The Home Run Derby was still hours away from starting Monday night when I decided I was mad at it.
That’s probably not normal, of course, but the Home Run Derby was wrecking the narrative I’d written in my head in the days before heading to Citi Field. As an aging child of the ‘80s, I wanted to write something defending the All-Star Game from all the slings and arrows it has absorbed over the last couple decades.
Sure, its TV ratings are sinking, and sure, Major League Baseball is trying too hard to make the All-Star Game everything to everyone. This time it counts, but let’s expand the roster so everyone this side of Steve Jeltz not only makes the game but also plays in it!
But it’s still a great game, by far the best of the All-Star Games in the four major sports, and a pretty good attraction for Fox, which likes the All-Star Game enough to televise it through at least the 2021 season. Last year’s game set record lows across the board, yet with a 6.8 rating and 10.9 million viewers, it was still the top-rated broadcast of the week.
I figured I’d talk to some of the younger All-Stars as well as some of the guys who are almost as old as me (or even older—looking at you, Bartolo Colon and Mariano Rivera) about their memories of watching the All-Star Game as children and teenagers.
I hoped to find out if the younger generation was just as into it as we were when we were keeping score in battered five-subject notebooks (we, of course, being a generic term not necessarily applicable to any of my experiences). And if they weren’t as into it as we were, I wanted to know why.
Except all anyone wanted to talk about, young and old alike, was the damn Home Run Derby.
“What’s going on tonight was probably the funnest thing as a kid that I liked to watch,” said 25-year-old Braves closer Craig Kimbrel. “As a kid, I wasn’t hitting home runs, so it was cool to watch the big leaguers do it.”
“Yeah, I remember always watching,” said 23-year-old Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner. “Especially the Home Run Derby. I was always excited about the Home Run Derby.”
“One of the things that we definitely watched was the Derby,” said 21-year-old Angels superstar Mike Trout. “As a kid, you like to see homers hit.”
These aren’t quotes carefully selected and massaged to fit a revamped narrative. The Home Run Derby was the first thing mentioned by Kimbrel, Bumgarner and Trout.
But fine, they’re the 20-something All-Stars. I figured Joe Nathan, graying at the temples and born on Nov. 22, 1974—the day I turned 14 months old—would save me. Right?
“More Home Run Derbies than actual All-Star Games,” Nathan said when I asked him about his childhood memories of the All-Star Game.
Say it ain’t so, Joe. I mean, All-Star Game is All-Star Week because the actual game was the only game in the four major sports to be played between Monday and Wednesday. So it was a big deal to you, right?
“I think a lot of the times, we would watch the Home Run Derby and then we’d go out and try and do our own Home Run Derby,” Nathan said. “So a lot of the time, I don’t think we really remembered watching the All-Star Game, to be honest with you.”
At this point, I may or may not have craned my neck upward towards the ceiling of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda and shouted “DOESN’T ANYBODY HERE KNOW THE TRUE MEANING OF THE ALL-STAR GAME?”
Honest to goodness, I don’t even remember when the home run derby became the Home Run Derby. Hell, until the last few days, I didn’t even know it actually began in 1985 and that it was cancelled due to rain in 1988. These days, it’s easier to imagine the All-Star Game being cancelled than it is to imagine the Home Run Derby being cancelled.
All I know is that at some point in the power-happy 1990s, the Home Run Derby became a big thing. And then, almost immediately, it became Another Big Thing That Chris Berman Could Ruin.
All these years later, I watch it, because, well, what else is on TV on the second or third Monday night in July? But it’s not the All-Star Game, and it’s not the reason I still look forward to the All-Star Game every year, even at the doorstep of 40 years old. Doesn’t anyone agree with me?
A couple hours later, I found my kindred soul. He was wearing a button-down shirt and jeans and had a laptop bag slung over his shoulder as he watched batting practice from a couple dozen feet behind the cage.
And Tony LaRussa rolled his eyes when I told him that every player I spoke to mentioned the Home Run Derby as their dominant All-Star Game memory.
“Well, that’s a pet peeve of mine,” he said, and I instantly forgot that LaRussa spent his final decade or so carefully crafting a reputation as the villainous skipper with whom you never wanted to be aligned. “Because all that is is just an exhibition of one skill and I think that’s backwards. I would rather come out and watch batting practice and watch guys field ground balls and spray hits all over the yard.
