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History forgets some of the 'winners'

7/13/2009 - MLB

ST. LOUIS -- It's the not-so-fatal flaw in one of America's most beloved sporting events, the Home Run Derby.

We remember those home run balls flying through the stratosphere.

We remember where those home runs landed -- splatting off distant scoreboards, scattering pedestrians, plopping into unsuspecting bodies of water.

And we remember the men who launched those home runs, one after another after another.

There's only one little detail we occasionally forget:

Who the heck won?

Not that it matters, we guess. But it's true. Many of the most memorable Home Run Derby shows in history have been put on by men who wound up with nothing to show for them but the memories.

So in honor of that bizarre phenomenon, we present our Five Favorite Derby Performances of All Time … By Guys Who Didn't Win.

JOSH HAMILTON (2008)

If ever there was one man who summed up exactly how misleading that list of Derby "winners" can be, Josh Hamilton would be that man.

On a magical July evening just one year ago, he turned Yankee Stadium into his own personal Wiffle Ball park, launching 35 baseballs into places only NASA should be able to reach.

And he "lost."

The Home Run Derby historians -- folks clearly still looking for ways to fill those other 364 days a year -- will forever tell us that Twins first baseman Justin Morneau was the "winner" of this event. But that doesn't mean it wasn't Hamilton's night.

And all it took for him to hijack this night was the 28 home runs he hit IN ONE ROUND.

Before Hamilton started pounding baseballs halfway to the Statue of Liberty, only one man (Bobby Abreu, in 2005) had ever hit 28 Derby home runs in one NIGHT, let alone one round. But that was one of about 9 trillion historical Derby milestones that Hamilton obliterated with his little magic show.

And it wasn't just how many home runs he hit that made this exhibition so mesmerizing. It was the whole experience -- watching all those baseballs soaring toward all those distant skyscrapers, one after another after another, seemingly without end.

Asked to describe that 28-homer barrage afterward, Hamilton replied: "Obviously, I've never experienced a groove like that before."

To which we could only reply: Uhhh, has ANYBODY?

Just so you can relive it all one more time, this is what Hamilton did -- in one spectacular round:

He hit a home run on 13 swings IN A ROW.

And 16 of 17.

And 20 of 22.

And 22 of 25.

He smoked five balls into the upper deck. He pounded another off the facing of the mezzanine, and two more into the seemingly unreachable black seats in center, where the fan who ran down one of them got arrested for venturing into a no-fly zone.

He hit four home runs that nearly cleared the right-field bleachers. He crunched a 502-footer off the Bank of America sign, a 504-footer that plopped into the last row of the bleachers and a 518-foot Mars mission that was on its way to hitting the Empire State Building when the top of the third deck got in the way.

And the pitches that led to every one of these storybook bombs was served up by his own personal fairy tale of a batting-practice pitcher, 71-year-old Claybon Counsil, invited in from North Carolina by Hamilton just for the occasion.

Boy, it was the perfect script, all right -- except for one pesky little detail: He "lost."

Yes, Hamilton "lost" because once he got to the finals, Morneau outhomered him 5-3. But this result was such a miscarriage of justice, even Morneau seemed practically embarrassed that anybody would hand him this trophy instead of the man he "beat."

"He was the one who put on the show tonight," Morneau said afterward, looking as if he couldn't wait to smuggle the trophy to Hamilton the second they turned the cameras off. "I think everyone will remember Josh Hamilton's 28 home runs more than they'll remember I won the thing."

Hey, ya think?

MARK MCGWIRE (1999)

When you look at your official Derby record books, you will find that Ken Griffey Jr. "won" the only Home Run Derby ever held at storied Fenway Park. And, officially, the man he "beat" will be described as someone named "Jeromy Burnitz."

But you know, and I know -- and even Burnitz and Griffey know -- whose night this was. And it wasn't theirs.

No, this one was all about Big Mac.

