The last time I remembered really getting into an All Star Home Run Derby was the 1999 event in Fenway Park, when Mark McGwire launched baseball after baseball over the ancient net that pre-dated the Monster seats. That was so fun to watch that I wasn’t even annoyed by the endless schtick of Chris Berman, which was already wearing thin 24 years ago.
“Hello, New Hampshire!!!”
“It’s all the way to Maaahhhblehead!!!”
Is it, Chris? Is it really?
After that night, the old Home Run Derby format wore thin on me pretty quickly. Don’t get me wrong … I loved that it was a tribute to the old Home Run Derby show from the 60s. I used to watch those old black-and-white reruns after school, and I thought it was a fantastic touch to rekindle that system where every swing that doesn’t result in a home run is an out. The problem, as was often the case back in the early 2000s, was the players just taking things way too far.
Changing with the Times
At some point, the hitters began taking way too many pitches. With no time constraints in any round, many batters eventually began to watch every pitch go by unless it found its way into that guy’s own personal keyhole-sized target zone. Some of these guys really exploited the format, taking strike after strike and lengthening the contest to the point where watching these hulking brutes sock dingers actually became boring. By the finals, I found myself just wanting to get the damn derby over with already so I could see who wins.
Oddly enough, I became even more annoyed when they dropped the ten-out format and introduced a clock for each batter. I definitely wanted the derby to conclude in under four hours. However, it pained me to move on from the formula that had been innovated by the hacked-together, black-and-white show that took place in the dumpiest ballpark in America. The place where Mantle, Mays, Killebrew, and so many others did battle for the coveted winner’s purse of $2,000 and Kevin Arnold’s house from The Wonder Years lurked behind the left field wall.
Blending nostalgia with a sense of urgency is a tough ask for a prime-time cable event though, and I did give the revamped presentation a fair shot, timer and all. But something about the hitters rushing through their rounds and the heightened importance of the accuracy of beer-bellied, 60-something-year-old batting practice coaches turned me off. I don’t think I even tuned into a Home Run Derby for the past ten years.
Falling Back in Love with the Derby
However, I’m happy to say that this year’s Home Run Derby not only sold me on the timed format, but reinvigorated my enjoyment of the entire showcase.
Perhaps the timed format has forced the pitchers to train for the contest beforehand out of fear that their poor tosses could hamper the performance of the hitters, who only have two or three minutes (minus bonus time) to slug as many homers as they can. Or maybe the hitters just don’t screw around anymore and swing at virtually everything that is thrown to them out of pure necessity. Whatever the reason, I just loved watching the frantic chase to pelt as many bombs as possible.
These guys took serious hacks all night long, and I’m kind of amazed that nobody strained an oblique during the affair. Every time they showed a guy hitting in the batting cage before their next round, I wondered, “what is this dude thinking?” By the end of the night, finalists Randy Arozarena and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. must have taken 500 swings a piece. Were a few more swings in the cage really going to tune them up any more than they already were, especially when any of those swings could have been the one that puts them on the shelf for two-to-four weeks? Can you imagine the Rangers losing Adolis Garcia for a month because he pulled a muscle trying to hit a 440-foot home run to buy himself an extra 30 seconds?
J-Rod’s Epic Night
Allow me to continue my crotchety old man stylings thusly: I hated the fact that Julio Rodriguez was named to the All Star team.
I know he was just an injury replacement, and I realize the game was held in Seattle, where Rodriguez plays. I also understand that he’s a superstar that will be one of the faces of baseball for the next decade, and casual fans want to see stars at the All Star Game. But he’s hitting .249 with 13 HRs and a .721 OPS. Stolen bases and homers aside, Alex Verdugo and Masataka Yoshida have been superior players this season. Each of them were each twice as worthy of making the team.
Having said that, I am now elated that J-Rod made the team following his performance on Monday night. I never would have guessed it was possible to hit 41 home runs in four minutes, and most of them were no-doubters. This guy’s swing was made for this event, as he has now proven in two consecutive years.
Although he suffered a semifinal loss to eventual champion Guerrero, Rodriguez was undoubtedly the star of the night. His 41 first-round dingers set a Home Run Derby record, and he created an immortal moment for an underrated franchise that has planted a remarkable footprint within the game considering it has still never experienced a World Series.
Vlad the Impaler
It may have been J-Rod’s night, but it was Vladimir Guerrero Jr’s derby. The second generation bomb-dropper has lived up to his dad’s lofty legacy thus far, and matching Vladdy Sr’s status as a Home Run Derby champion is another step in that direction.
Guerrero was my pick to win the event, and he’s pretty much my pick to lead the league in home runs every season. He was put on this planet specifically to mash baseballs in much the same way that Brock Lesnar was sent here specifically to hurt people. He’s a big strong guy that hits baseballs hard enough to complete the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. One unfortunate kid shagging flies in the outfield was even impaled simply because he got between a Vladdy hit and it’s intended landing spot. Prayers up for that little guy.
Vladdy hitting a home run is one of the most underwhelming things in sports. Whenever I see it happen, I just kind of roll my eyes and think, “of course he did.” He may only have 13 homers so far this season, but I’m not entirely convinced that he won’t hit 50 in the second half to break Judge’s record.
Overall, I’m happy that Guerrero obtained his birthright and became a Home Run Derby champ. One of the biggest reasons that I’m happy about his victory is the fact that he beat Randy Arozarena in the finals to achieve it.
Enough Already, Randy
I know, I know. Another crabby old man take. Sue me.
Does it always have to be about Randy? I know he’s a really talented star and that his charisma is good for the game. I’m not some Goose Gossage disciple that thinks guys who pimp home runs should be drilled in the ear with 98 mph heaters. But this guy has never met a camera that he didn’t wanna hog.
I stopped counting his crossed-arm poses after the 238th of the night. In the first inning of Tuesday’s All Star Game, I groaned when he tried to steal second base one pitch after singling. I laughed my tail off when Sean Murphy gunned him down.
Even during the WBC, when he was officially crowned the patron saint of Mexican baseball, I thought his act was already growing tired. You don’t have to do your signature pose or death stare every time you catch a ball at the warning track. I agree that baseball needs more injections of personality, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the ride. But I do think players should pick their spots and be just a tad more selective than Randy when it comes to highlighting themselves.
Act like you’ve been there before, dude.
A Fun Night
On the whole, I had a great time watching the 2023 All Star Home Run Derby. The presentation was very well executed, and the derby did not drag in any way. ESPN didn’t shoehorn any of their premier personalities into the mix or overload it with sappy packages about anybody’s long, tumultuous road to reach their first All Star Game. I even gradually got used to the split-screen presentation once I realized that these pitches were coming in way too quickly to follow the trail of each batted ball in a single frame.
For the first time ever, my wife and two daughters all made it through an entire MLB contest.
Actually, to be honest … the five-year-old did pass out during the semifinals. But she was not carried into her bed until the end, so I’m still counting it. It was a fun night of action, and I loved every minute of it.
Dare I say, I loved it almost as much as ESPN’s camera crew loved Josie Rutschman.