was 11 years old), it would have to be perfect. No more fringe sluggers; I want the roided-out behemoths of the 90s back on the scene. This year’s Derby captains, Cano and David Wright, are two of the most tremendous players in baseball. But they’re not pure home run hitters. When it comes to the long ball, there’s nothing interesting about them.
No, I want to watch a Derby featuring 10 guys who will really put on a show. Looking back through history, I think I’ve found the perfect lineup. Instead of breaking my top 10 down into American and National League teams, I will instead separate them into right-handed and left-handed hitters, five on each squad.
Now I just need a time machine.
When you look up “roided-out slugger” in the dictionary, you see a picture of Canseco. Forget Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens; this guy is the poster boy for the steroid era, and judging by his Twitter feed, HGH isn’t the only drug he’s taken in his life.
Canseco smashed 462 dingers in his career, and despite his best years coming with the Athletics in the late 1980s and early 90s, his season-high in homers was 46 with the Blue Jays in 1998. He was one of the most prolific mashers of his era, peaking just before the league-wide barrage of offense took off in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Most notably, Canseco was known for his ridiculous biceps. He made the bat look like a toothpick in his hands, and if he hit a fastball, it was going to go a minimum of 400 feet. If Canseco’s career was to serve one purpose, it was to compete in this fantasy Home Run Derby I have created.
He used to be Canseco’s partner in the “Bash Brothers” duo in Oakland, but McGwire’s career picked up steam when he went to St. Louis and hit 70 homers in 1998. His .454 ISO that year was by far tops in the big leagues and his .325 mark ranks second all time. The guy was pure power.
McGwire was also no stranger to the Home Run Derby. His 13 bombs during the first round of the 1999 Derby at Fenway Park set a new record (only to be demolished several times in future years), and it was arguably the first “memorable” Derby moment in baseball history.
If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night sweating and panicking that a gigantic, vicious and unreasonable beast is at your door just waiting to come in and tear you limb from limb with only his teeth …. don’t worry, that’s just Albert Belle.
Arguably the most terrifying person in the history of the world, Belle was simply one mean sunnovabitch. He also had ridiculous power. His .374 ISO in 1995 was far and away the best in the league; Jay Buhner was eons behind in second at .304. Belle tagged 384 home runs in just over 6,600 plate appearances in his career, including a career-high 50 in that magical (and oh so terrifying) ’95 campaign.
Really, though, if you’ve ever heard the phrase, “he murdered that baseball,” to describe a player who hit a ball really far, it was coined from watching Belle. If anyone could literally murder an inanimate object, it would be him.
OK, enough of the steroid guys who dominated the mid-90s … for now. Kiner’s run of power through the post-war era was matched by no one. In a span of five years from 1947-1951, Kiner led all of baseball in ISO four times. In 1952, he finished third.
Kiner slugged 50 homers twice in his career, including 54 in 1949, which stood as the National League record until 1997. He also led the OPS + that year (he did that three times, too). One of the best right-handed pure power hitters of all time, Kiner was a man amongst boys in the home run department during his reign in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s.
The masher formerly known as “Mike” is the most entertaining home run hitter in the game today, and the fact that he’s only 23 makes him that much more fearsome. Stanton led the league in ISO last year and finished third as a 21-year-old in 2011. In an era where home runs are way down, Stanton would still fit right in during the steroid era.
Oh, and did I mention that he’s only 23? Good grief.
I grew up going to baseball games at Veterans Stadium. Because the Phillies were horrible throughout the entirety of my childhood (1993 doesn’t count; I was hardly conscious), it would be quite common to be one of just a few thousand fans at “The Vet” taking in a game.
In section 601, there was a chair that stood out from the rest, and was easily visible during those empty nights at the ballpark. On June 25, 1971, Willie Stargell hit the farthest home run in Veterans Stadium history, a moonshot into the upper deck in right field. The spot where it landed – that chair in section 601 – was marked with a yellow star with a black “S” inside a white circle.
Stargell hit 475 home runs in his career and torched the league with a .347 ISO in 1973. He led the entire 1970s in home runs (296), ISO (.268) and wOBA (.405). And most of all: when he hit them, he hit them far.
Thome’s 612 home runs rank seventh all time, and his .278 ISO puts him in ninth among the powerful greats. But perhaps more so than any other slugger in the history of the game, Thome was built to hit home runs. He’s a lumberjack, the preeminent designated hitter who can’t run but whose forearms remind of you of lead pipes.
Of all of Thome’s bombs, perhaps none are more memorable than his triple-deck shot at Coors Field during the 1998 Home Run Derby, which he eventually lost in the final round to Ken Griffey Jr. I was nine years old that year, but I still remember it as the most majestic blast I’ve ever seen.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Speaking of “Junior” and that ’98 Derby, who doesn’t remember everyone’s favorite backwards-hat wearing slugger taking the crown like we all knew he would? There was no cooler player in the history of the game than Griffey, because there was never a sweeter swing from the left side of the plate. Griffey’s 56 homers in ’98 were a pittance compared to his roided counterparts, but he could still bop ‘em with the best at any point in his career.
Really, it’s not a Home Run Derby worth watching without “The Kid.”
I stand by my assertion that Babe Ruth is the most important athlete in the history of the world (Jackie Robinson a close second), and is also the most dominant hitter of all time. However, I also will make this claim: If Babe Ruth played today, he wouldn’t make a Major League ball club.
Basic evolutionary theory suggests that Ruth would be too small, too slow and too fat to compete with today’s modern ballplayer. And despite the way historians will describe old time pitchers, nobody was throwing the same kind of stuff that today’s hurlers possess. At best, I’d venture to say that the top fastball during Ruth’s era was in the low 90 mile-per-hour range.
That said, a Home Run Derby is a batting practice competition, and Ruth did hit 714 home runs out of real MLB stadiums. It would be amazing to see how his power stacked up against players throughout history in essentially a context-neutral setting.
Much like Stargell’s chair in section 601 at Veterans Stadium, the red chair in section 42 at Fenway Park signifies Ted Williams’ momentous blast. The longest home run in the stadium’s history went 37 rows deep into the bleachers, and it couldn’t have been hit by a more iconic Red Sox player.
Williams is most famously known for being the last .400 hitter in the big leagues, in addition to his outstanding eye at the plate. But many casual baseball fans forget that, if it weren’t for the three years he lost in the prime of his career for going to war, Williams likely would have ended up with well over 600 home runs. Still, he ranks sixth all time with a .289 ISO, and much like Ruth, it would be interesting to see how he’d fare against the sluggers of later years.