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Closer Look

During swingtime in Houston, every pitch was one to be watched

Updated: Tuesday July 13, 2004 12:10PM

By John Donovan,

  Miguel Tejada
Miguel Tejada hit a record 15 home runs in the second round, topping out at 497 feet and putting several over the 58-foot wall behind the left field seats.

HOUSTON -- The secret to this All-Star Home Run Derby thing -- just in case, you know, you ever find yourself competing in one -- is to avoid the urge to swing.

I mean, you have to swing. Everybody swings in the Home Run Derby. The Derby is the swingingest game in baseball town. It's so swinging it's practically groovy.

But to win, to become the Home Run Derby cham-peen, you have to know when to swing and when to keep the bat on your shoulder. You have to know when to take a pitch or two. Hitting home runs -- even off a pitch grooved by a batting practice flunky -- isn't all that easy. Letting a couple fat ones go by while you catch your breath isn't a crime.

"I was talking to [Texas third baseman] Hank Blalock, and he's in his first [Derby], and I told him 'The only thing I can tell you is you got to take pitches,' " Lance Berkman, Houston's hometown Home Run Derby expert, said Monday. "A lot of times, you get it into your thinking that 'I can hit anything.' But you have to get a few good pitches to hit."

Yes, believe it or not, some people take the Home Run Derby seriously, to the point where there's actually strategy involved. The Derby -- and this may be a genuine scoop -- is not just the Neanderthal-ish, beer keg at second, swing from the heels kind of competition it looks like.

Well, at least it's not completely like that.

Baseball's Home Run Derby went off as over-planned Monday in a park tailor-made for it, and by now we probably should just accept it for what it is. Yeah, it's a silly, almost meaningless, certainly overblown semi-competition. And, yeah, perhaps it glorifies something that shouldn't be glorified.

Maybe it's everything wrong with baseball -- power-hungry players, money-grubbing owners, cheap home runs in funny stadiums like Houston's Minute Maid Park, over-commercialized pre-packaged exhibitions, Chris Berman -- all rolled into one long, loud night.

But, come on. It's pretty clear by now that nobody wants to see a bunt-off. Nobody's tuning in ESPN to see Ichiro and Juan Pierre slap singles to the opposite field. The Home Run Derby has its warts. But it's still more interesting than the celebrity softball game.

And the Derby is still important enough to its contestants, evidently, that they think about how to win. They talk it over with their handpicked pitchers.

Only then do they go out and try to pound the hide off the ball.

"It is," admitted Berkman, "kind of a softball atmosphere out there."

For the record, Berkman finished second Monday to your new Derby cham-peen, Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada, in a practically historic night. Tejada, in his first American version of the Derby, hit more homers (27) than anyone in the event's 19-year history. He hit 15 in the second round, also a record. He smacked one 497 feet.

Tejada won because he recognized the value of a good non-swing. It took him a while to figure that out. He watched the first pitch go by, popped up the second, took the third, popped up the fourth ... in fact, he had four outs and no homers just eight pitches into the contest. Then he took a few deep breaths -- and three straight pitches -- before cranking out his first homer. He was on his way.

While Barry Bonds was falling out of the competition in the second round (only three homers), while Sammy Sosa didn't make it out of the first round (he hit only five homers but, worse, let only eight balls go by), Tejada and Berkman were watching balls arc softly by and slamming balls off the wall in left field at Minute Maid Park, when they weren't launching shots over it.

In all, 88 home runs were crunched, from Tejada's 27 dingers to a scant three from two players, Boston's David Ortiz and Blalock.

Berkman told Blalock what to do, and the young slugger listened. He went out and let the first pitch flutter by. But Blalock got so pumped up that he took only four more pitches in his turn. He saw only 18 pitches. He was back in his hotel room in time to see Leann Tweeden in the celebrity softball game.

Blalock's debut was nearly as bad as Berkman's, when he had only one homer in the 2002 Derby in Milwaukee's Miller Park.

"I had people asking me 'Were you in that?' " Berkman said, explaining another reason to take some pitches. "[If you take some pitches], even if you only hit a couple of home runs, you know you're going to be on TV for 15 minutes."

Sooner or later, of course, everyone will catch onto this strategy. Perfect pitches will slip by without a bat twitching. At-bats will be interrupted by commercials. The Home Run Derby will start in the afternoon and go through prime time.

So, like I said, if you're ever in a Derby, maybe you ought to just go ahead and swing at everything.

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