Imagine taking one of the most exciting parts of baseball—something not only dedicated baseball fans love, but something everyone agrees is exciting. Imagine creating something that distills a baseball game down to this one thing, this essence of baseball excitement. What is this universal crowd-pleaser? It is, of course, the ultimate crack of the bat, the best of the “three true outcomes.” It is the home run!
Imagine watching eight of baseball’s best sluggers vying to see who can hit the most home runs. The only thing at stake: simply hitting the most homers and winning the trophy. This isn’t like the All-Star Game this evening where the winner determines home field advantage for the World Series in October. It is like the All-Star Game in being one of three events that pits the American League against the National League (the World Series, of course, is the third and most important).
For sheer unalloyed baseball fun, it’s hard to beat the Home Run Derby!
The night before the All-Star Game, Major League Baseball holds the Home Run Derby. The way it works is that two Captains are chosen, one from each League. Each Captain selects three additional players for their team. The event is about hitting home runs, so the Captains try to select the best hitters in their League.
Each player selects their own pitcher (presumably a friendly one; this isn’t about striking out). One of the things that adds charm to the Derby is that some players select their father to pitch. It’s not uncommon for a father to be instrumental in the development of a budding ball player. Some fathers have been pitching to their sons for many years!
The game begins with two four-player teams. There are three rounds.
In the first round, the eight players alternate by team. While taking their turn at the plate, a hitter can “take” (watch pass without swinging) as many pitches as desired without penalty. However every swing of the bat must result in a home run. Strikes, fouls and (non-home run) hits are all counted as “outs.” A player gets ten outs per plate appearance.
The four players who hit the most home runs advance to the second round. Each of these gets another turn at bat—another ten outs—to add to their round one score. The two with the highest score (combining rounds one and two) advance to the third and final round. The sum of all scores on each side determines which League wins. (Last night, the American League won 44-42.)
In the final round, the scores are reset, and the last two players start fresh. The final round is ten outs like just the first two. The player with the most home runs in this round wins. They get a trophy. (And a new truck. The event is sponsored by Chevrolet.)
Because these are top hitting pros pitched to by a friendly pitcher (in some cases, dad), strikes are extremely rare. If they swing, they connect. The goal is hitting as many as possible out of the park before you hit ten that stay in the park.
It’s an evening of watching the best sluggers in baseball hit home runs. Modern TV technology gives us accurate distance results and visible ball paths.
(I do really like the visible ball paths. It’s cool to see all the home run paths like some weird bouquet of electric vines.
The icing on the cake is the beautiful ball park, Citi Field (home of the NY Mets), the clear weather and the pleasant sight of day fading through twilight to night. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always enjoyed outdoor events that begin in daylight and end at night. Perhaps it’s just the great memories of outdoor rock concerts. The transition from seeing by sunlight to seeing by stage light… I dunno, there’s just something about it for me.
Last night was a little extra-joyful for me, because the guy I was rooting for won. Yoenis Céspedes, of the Oakland Athletics, is well-known to serious baseball fans despite being a new-comer. Many observers feel he’s a hot young player who deserves watching. He certainly seemed to prove that last night!
[As a Twins fan, I’m all too used to “my team” not winning. And I’ve written before about how, even beyond the Twins, it seems like the teams I root for don’t win. (Sometime I’ll write about the huge role disappointment has played in my life. It seems to be a guiding star along with irony and synchronicity.)]
There was also the pleasure of seeing former MN Twin, Michael Cuddyer (now with the Colorado Rockies). He was picked for the National team by Captain David Wright (of the NY Mets). Both Cuddyer and Céspedes raised some eyebrows as being perhaps not quite at the slugging level necessary. “Cuddy” was one of the four who made it to the second round, and he was one homer short of tying Bryce Harper who did move to the final round.
Céspedes hit 17 homers in the first round, more than twice as many as the two runners-up in that round, who hit only eight each. He didn’t even need to take a turn in the second round, although he chose to do so. He hit only six, but it was enough to capture the AL win (which was another small joy after watching the AL lose the ASG (and the WS!) these last three years.
He and Harper advanced to the final round. Harper, batting first, hit eight out of the park before getting his ten outs. Céspedes reached nine with five outs yet to go. (Beating Harper ended the game, just as a walk-off run in the bottom of the ninth inning ends a game, even if outs remain in the inning.)
The irony about Céspedes is that he wasn’t selected to be in the All-Star Game, which some of those observers I mentioned thought was a real shame. (Some feel that the A’s, despite being in the large San Francisco market, don’t the attention they deserve.) That Céspedes won the Derby illustrates a wonderful thing about baseball: it can surprise you sometimes.
A further irony is that both team Captains went down in the first round. Face of the New York Yankees, Robinson Cano did the worst of the eight, hitting only four homers (the Yankee-hating part of me thinks that’s pretty funny). The NL Captain, David Wright, fared little better with five, which tied with last year’s winner, Prince Fielder. You would expect all three to do better. I certainly thought Fielder would; quite a few folks picked him to win.
There are so many variables involved that, when they just happen to add up a certain way, the unexpected happens. Losing teams sometimes beat top winning teams. A single at-bat, let alone a whole inning, can change the game. One play can make a difference in the outcome.
Baseball echoes life. What’s clear on paper isn’t always clear on the field.