Home run derby has the perfect stage, imperfect lineup
NEW YORK -- Major League Baseball's ever-popular Home Run Derby comes to the House That Ruth Built tonight, to the same place where the Babe brought the longball into national prominence and Roger Maris broke Ruth's single-season record, and where perhaps the greatest power hitter of all-time currently toils at third base.
In many ways, it is a perfect melding of event and venue. Yankee Stadium is to those who swing for the fences what Augusta National is to golfers. It is a Lambeau Field for longball lovers. It's centre court at Wimbledon for home-run whackers.
Except that in this Derby we have ... Dan Uggla? Grady Sizemore? Evan Longoria? Josh Hamilton?
Uh, come again?
Monday's Home Run Derby, the 24th of these All-Star Game warmups, is finally in the perfect place at the perfect time, only this time it has a most imperfect lineup. Not to knock any of those pseudo-sluggers. And nothing against the other four who will swing from the heels in this strangely attractive, nationally televised event -- Lance Berkman, Ryan Braun, Chase Utley and Justin Morneau. It's not as if these guys aren't good home run hitters.
It's just that ... well, they're not great home run hitters. Not a one of them. That's not what they do.
No one in baseball today who can be considered a true home-run hitter -- or who at least has been among this era's best -- will be picking up a bat on this particular evening. The active player with the most career home runs (Ken Griffey Jr.)? Not here. That third baseman who could snatch the crown from home-run king Barry Bonds (Alex Rodriguez)? Not gonna take part. The leader in home runs this season (Ryan Howard)? Nope. Sitting it out. The leader in any season? Ummm. no. Not here.
How about the most prolific switch-hitting slugger today (Chipper Jones)? He'll watch this one from the sidelines. David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, last year's champion, Vladimir Guerrero? Nope, nuh-uh and not at this time.
This year's Derby field doesn't have a single player who, for his career, ranks in the top 25 among active players. The Astros' Berkman is the most homer-happy of the bunch mainly because, at 32 years old, he's the oldest. He has 281 career home runs. That ranks him 28th among active players, and 140th all-time.
The rest of this field consists of young second basemen (the Phillies' Utley, the Marlins' Uggla), young outfielders (the Brewers' Braun, the Indians' Sizemore, the Rangers' Hamilton), a rookie third baseman (the Rays' Longoria) and a young first baseman (the Twins' Morneau). Six of the eight are first-timers in the Derby. None is over 30.
Maybe this is simply a sign of the times, a mirroring of the apparent move away from the juiced-up sluggers that have dominated the game (and, perhaps, this Derby) during baseball's Steroids Era. Maybe it's a full changing of the guard as the older sluggers of the 1990s give way to baseball's next wave. Maybe it's just that the Derby, though still an immensely popular event on an otherwise barren sports television stage at this time of the year, has run its course with those asked to participate in it.
The Derby, to be certain, has had its swings and misses over the years. Bonds declined to take part last season, even though the All-Star Game was held in his home park in San Francisco. Rodriguez hasn't participated since 2002. Griffey hasn't been here since 2000. We haven't seen the popular Ortiz -- Big Papi is hurt this year -- since '06. Players routinely shy away from the Derby for fear of altering the swing that earns them their living.
This year, with Yankee Stadium in its final season, the Derby promises to elicit memories of some of the greatest homers ever hit. You can't stand in the gray old lady without pointing out, in center field, where Reggie Jackson's blast landed in the '77 World Series. Or the short porch in right field that the greatest switch-hitting slugger of all time, Mickey Mantle, used to his advantage. Look down the left-field line and you can almost see Aaron Boone's blast from Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.
They are memories that will stay with us long after this Yankee Stadium gives way to the new one next year. And none of them will be threatened by what goes on here Monday night.
Player of the Week
If Scott Hairston had played the entire first half like he did last week ... well, the Padres still would stink. But at least they'd feel a lot better about Hairston. The 28-year-old outfielder, of the Hairston baseball family (dad Jerry had a 14-year career in the 1970s and '80s, almost all of it with the White Sox, and brother Jerry Jr. plays for the Reds), has finally taken off, hitting .391 in the past week with two home runs, three doubles and a triple. In his last 11 games, he's hitting .432. Hairston remains a bit of an enigma -- a fairly patient hitter (he sees about as many pitches per plate appearance as Albert Pujols) who doesn't walk (only once in his last 11 games, and only 16 times this year), a guy who shows flashes of good (last week) and long stretches of bad (in 52 games from mid-April through mid-June, he hit only .224, with a .261 on-base percentage). We'll see if the real Hairston shows himself in the second half.
Team of the Week
Meet these Mets, eh? After a lurching first half that landed their manager in the unemployment line and got their general manager ridiculed, New York's second-favorite sons roll into the All-Star break as winners of nine-straight games. Since Willie Randolph was fired, the Mets have picked up six games in the standings and now sit, almost incomprehensibly, a mere half-game behind the Phillies in the National League East. Sure, the Phillies are 10-14 since Randolph was fired and the Marlins are 12-13, and that certainly make the Mets, under new skipper Jerry Manuel, look that much better. But in this nine-game stretch, the Mets are hitting .321, with a .388 on-base percentage (.257/.333 under Randolph). Mets' pitchers have a 1.93 ERA in this stretch. It was 4.14 under Randolph. OK, OK, so the last six of these wins have come against the Giants and Rockies, two teams that aren't scaring anybody. But this is progress. Isn't it? Isn't it?