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Volume 23 No. 17
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Closing Shot: Nonstop Thrills

The Home Run Derby started 35 years ago this summer and will be missed in 2020, but it has provided highlight reels of big shots that still inspire and delight.
Josh Hamilton’s slugfest in the 2008 Home Run Derby helped give the old Yankee Stadium a solid sendoff in the ballpark’s final season.
Photo: getty images
Josh Hamilton’s slugfest in the 2008 Home Run Derby helped give the old Yankee Stadium a solid sendoff in the ballpark’s final season.
Photo: getty images
Josh Hamilton’s slugfest in the 2008 Home Run Derby helped give the old Yankee Stadium a solid sendoff in the ballpark’s final season.
Photo: getty images

It was as powerful a performance as Broadway had ever seen. In a one-night engagement at the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, 27-year-old Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton launched an epic assault on a helpless House That Ruth Built with an amazing and astonishing display that would have made the Babe blush. En route to a record 28 home runs in a single round, Hamilton — a recovering drug addict and former No. 1 overall pick — sent a series of 500-foot blasts soaring into the upper deck, bouncing off the back wall of the bleachers in distant right-center field and ricocheting against the empty black seats in straightaway center.

Hamilton didn’t emerge victorious — the Minnesota Twins’ Justin Morneau felled him in the finals — but his legacy is secure. It remains the most-watched Derby of all time, with 9.1 million viewers, and it helped turn All-Star Week upside down by making the event almost as popular as the All-Star Game itself. Last year’s edition drew 6.2 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN2, while the game on Fox had 8.1 million.

The event debuted at the 1985 Midsummer Classic, and by 1993 it was being aired same-day on ESPN. Chris Berman, who covered his first All-Star Game in 1986 and called the Derby from its inception on the network until 2016, says of the event, “That was, dare I say, our World Series or Super Bowl.”

It’s easy to see why fans are so satisfied with it, says Berman. “No. 1, it was a great idea. No. 2, you had the biggest names doing it. No. 3, home runs will always be the biggest thing.”

Having Berman tell the story of those nights certainly helped. He was the face of the network, and his signature “back, back, back” call as well as his geography-infused descriptions — “That one’s headed for Pelham!” — were the perfect commentary for moments that blew us all away, like Ken Griffey Jr. hitting one off the warehouse behind Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1993, Frank Thomas reaching the upper deck in Pittsburgh in 1994, Sammy Sosa lighting up Atlanta in 2000 and Todd Frazier’s hometown win in Cincinnati in 2015.

The ones Boomer is fondest of are still Hamilton’s heroics and Mark McGwire’s bombs over the Green Monster at Fenway Park in 1999. “No disrespect to any other place,” he said. “But I mean, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park? Come on. To have those shows in those parks were, woo.”

Fans looking forward to the next Home Run Derby will have to wait for it a little longer. This year’s event, scheduled for Monday at Dodger Stadium, was canceled due to the pandemic. What will they miss? Majestic blasts, for sure, but also thrills that are unique to the national pastime.

“It’s a spectacle and no matter who does what, whatever you have, it’s not equal to the homer,” says Berman. “It remained pure and it was, frankly, one of the best things baseball has to make new fans. I don’t think that will ever change.”