To the players, Home Run Derby is serious matter
Posted: Tuesday July 10, 2007 12:33AM; Updated: Tuesday July 10, 2007 1:11AM
SAN FRANCISCO -- We've been making fun of the Home Run Derby for a lot of years now. This overblown poking party, you have to agree, is tailor-made for ridicule. Really, a bunch of muscled-up sluggers, taking huge hacks at batting practice-type meatballs? It's like holding a fishing tournament in a bathtub and giving each contestant a stick of dynamite.
The little-regarded truth behind this made-for-television flex-fest, though, is that the players who get talked into taking their swings on the Monday before the All-Star Game actually care about this pseudo-event. Some players -- a lot of players, in fact -- avoid the Derby like it's George Mitchell with a subpoena and a little plastic cup. But the ones who compete in the Derby actually compete, if only because they don't want to embarrass themselves and come off looking like some twig-swinging second baseman. These guys care. They care as much as they dare, anyway.
"The first thing that's going through your mind," defending Derby champion Ryan Howard of the Phillies told a roomful of reporters on Monday morning, "is don't not hit any home runs."
The guys who have been through this thing before (this year, Howard, the Cardinals' Albert Pujols and the Angels' Vladimir Guerrero) and the guys who haven't normally talk before the Derby about strategy -- yes, there is some --- and about the whole experience. This is no leisurely swing through batting practice for these players, even if it looks that way.
Let me give you a couple of examples:
Players, as a rule, don't take spleen-twisting swings during batting practice trying to yank pitches out of the park, as they do in the Derby. As a rule, during BP, the best players spray the ball around, driving pitches to different areas of the park. Only toward the end of practice, after their real work is done and a little friendly wagering is going on among teammates, do they try to pull a couple out.
Nobody, ever, takes these kinds of cuts during BP outside of a batting cage. So think, for a second, how strange it would be to stand at home plate, without the cage over top and on all sides, all alone for everybody to see. "You just kind of feel naked," Howard said.
Normally, the stands aren't full and millions of people aren't watching when these players take batting practice. Remember, the Derby is the highest-rated summer event on ESPN. Granted, it's going up against poker, indoor football and sickos stuffing sausages down their throats as quickly as they possibly can. Still, lots of people watch.
Other than that occasional late-BP competition, nobody ever keeps score at these things. Never for everybody to see, anyway.
So the players who decide to swing from the heels at the Derby have plenty to think about. It's not as if they show up, slap on the pine tar and go at it. Throw in that possible embarrassment factor -- "I just hope to hit one," Colorado's Matt Holliday almost pleaded Monday morning -- and you have all the makings of a nervous couple of hours. Despite all the laughing and messing around.