Derby is baseball’s biggest party
Everyone reading this, myself included, has accomplished a great feat and we didn’t even know it.
It’s a baseball accomplishment. Even if you don’t like the sport or you’ve never even picked up a Louisville Slugger, you can still lay claim to this tutelage.
We all have hit as many home runs as former Pittsburgh Pirate Jason Bay did in the 2005 MLB Home Run Derby.
Give yourself a round of applause! Just kidding.
It’s really not that cool once you think about it.
But the annual Home Run Derby sure is – it’s one of the crown jewels of the entire baseball season.
In my opinion, the All-Star Break, more affectionately known as the Midsummer Classic, doesn’t fall on a Tuesday in the middle of July. It happens the day before – and that’s the Home Run Derby.
I saw first-hand just how exciting it could be in 2006 when the All-Star week was held in Pittsburgh. The FanFest at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center kicked it all off as a baseball carnival spanning two floors and hundreds of square feet of national pastime nostalgia.
FanFest was the perfect appetizer for the main course of Home Run Derby Fare. The actual All-Star Game was more of a filling dessert.
There were no Pirates in the Home Run Derby held at PNC Park. But it was a fellow Keystone Stater that stole the show. Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies, then a 27-year old just entering the prime of his career, hit 23 home runs. His most memorable one was the last one he hit and not just because it clinched him the Derby title.
Howard blasted one over the Clemente Wall in right field and the ball hit a Mastercard “Hit It Here” banner hanging on a small fence below what used to be a large Pepsi bottle.
Howard obeyed and one random fan in attendance that night won $500,000. Unfortunately, it was not my father, my brother, or myself sitting in the 300 level.
That moment set off a frenzy. Those banners hang around the outfield of every ballpark that hosts the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, each year. No one had ever hit one, nor has anyone done it since.
And to smack the banner on the very last home run of the night was truly something special.
It was almost Roy Hobbs-like.
The Derby gets a bad wrap sometimes from players and fans, alike. There’s always the worry that it affects a hitter’s swing or that it will send a hitter into a second half slump.
Yoenis Cespedes won it in 2013 at Citi Field, hitting 32 home runs. He hit 30 on Monday at Target Field and won the Derby again. The Cuba native currently has 14 home runs on the 2014 season and he finished with 26 last year which ranked 11th in the American League. Cespedes also had a .240 batting average and was a key cog for the Oakland Athletics in winning their second-straight AL West title. The A’s seem to be in prime position to do that again as they currently boast the best record in the MLB.
Bobby Abreu hit a record 41 home runs at Comerica Park in 2005. He finished the season with 24 home runs that season and ranked 16th in the majors.
Magglio Ordonez’s poor performance in the 2007 Derby didn’t slow him down. He only hit two out of AT&T Park, but he finished the year with the American League batting title at a .363 clip.
Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez only hit six home runs in last year’s Derby. He was eliminated in the first round, but led the National League with 36 home runs at year’s end.
Andrew McCutchen fared even worse the year before at Kaufmann Stadium, hitting four. At the end of the season, he led the league with 194 hits and sported a career-best .327 batting average.
Yes, the Home Run Derby may not be the best gauge of power prowess, but it gives fans watching at home on television a great view of players in their element.
Many all-stars bring their young children on the field and it’s adorable to see them in their mini jersey, imitating their fathers. Players also videotape the event and make jokes to each other on camera. McCutchen even took time out of Giancarlo Stanton’s session on Monday to offer him a breather, a wipe of the face and a cup of Gatorade.
You don’t always see that charisma in the All-Star Game, itself. That’s not to say it’s not loaded with special moments, either. It’s actually chock full of them.
When I had the privilege of attending the game in 2006, it was more a moment of misfortune for the National League and legendary San Diego Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. He blew a save and Michael Young of the Texas Rangers drove home the winning run.
What separates baseball’s showcase from the other sports is that the games are usually competitive. The players may not be giving what they’d give if it was a regular season or playoff game, but it’s pretty hard to not play at 100 percent. It’s baseball, after all. The pitchers will be throwing heat and the batters will be trying to get on base.
There’s no flashy slam dunks – like in the NBA All-Star Game.
There’s no running up the score – like in the NHL All-Star Game.
There’s no taking plays off – like in the NFL Pro Bowl.
Still, I’d like to see the MLB take a page from the other major sports and add a sort of skills competition to All-Star Week. Choosing those skills, however, may prove difficult. It can’t really be a pitch, hit and run contest though it could be a throw, field and steal contest.
Maybe even a backyard-style hot-box or run-down competition, then there’s the risk of injury.
There’s still the All-Star Future’s Game and Celebrity Softball Game, which both take place on Sunday. All in all, I believe baseball’s break reigns supreme among the professionals from other sports because of it’s organization and overall excitement.
You see that in the Home Run Derby each year.
Except if you’re Jason Bay. Not to totally throw him under the bus, as Brandon Inge joined you all, and myself, in the zero column at the 2009 Derby in Yankee Stadium.
Maybe it’s something with the bats of the black and gold – Inge would become a Pirate four years later.
(Peaslee, a Youngstown native is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)