The Home Run: “A display of power with the natural capability to capture the attention of all who behold it. Originating from a batter’s ability to hit a baseball beyond the confines of a particular park, it is an American spectacle that holds a special place in our culture.”
– Dangs (That’s me)
First witnessed in 1876, sending the ball over the fence has evolved into an American obsession. The game of baseball, no matter what time period, has based rules and regulations around the volume (or lack thereof) of home runs. In 1920, there were too few so a new baseball needed to be created in order to make it easier to hit them. In 1969, baseball determined pitchers were too effective – home run numbers were falling dramatically – so the pitcher’s mound was lowered to again, to make it easier to send the ball out of the yard.
There’s just something about seeing the ball fly at such a speed and distance that seems to stop time itself. For just those couple of seconds, everyone’s eyes in unison track the flight from bat to bleacher before erupting in either delight or despondency.
It is this unique power of the home run that the Home Run Derby was formed, a platform to showcase the most exciting part of our National Pastime. From 1985 on, each and every year a group of the leagues best sluggers are brought together to put on a show for the fans. It’s a one-of-a-kind competition because no matter how disinterested one may be in the sport itself, it’s impossible not to respect the skill and power these hitters possess. I know plenty of individuals who absolutely can’t stand to watch a baseball game, but will sit down to thoroughly enjoy the Derby.
There’s a reason people show up before baseball games, just to watch batting practice. Mashing a home run is the coolest thing any ballplayer can do. A Top 10 defensive play? Ehh sure that’s pretty sweet. A 450-foot bomb in BP? That’s what everyone would rather see and anyone who says otherwise is lying. I remember in 2006 as a youngin’ being completely star struck watching the power of a 38-year old Frank Thomas sending nukes out to any part of O.Co Coliseum with the most effortless swing. I can only imagine the length of the missiles “The Big Hurt” launched in his prime.
That’s the rare function of a Home Run. The spectators have the opportunity to take a step back and appreciate the work of art that is a long ball. And as well they should, it might be the most impactful singular act in all of sports. A home run can define a game, a season, hell it even can define a player. The most memorable home run I’ve ever witnessed live was the first bomb Yoenis Cespedes – God bless his baseball-clobbering soul – hit on American soil. That ball as far as I’m concerned, has yet to land:
He went on to win two of today’s events in a row – the only man besides Ken Griffey Jr. to accomplish the feat – providing many memories to A’s fans everywhere, myself included.
Today’s 30-year anniversary of the Home Run Derby changes all of that.
In an effort to move an old-school event into the digital age, Major League Baseball has altered the Derby completely. In the hopes of highlighting their newly developed ESPN Home Run Tracker, the MLB has also tried to revolutionize the rounds with time limits, all in hopes of drawing a larger audience. For more specifics, here are the actual ‘new & improved’ rules for the 2015 Home Run Derby.
Taking a look at these new rules, I see a familiar reconstruction method. Much like in 1920 and 1969 it seems as if the league has become impatient with the process by which home runs are being hit. Only this next step in the evolution of the ‘dinger’ doesn’t have to do with its volume, but with its frequency. With the national media nowadays always wanting to cater to the attention span of a younger audience – which is slim to none – it was only a matter of time before it spread to the baseball field. Naturally, the first thing to target would be the most marketable feature of the MLB.
It all started with the new pace-of-play rules introduced at the beginning of this season. They were instituted in order to try and speed up games, which for some time now have been labeled ‘too long’ and ‘boring.’ The MLB’s infatuation with accelerating baseball has led to the attempt of quickening the Home Run Derby. Do I think it will work? Kind of. I think there a few pros, but overall, there appear to be more cons with the direction baseball is headed towards.
First, the Good:
Brackets. This was a genius idea, as head-to-head matchups always seem to rev up the competition. March Madness ‘one-and-done’ tournament style was certainly something that needed to be introduced, especially with the league trying to draw a younger audience. Advertising it as a 1 through 8 seeding system builds suspense while also generating multiple storylines. Long shots, underdogs, and upsets all become possible narratives contributing to the now, more interesting atmosphere. Here are this year’s sluggers:
Albert Pujols (1) vs. Kris Bryant (8)
Joc Pederson (4) vs. Manny Machado (5)
Josh Donaldson (3) vs. Anthony Rizzo (6)
Todd Frazier (2) vs. Prince Fielder (7)
Not going to dive too much into my thought process, but I’m picking Prince. Peterson is my dark horse.
Then, the Bad:
The time constraints this year I think put too much pressure on the sluggers. The pressure will be on each competitor to constantly swing while still blasting the majestic home runs we are used to seeing. What I don’t think the MLB took into account is that swinging non-stop for five minutes is EXTREMELY PHYSICALLY DEMANDING. For anyone who’s ever been to a batting cage, you know the feeling. Taking just 10 hacks in a row will make you sweat, nevertheless intensely trying to hit balls as far as you can for five minutes straight. Whether it’s one of the four new guys to the Derby (Pederson, Bryant, Machado, Rizzo) or the veterans (Pujols, Donaldson, Frazier, Fielder), this new time system can drain any one of them. Not to mention, there are three rounds so imagine how exhausted the finalists will be. That itself could make the event even less exciting with guys being too tired to adequately appease their viewers home run hunger.
Also, the rule-makers decided to add ‘bonus’ time if a participant can hit two home runs over 420 ft. or one over 475 ft. At least the league put a limit of 90 seconds on the ‘bonus’ time because I can guarantee every single one of these guys will park one beyond the 420 mark in every single round (should they advance). Pederson’s average home run length so far this year has been roughly 430 ft. and I personally think he’s not even in the top half of the group when it comes to power.
Now, the Ugly:
I’ve mentioned repeatedly how this year’s Derby is centered around pace, but this may also be its biggest flaw. The ultimate impact time limits will have on the derby is it takes away from the spectator’s appreciation of each home run. With the sheer volume of dingers being lifted out of Great American Ballpark, there’s no time to sit back and feel like a true fan should: admiring each and every moonshot. Instead, spectators in Cincinnati will be getting whiplash from snapping their heads back and forth between the stands and the plate, while fans at home will be getting headaches from each rapid-fire replay. To make things worse, everyone will have to endure their annual listening to Chris Berman gargle, “back, back, back” until their eardrums bleed. I personally don’t believe that’s how the Derby is supposed to be enjoyed.
The focus on tempo in this year’s Derby I think also marks a looming change on the way to the game of baseball. With the MLB attempting to revitalize the popularity of baseball, it seems as if they will stop at nothing to modernize America’s historic sport. In the process, the obsession with catering to a younger generation seems to be slowly transforming the game into a computerized competition. While I do believe this Home Run Derby contains a few improvements, the continued path of such alteration indicates a significant change to come in our beloved pastime.