MINNEAPOLIS, MN — A wise man once said something pretty spot-on about the Home Run Derby:
“I’m just irritated by how much attention the thing gets. It’s like a big show, and the game is an afterthought, which is totally ESPN.”
That man was Tony La Russa. Now that he’s baseball royalty and not just another manager he probably won’t say such things publicly, but he’s still right about it.
The Home Run Derby is boring. Occasionally something interesting like Josh Hamilton dominating the first round in 2008 happens, but it’s basically batting practice. Three-hour-long batting practice in which the coolest thing about home runs — the way in which they change the course of a game, often in dramatic fashion — is taken out of the equation. Come to think of it, the second coolest thing about home runs — how it represents a batter getting the best of a pitcher who is trying his damndest to get him out — is taken out of it too. It’s the NBA slam dunk competition without as much athleticism.
Baseball has acknowledged this to some degree this year, reducing the number of “outs” each participant gets in an effort to make it move along more quickly, but it’ll still drag tonight. And not only will it drag, it will be accompanied by either Chris Berman’s “back, back back!” nonsense if you’re watching it on TV or Mike & Mike’s commentary over the loudspeakers if you’re watching it in person.
I wish the Home Run Debry was done away with, but actually, the thing about the Home Run Derby which justifies its elimination the most is not its tediousness, but its anachronistic nature. It’s been around since the mid-80s in various forms, but it really took off as a televised and heavily-promoted event in the mid-to-late 90s. Back when “chicks dig the longball” captured the zeitgeist and offense ruled the day. We now exist in a low-offense era. Yes, there are still a lot of homers, but what really sets a player apart these days is his all-around game. Someone who can hit for average, hit for power, run well and play good defense. If anything, long-ball-only guys are mild weirdos in this day and age. Curiosities.
So, like many have advocated, I advocate for the end of the Home Run Derby and its replacement with something that is not only more interesting, but which better reflects our age. A skills competition is the most obvious example. A decathlon-esque competition. Or fewer skills; pick the Greek prefix which best fits. The point is to find the player with the best all-around skills. Some ideas of what it could consist of:
- A greatly abbreviated Home Run Derby to get at power;
- A first-to-third or insider-the-park-homer competition that gets at baserunning. Something that doesn’t just get at raw speed but which also factors in how you cut the corner at the base and how well you slide;
- A throwing thing where outfielders fire balls toward a target, Tom Emansky-style, from right or left field to home plate. For infielders, something with a relay throw, perhaps;
- A gap-ball contest. Set up one of those automatic fly ball machines they use in spring training to fire fly balls farther and father from a set position on which the fielder sets up. Whoever can run down balls farther from that position is the winner.
- Something for catchers. We don’t want to kill them so maybe we don’t do a block-the-ball-in-the-dirt drill, but maybe a thing in which speed and accuracy of firing the ball down to second base is used.
There are tons of other possibilities, of course. For any skill there could be a competition with which to gauge it. Some are better ideas than others — we don’t want players to get hurt in the name of off-day TV programming — but I’m sure there are three or four things we could put together that would be far more novel and far more interesting than the Home Run Derby.
Got any ideas of your own? Share them in the comments, where they can be ignored by Major League Baseball alongside my ideas, which will also be ignored, I fear.