This was the year that the event not only went international, but also went golden. A Golden Home Run Ball was inserted each time a batter was down to his 10th and final out, and Major League Baseball and CENTURY 21 were prepared to donate a combined $21,000 to charity -- the Boys & Girls Clubs of America as well as Easter Seals -- for every golden sphere a Derby contestant deposited in the stands.
The organizers of the event were thrilled to see a total of 14 balls go yard, including three in a row from Abreu at the end of his second round.
"The gold ball was new this year, as you know, and as a result, Major League Baseball and CENTURY 21 raised nearly a combined $300,000," said John Greenleaf, senior vice president of marketing for CENTURY 21. "We didn't know what to expect, but we did go back to previous years just to see what players did after their ninth out. We were prepared to support the organizations with whatever players could contribute. We're obviously thrilled it was nearly $300,000 and that CENTURY 21 could add an even higher profile to this event. It was a wonderful addition."
Abreu agreed. In fact, it was surprising to hear him say after his victory that it was actually easier to hit one of these two-toned Rawlings gold balls -- which are available for purchase at the MLB.com Shop -- than the regular models.
"It was very different than when you see the white ball coming to you," said Abreu, who represented Venezuela as the event went international for the first time. "When you see the gold ball, you have a better vision to hit the ball. It's a different color and you can make contact more easily."
Ivan Rodriguez, who made a dramatic bid by reaching the finals as a hometown favorite, led all gold-ball hitters with four. Abreu, David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox (Dominican Republic) and Carlos Lee of the Milwaukee Brewers (Panama) each hit three, and Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves (The Netherlands) hit one.
Abreu immediately stole the show with a record 24 homers in the first round, and all of them were out of the "white" ball basket. He took a few pitches after his ninth out -- which took seemingly forever to arrive -- and then flied out to right-center on the first gold ball ever pitched in the history of this event.
It was clear early on that batters were going to take more pitches after their ninth out than usual, not only because it was the hitters' last chance to knock one out, but also to see what a two-toned ball looks like coming off the pitcher's hand.
Lee provided the first moneyball. Faced with the apparent disadvantage of batting right-handed in this lefty's power park, Lee found a groove and finished with 11 homers. Lee's total included the first three gold balls ever hit out of the park.
One of the more amusing sights was one of the young shaggers in left-center trying to climb the wall to bring back one of Lee's homers. It's a good thing he was unable to pull a Torii Hunter, because he not only would have robbed Lee, but he would have denied $21,000 from charity. Lesson to shaggers: Don't rob a home run in this event -- especially not if it's a gold ball.
Hee-Seop Choi of the Los Angeles Dodgers, representing South Korea was unable to hit his gold ball out. Then it was Pudge's turn. He made it four gold balls gone by knocking one out, then hitting a liner to finish his at-bat. That was one more than was launched by Mark Teixeira, the Texas Rangers' first baseman who had a tough night as the United States' representative in the Derby.
Ortiz opened with 17 homers for the second-best mark for a single round in Derby history, finishing his go-round by knocking out gold balls Nos. 5, 6 and 7. Fans who had been caught up in Bobby-mania gradually became accustomed to this new facet of the event, as the giant scoreboard in left flashed the ongoing charity tote board each time a player went deep. That included one final first-round jack from the bat of Jones. His homer brought the first-round tally to eight gold balls, good for $168,000. That was just the start.
Abreu opened the second round in gold-ball style, finding his Round 1 groove with his back to the wall. After his ninth out, he proceeded to hit overall gold balls Nos. 9, 10 and 11 into the Detroit night. That brought the charity total to $231,000.
Lee struggled through his second round and lined out to left on his gold ball. Then came Pudge, who proceeded to make a lot of people happy -- the roaring sellout crowd as well as the beneficiaries of the gold balls. Rodriguez moved into the final round by going deep eight times, and that included overall gold balls Nos. 12 and 13. The total was up to $273,000.
Rodriguez fell short in the final round as Abreu took the title, but added one more gold ball for good measure -- putting more polish on a shining night that brought big bucks to worthwhile causes.