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.
We all know the feeling of fixing/cleaning/building something that requires long hours of commitment and preparation. Whether it’s pulling pounds of weeds from your backyard, pulling an all-nighter to finish a project due the next morning, or doing pushups day after day hoping to see a difference. No matter how long the rigorous task took, it always seems like someone would just take one look at the finished product and not give it the attention it deserves. Now they may compliment you, even tell you they’re highly impressed, but deep down you can sense they just don’t quite get it. Then after get a few brief moments of glory, poof, it’s gone.
This has been the A’s ‘modus operandi’ (model of operation) for essentially the past 20 years. Unfortunately, whichever player they’ve seemed to develop right in front of our eyes has eventually found success and stardom elsewhere.
This year’s green and gold commodity: Josh Donaldson.
Yesterday, he was announced as the leading vote getter at the 2015 All-Star Game. 14,090,188 different ballots were sent in favor of Donaldson receiving the starting nod at third base, a record number. This display of national affection has truly marked the rise of the once-snubbed catcher who was converted into a corner infielder. In only his third full season in the bigs, it seems like Donaldson is now blooming in the eyes of the media with his image steadily climbing. And it’s well deserved, this was a supposed bust-of-a First Round Pick who fought and clawed his way into the spotlight before taking his play to another level this season. In his first year with the Blue Jays after the blockbuster offseason deal which brought him over, he’s the leader among third basemen with an .879 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), 62 runs scored and 56 RBI, while co-leading with 19 home runs. He’s also 4th in the AL in WAR (wins above replacement).
It’s something all A’s fans hate bring up: the what-if, why me scenarios. Would Donaldson have been to do this in order to prevent the currently not-so-great A’s season? Especially since this particular trade was so difficult to swallow and honestly made the least sense of the Oakland fire sail.
But we shouldn’t use this as a typical feel-bad situation that has followed the franchise for years. I used to hate seeing former Oakland farmhands such as Nelson Cruz, Andre Ethier, and (the worst of all) Carlos Gonzalez get prematurely traded and flourish as All-Stars with other clubs. However, the fans never really got to see those three players for an extended period of time, making the relationship easier to forget about.
With Donaldson it’s different.
This was a guy whose ascendance came exclusively in the confines of O.Co Coliseum. His stellar defense and majestic swing exponentially improved hand-in-hand, all in front of our eyes. In just the span of one year, he went from being Brandon Inge’s back up to an MVP candidate; the season after solidifying himself as the best third baseman in the game. And then just like that, he was gone.
But it doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate what he’s doing now. In a season where the A’s haven’t picked up as many W’s as hoped for, Donaldson’s performance this season should be celebrated as a victory, not an ignored as a defeat. While the many memories he makes in Toronto will always constantly remind Oakland fans about the fantastic ones he made in the Bay Area, our reaction should be nostalgic.
We all know it wasn’t his fault he got traded, but seeing him have success isn’t a reason to feel poorly towards our franchise. Instead, focus on appreciating the times we got to see him play every day because those were the days representing the hard work. 158 games, two years in a row, Donaldson gave his all on the left side of the infield. Now he’s gone and you can’t alter history, but don’t let your final memory of him be the one where he changed jerseys.
Because that’s how too many A’s are remembered…
And I think that’s what needs to change.