“Home runs are very dramatic and can be entertaining,” LaRussa said. “The truth is that the game tomorrow is a helluva lot more significant than one contest that highlights one skill.”
And yet, as LaRussa continued to speak, he unwittingly managed to explain how the Home Run Derby has become the main attraction at the All-Star Game, and how perhaps that’s not as awful as we thought.
“Anything that makes it a competitive game as opposed to an exhibition of talent makes it more entertaining and better,” LaRussa said. “I know that for years, just shouting rights got guys going. But I think nowadays there’s so many distractions that it’s a good edge [for] players [that] the team that wins this for their league gives their league an advantage.”
We’ve got plenty of distractions these days, but the lure of imminent home runs can keep even the most ADD-addled riveted to the television or fixated on the field below him. Though, somewhat ironically, anyone on Twitter knows it’s also very easy to feed one’s attention deficit disorder by opining about the Home Run Derby in real time. (The Home Run Derby Tweet count for me: 98. Honestly I thought it was more.)
If kids dig the long ball more than the All-Star Game, well, it’s pretty clear that genie’s not going back in the bottle. A generation later, the All-Star Game is still faring pretty well, and kids are still falling in love with the game at the Home Run Derby—and their parents are falling in love with it again through the opportunity to share it with their children.
“People have asked me what I’m most excited about tonight,” Twins closer Glen Perkins said. “Growing up, I saw guys have their kids down on the field. I thought it’d be so cool to do that. So I think [Monday’s] going to be the highlight of the things for me, to have my kids down on the field.”
And if those who decide to watch Tuesday’s actual game find out the same thing that originally drew old fogeys like me and my new friend Tony LaRussa to the All-Star Game? Well, I think I speak for Tony when I say welcome aboard the bandwagon.
The All-Star Game remains the best all-star game of all, because even before It Counted, it lent itself to actual competition. Of the last 33 All-Star Games, 20 have been decided by two runs or fewer. And seven runs or fewer have been scored in 19 of the last 33 All-Star Games.
“It’s top pitchers and top hitters and we’re all competing to do one thing, and that’s to win,” Trout said.
In the NFL the Pro Bowl has been decided by a touchdown or fewer 16 times in the last 33 years, but it has turned into an offensive orgy since the turn of the century: A team has scored at least 30 points 19 times in the last 13 Pro Bowls.
In the NBA, 22 of the last 33 All-Star Games have been decided by 10 points or fewer. But at least one team has scored at least 130 points in 25 of the last 33 years.
“You see the NBA, the first couple quarters are just alley-oops and the fourth quarter is [when they] turn it on,” Trout said. “I think if [they] were playing for something, they would really turn it on.
The NHL All-Star Game has been cancelled six times since 1995 due to lockouts or the Olympics, and the players in the last two games were selected fantasy hockey style by the team captains, so let’s not even waste our time there.
“The other sports, I mean, it’s a showcase for skills and it’s an exhibition,” LaRussa said. “This is a competition. Pitchers are trying to get hitters out, hitters are trying to get hits and teams are trying to score runs and win the game. Nobody else can make that claim.”
As for the Home Run Derby? Getting the chance to witness it in person for the first time, I have to admit, I’m no longer mad at it. (It surely helped that I didn’t have to sit at home for three freakin’ hours and listen to Chris Berman.)
Hometown favorite David Wright was eliminated after hitting just five homers in the first round, but three of those came consecutively with the sellout crowd chanting “Let’s Go Mets!”
Chris Davis, in the midst of one of the great power-hitting seasons of all time, was eliminated in round two but crushed five straight homers in the first round. Runner-up Bryce Harper hit eight homers in all three rounds with his dad throwing him cut fastballs instead of just grooving him some meatballs.
And of course Yoenis Cespedes hit some goosebump-inducing shots in the type of performance that will have everyone remembering where they were when he won the Derby. He hit 17 homers in the first round—including at least five into the upper deck in left field—and won the championship by hitting nine homers with five outs to spare.
“I was interested to see if he was going to have anything left in the tank and he had plenty,” Davis said. “I’m really happy for him and was glad that I got to stay out there and watch it.”
Ahh hell. So was I.