Unfortunately, before we go on here, we need to remind you that it was a very different world then. And Mark McGwire wasn't a man who seemed to have vanished off the face of the planet. Far from it.

Back then, he was still a true baseball hero, less than a year removed from his electrifying 70-homer rewrite of home run history. Heck, just his batting-practice exhibitions were the greatest shows on baseball's earth.

So his stage was set at Fenway. And he knew exactly what to do once he got there. This would become HIS Home Run Derby, no matter what the Derby historians might try to tell us.

All anybody who witnessed this Derby will ever recall is that in the first round of this thing, McGwire hit 13 titanic home runs that had New Englanders scattering, from Killington to Farmington. At the time, those 13 homers were a record for any Derby, any round. They totaled 5,692 feet worth of bomb-age. And the four most memorable looked like this:

A 470-footer off the very top of the left-field light tower … a 473-footer onto the roof of a garage across Ted Williams Way … a 486-footer that came down on a roof near the Fleet Bank billboard, across the street in left-center … and a 488-foot lunar mission that soared over the Green Monster, cleared the street, carried beyond a parking garage and hit a billboard above the train tracks, right next to the never-reached Massachusetts Turnpike.

"Once he got in his groove," said his personal pitcher that night, then-Padres coach Tim Flannery, "it was like feeding the Great White Shark."

Amazingly, the Shark never made it out of the second round. But again, that's irrelevant. Even Griffey knew who the real "winner" was.

"After watching Mark hit his [homers] 500 feet, when you're only getting them over like 420-430," Griffey said afterward, "I mean, it's like his balls are doing the Postal Service -- just flying by and dropping mail off at your house."

For all we know, those balls could still be flying, too. So if one lands in your mailbox, it will just be Mark McGwire's way of saying: Please disregard the official results of the 1999 Home Run Derby.

SAMMY SOSA (2002)

Well, we've given our here's-what-Mark-McGwire-used-to-mean-in-America speech. So now it's Sammy Sosa turn.

It was 2002. There had been no no-hablo-ingles congressional moments in Sosa's life back then. There had been no furtive leaks of positive test results back then.

So whatever suspicions Americans were beginning to have by then, there was just about no sign of those shadows lurking over the 2002 Home Run Derby.

With Big Mac's career over, it was Slammin' Sammy who ranked as baseball's preeminent masher. He'd averaged nearly 61 homers a year over the previous FOUR seasons. So this Derby, just up the interstate from Sosa-ville in Milwaukee, was perfectly constructed to stand as his personal showcase.

And Sosa didn't disappoint.

He thumped a home run off Bernie Brewer's slide. He smoked another that cleared the massive scoreboard in dead-center field. He launched three home runs that sailed OUT of a domed stadium. (OK, full disclosure: Through the open windows.) He pounded seven home runs that went 500 feet or more, nine that went 490 or more and 10 that went 480 or more.

In the first round of this thing, Sosa hit 12 home runs -- tied for the third-biggest round in Derby history. And the 12 of them carried an AVERAGE of (ready for this?) 477 feet.

That was the mark Sosa left on Home Run Derby lore that night. Yet -- here we go again -- he didn't even win.

Those technicality-obsessed Home Run Derby history books continue to insist that Jason Giambi "won" the 2002 Derby, by outhomering Sosa in the finals 7 to 1. But even Giambi was awed by the man he "beat."

"I don't think anything can hold him," Giambi said of Slammin' Sammy, "except Yellowstone."

Yeah, this was Sosa's show, all right. Don't let those history books sway you.

"You know, I actually felt bad for Giambi," Mike Lowell would say that night. "And he WON."

MARK MCGWIRE (1996)

Yeah, him again. But this time, we're done giving PED speeches.

We would argue that 1996 in Philadelphia was the greatest Home Run Derby of them all -- a Barry Bonds-versus-Mark McGwire bombo-a-bombo that, for once, carried just as much drama as square footage. If you want to attach your own PED footnotes to that duel, that's your right.

