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An Oral History of Ken Griffey Jr.’s MLB Home Run Derby Dopeness

Ken Griffey Jr. remains king of MLB's Home Run Derby, which would have gone down on Monday if not for COVID-19.

Under normal circumstances, we’d be discussing the 2020 MLB Home Run Derby that would have taken place on Monday at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles — if not for the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, we have to wait until July 23rd for the 60-game shortened season to begin, and for the first time in my lifetime, there was no All-Star game or MLB Homer Derby, events generally recognized as the highlights of All-Star weekend.

With that in mind, Ken Griffey Jr immediately jumps into my stream of consciousness. His 630 career homers rank seventh on the all-time list, but the lasers he banged in past MLB Homer Derby’s helped elevate All-Star Weekend to the must-see attraction that it is today.

Junior turned 50 years old in November of 2019, but the freshness of his impact, talent, and effervescence of his character remains decades after he broke into the league as a legendary 19-year old rookie with the Seattle Mariners. 

Griffey, a three-time Home Run Derby champion (’94, ’98, ’99) always put on a show. I got the opportunity to do an oral history on the Griffey Effect, specifically as it relates to his appearances in the derby.

He won his first All-Star Weekend Home Run Derby titles 26 years ago.

It seems like it was just yesterday when he was crashing through walls, rocking his hat to the back, swiping bags, hitting bombs and flashing his million-dollar smile all over commercials.

Griffey Jr. set a new standard for swagged out, all-around baseball supremacy, branding, and marketability of the American baseball player that has yet to be recaptured.

And he did it without indulging in performance-enhancing drugs.

Players come and go and have incredible Hall of Fame careers, but few can capture the universal hearts of baseball fans and leave a lasting impression on the game the way Ken Griffey Jr. has. He is baseball’s shining, example of how you market an elite African-American baseball player to kids of all colors and ethnicities.

He was the ultimate baseball brand. The greatest thing since crackerjacks.The Black Panther of MLB players. However, you choose to phrase it. And he continues to inspire a new generation of baseball players.

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During the 2018 MLB All-Star Weekend festivities in Washington D.C., I was able to speak with a host of qualified baseball lifers about Ken Griffey Jr.’s impact on MLB.

It’s been over a quarter-century since the Home Run Derby blast heard around the world. Every person I spoke with remembers ‘93, when Junior hit the warehouse in Camden Yards. His unfathomable feats on the field and the way he represented the culture made playing baseball feel like you were driving a Bugatti. Wavy. Lit.

He Hit The Warehouse

Baseball guru Jon Heyman has covered MLB longer than Alex Bregman’s been alive.

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Jon Heyman: “In terms of natural talent, he might be the best one we’ve seen in the last 40 or 50 years. He’s right up there with Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays — those types of players. I remember ’98 in Coors Field and especially ’93 in Baltimore, Camden Yards. He had a great left-handed swing which created one of those incredible Derby moments that you would rank up there with Josh Hamilton at Yankees Stadium in 2008 and a few others.”

“The Ark of God”

Juan Williams is an award-winning, writer, radio host, Emmy-winning TV documentary producer and currently serves as a  political analyst for Fox News Channel. His work has focused on bringing a historical perspective to the issues of race, politics, and sports.

Juan Williams: “One of the greatest baseball moments of my lifetime is when Ken Griffey Jr. hit the warehouse in Baltimore. I think now there’s a baseball-shaped plaque on the warehouse where the ball hit. Unbelievable. Then also, there was one he hit off a pitcher named Brad Penny for the Orioles.

My son and I are watching the game. We are in the upper deck, the nose bleeds and my son says, ‘He’s coming with the fastball and Griffeys gonna demolish this.’

I said, ‘How do you know that?

Then…BAM. It looked like the Ark of God, man.’

The Modern Era GOAT

Rich Dauer was the Houston Astros bench coach in 2017. He played 10 Big League seasons with the Baltimore Orioles (1976-85) before coaching with five MLB clubs from 1990 to 2017, so he’s seen it all in his 40 years, having played with and coached countless Hall of Famers and All-Stars.

