Youth, Innocence, and the Home Run Derby

Yesterday evening I texted my friend Eric: “Be honest, did you know the Home Run Derby was tonight? And are you excited at all?”

He responded by saying he had just found out when SportsCenter showed its Top 10 Derby moments. And no, he wasn’t excited.

If you had told the 10-year-old versions of Eric and me that we’d have that exchange, we would have…not believed you, that’s what!

That’s because we loved the Derby so much—a textual exchange was not enough; we reminisced on the phone for 15 minutes—and now we care very little. From ages 8-13, it was one of the most fun nights of the summer. Home Run Derby Monday was a guaranteed sleepover night. In Eric’s basement or my living room, we’d eat pizza and drink soda and watch in amazement as Griffey, McGwire, Sosa, etc. hit bombs into the upper deck.

The stars were part of the allure. The biggest names and sluggers don’t participate as much as they used to, and that’s too bad.* But if you gave me a year and asked me who won, I probably couldn’t tell you—the Derby was never about the winner. It was about the spectacle of the event, simple and entertaining, and boy did it appeal to my younger self.

*The one-on-one home run derby competitions from 1960 I’ve seen on ESPN Classic are awesome because they got the biggest stars of the day—Aaron, Mantle, Mays, Killebrew—and combined it with banter so awkward it is hilarious to watch today.

I watched some of the Derby last night and was not impressed.* Is it un-American to say Chris Berman’s “back back back back” kind of annoyed me? Part of my disenchantment is due to age, but even if I stayed 10 years old forever I think I’d be tired of the Derby by now. The competition just seems stale. They’ve added elements—each league has a captain who picks his squad—but it needs to be revamped. There are plenty of good ideas floating around: bonuses for opposite-field homers; the host team always having a representative; replacing active players with Springfield’s power plant softball team (Griffey, Canseco, Strawberry, Mattingly, and the rest). Honestly, MLB could do something as ridiculous as this minor league team did and it might be an improvement.

*Prince Fielder won, despite looking more like a pitching prospect as a youngster.

The Derby has passed me by. I usually tune in for at least a little each year if only because it reminds me of how much I used to love it (and, you know, nothing else is on TV). As Billy Heywood said in Little Big League, “Baseball was made for kids. Grown-ups only screw it up.” I’ll leave the Home Run Derby to the kids.

3 thoughts on “Youth, Innocence, and the Home Run Derby”

  1. I also like those vintage espn home run derbys with Mantle, Mays etc at Wrigley. My biggest issue with the home run derby today is that it is too long and there are too many batters. Also, I sat there and watched McCutchen take 2 or 3 pitches between every swing. Also, they should let the fans pick the batters. How cool would it have been to see Harper vs Trout?

    1. Yeah, one of the rules for those 1-on-1 derbies was that if you took a pitch and it was called a strike, it counted as an out. I also agree that fans should get in on the voting. How Bryce Harper wasn’t involved, given what we’ve seen from him in batting practice videos on YouTube, is beyond me. Ichiro has long been rumored to be a HR machine if he wanted to be, so why has he never participated? It can be saved, I think, but I also feel kids will always enjoy it more than adults.

  2. I agree with all that you say. Not totally unlike the NBA’s slam dunk competition. These things are great at the start, and then become stale. Either find a fresh angle every few years (on the non-sports front, that’s what a show like Survivor does, and it has been successful for over 10 years – an eternity on television) or end them (e.g., the prime time Tiger Woods matches that finished under the lights).

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