But what we choose to remember is that McGwire and Bonds put on a show that day that probably catapulted the Derby into a whole different strata of American sporting life.

They were two of the most charismatic boppers on earth. And they turned the Home Run Derby from an All-Star curiosity, a time-filling Monday sideshow, into must-see TV.

In the second round that day, McGwire led off by squashing nine monstrous homers. Whereupon Bonds stepped up right after him and whomped 10.

That lifted them into the finals, where Bonds would get down to his final out, still trailing by two -- and then mash three dramatic homers in his final three swings.

So just their duel alone was unforgettable. But it's a funny thing. When we think back on that day, we can't remember a single home run the "winner" hit. What we remember is Big Mac, rocketing baseballs so high into the upper deck, he looked as if he might become the first human ever to hit a ball clear out of old Veterans Stadium.

Before McGwire came along that day, no one had ever launched a baseball that came down in the 600 level (aka the second tier) of the Vet's upper deck. But he hit TWO of them.

The first one was estimated (probably conservatively) at 459 feet -- probably because it may have been 459 feet high at one point. Later, he hit another space shot that barely missed a sign, way out in center field, that said: "Hit it here! A fan wins $1,000,000." That mortar was estimated at 460 feet, and McGwire said he didn't even get it all.

Seriously.

Then he topped off his show with a home run that left its launching pad and didn't return to earth until it was caught by a startled civilian sitting in the FOURTH row of that 600 level.

Asked the last time he could remember hitting a ball like that, McGwire joked: "I'd say in spring training -- with my new titanium driver."

But it didn't matter to those pesky Home Run Derby historians whether he did it with titanium or wood. They insisted -- and they still do -- that it was Bonds who "won" this competition.

True to form, Bonds strolled into the interview room later and groused about how much he hated those Derbies. Informed of those statements, the "loser" of this one had to laugh.

"Well," said Mark McGwire, "I think he likes them now."

CECIL FIELDER (1991)

OK, so most of the world probably has very little memory of what Big Cecil did on this day in Toronto. Cal Ripken Jr. blew away the field, with the first 12-homer round in Derby history. And that's what 99.9 percent of all North American witnesses will recall.

But not us.

Before that day, we had never seen a Derby home run that started in the batter's box and then returned to earth in a place where unsuspecting human beings had assembled to enjoy their favorite beverage in peace. But we saw TWO home runs like that on this day -- both off the bat of the gargantuan Cecil Fielder.

He hit only four homers in this Derby. But two of them came down in the Sightlines bar of what was then known as Skydome, way out there in the third deck in dead-center field. It was so hard to believe we'd just seen what we'd seen, a few of us startled media types actually headed off to the bar itself, to make sure this had really happened.

The first ball attacked a guy named Robert Kinal, who reported: "I was just sitting here, drinking my beer. And then I heard the ball coming out here. I couldn't believe it. I just heard it. Then I saw it coming. Then I stuck out my palm."

We regret to report that the ball caromed off his palm and into somebody else's souvenir collection. But Kinal did claim he stopped the ball from going clear through the bar and right out the door -- on the fly.

Two swings later, Fielder did it again -- cranking a second saloon shot into the hands of Greg Gaffney of Stirling, Ontario. At least Gaffney held onto his.

"It just kept coming and coming," he told us. "I didn't think they could hit them here from that far away."

Yeah, well, live and learn. But in retrospect, it probably wasn't the mere sight of those two home runs that propelled those blasts into this column. In truth, we included them because they inspired The Greatest Home Run Derby quote ever -- from A's quipmeister Dave Henderson.

"He hit it in the soup kitchen," Henderson said. "Ever heard that saying, 'There's a fly in my soup?' Well, there was a FLY BALL in that guy's soup."

OK, so it was a beer mug, not a soup bowl. But in Home Run Derby lore, it's tough to keep a lot of things straight. Unfortunately, one of those things is who "won" and who "lost."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.