Rich Dauer: “I was let go by the Orioles in 1986 and Ken Griffey came to my hometown to play in San Bernardino California, which was A ball. This kid was a man among boys. And then I saw him in Seattle when I was coaching for Kansas City, and he not only made an impact on anything he’s ever done, but he just might be the best player that ever lived.

First of all, if you hit the ball, you better hit it out of the park because he’s going to catch it. And second of all, if you pitch to him,  he was going to hit it. And if he got on the bases, he was fast as lightning and he was going to score.”

I’ve played with some great, great players; Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, but Ken Griffey Junior in his era — probably the best there ever was. George Brett was pretty good, Robin Yount, but you look at the guys at the top of the game right now like Mike Trout. If Junior was playing right now, hed still be at the top.”

Its All In The Swag And The Swing 

Eduardo Perez is a former MLB player (1993-2006) and the son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez. These days, Perez is a seasoned analyst with ESPN, ESPN Deportes and ESPN Latin America as well as a host on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio.

Eduardo Perez: “Ken Griffey brought the cool back to the game and basically invented swag in baseball.  He put his hat on backward and he hit those bombs in Camden Yards in 1993. He kept a smile on his face. He had fun with it. What I got out of it was that Griffey was precise in those Home Run Derbys and I think the event was perfect for him as far as his swing. Everybody talks about launch angle, well Junior had that patented swing where you enjoyed watching him, that’s why he was branded so well.”

Bloodlines: A Nightmare For Any Manager

Jim Leyland is a three-time MLB Manager of the Year who started out playing babysitter to  Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla with the Pirates in the late 80s, led the Florida Marlins to a World Series crown in ’97 and most recently took the Detroit Tigers to the 2006 World Series before retiring in 2013.

Jim Leyland: “Griffey is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and probably one of the greatest players to ever play.  He had a passion for the game and played it with great enthusiasm. He also had the bloodlines. His Dad, Ken Griffey Sr. was a very good player — not as good as Junior — but a solid player on World Championship teams I believe.  You just knew that he was going to be one of the all-time greats and he was.

His performance in the Home Run Derby made him very popular with the fans who didnt get a chance to see him on local TV. I’ve been in the game 56 years and its just amazing to me how far guys like Griffey can hit the ball.”

He Was The Man

Buster Olney is a long-time baseball reporter, author, and ESPN analyst, who began covering the game in 1989.

Buster Olney: “Junior was such a unique player, such a skilled player and he was also a big guy. I was there in Camden Yards when they had the All-Star Game there in 1993 and to people at that time… he was the man! Now when we talk about Mike Trout and what he means to baseball, that’s what Ken Griffey Jr. meant to people at that time. He was the guy. The most talented player, the player that everyone wanted to watch. You never knew what he was going to bring in a given game, but he just had that beautiful swing. When he hit the warehouse in Camden Yards that opened up unlimited possibilities. You just couldn’t take your eyes off of him. You couldn’t wait to see him.”

Top Five Playing Or Retired

Dodgers All-Star Matt Kemp was 13 years old back in 98 when Griffey got busy in his second Dinger Derby domination.

Matt Kemp:Well Griffey was one of my top players growing up. Frank Thomas is my first and Griffey is my second. So I always find it exciting that I got to play against both of those guys and also got to see them when I was a kid dreaming about (The Show), so of course, Griffey influenced me and a bunch of other kids.”

“To Say He’s Special Would Be An Understatement

Tony Clark is executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association and played 16 years in the MLB from 1995-2009.

Tony Clark: “Junior was one of the few players that I ever came out for BP just to watch. I heard a lot about him and it wasn’t until I played against him and watched him in batting practice, did I see it in person. To say he’s special would be an understatement. To say what he’s meant to the game would be an understatement and I think even now as long as he’s been out, he still resonates with the adults and the kids.

My teenage plays baseball and hoops on travel teams and it’s not uncommon for half of the players on the field to be wearing Griffeys Swingman pants. They know the logo and they know what he’s done. He’s somebody whos transcended the game and established himself during that window of time as somebody who is worth the price of admission.”

 

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