Abol­ish the Home Run Derby

CBS News’s Ma­jor Gar­rett says it brings out the worst in base­ball

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Ma­jor Gar­rett is the chief White House cor­re­spon­dent for CBS News. Twit­ter: @Ma­jorCBS

Ma­jor League Base­ball’s Home Run Derby, set for Mon­day, is a te­dious mon­stros­ity of bat­ting-prac­tice glut­tony, a swing-killing relic of the steroid era. It is an ele­phan­tine af­front to the grace, agility-and-pre­ci­sion of the game.

The derby, a home-run-hit­ting com­pe­ti­tion that pre­cedes the All-Star Game ev­ery year, bears as much re­sem­blance to base­ball as a hippo does to a thor­ough­bred. Four play­ers from each league take turns at the plate. The catcher might as well not wear a glove be­cause most pro ballplay­ers could catch these lobs bare­handed. The slow, arch­ing pitches float right into the hitter’s sweet spot, where he can gen­er­ate max­i­mum power to send the ball over the fence. Bat­ters don’t even wear hel­mets. The best home run swing is an up­per cut, which gives the ball dis­tance and loft. In other words, the swing ma­jor lea­guers use dur­ing real bat­ting prac­tice — the one that yields a line drive — is ei­ther in­vis­i­ble or de­val­ued. You score only by hit­ting a home run.

This can take hours. So or­ga­niz­ers have in­tro­duced an NBA-style five-minute show clock for each bat­ter, one that will still pause each time a home run is hit in the fi­nal minute. Here’s a bet­ter idea:

Stop it. Bury the derby and its in­creas­ingly des­per­ate bells and whis­tles. It can­not be saved. It must go. Now.

Re­place it with a skills com­pe­ti­tion that cel­e­brates the essen­tials of the game, the fine-tuned sub­tleties upon which win­ning and los­ing pre­car­i­ously teeter: bunt­ing within tight lines down the first and third base lines; throws to home from the out­field, by the

catcher to sec­ond, by in­field­ers to first, with points awarded for ac­cu­racy and ve­loc­ity; races around the bases with ac­tual hits and timed trips from home to sec­ond, third and back home; and last, an ab­bre­vi­ated, oner­ound homer derby in which points are dou­bled for op­po­site-field round-trip­pers and sub­tracted for dead-pull wall-scrap­ers.

Don’t quib­ble about the me­chan­ics of any of this. If the MLB is will­ing to pol­lute be­tween in­ning lulls with air guns that shoot hot dogs and T-shirts into the stands, then ma­chines can pitch to bun­ters, fire ground balls to the hole and send frozen ropes off the out­field wall in the gap.

This skills com­pe­ti­tion would celebrate the plays that make base­ball magic and el­e­vate the tal­ents at the heart of the game’s suc­cess. It could fea­ture the most promis­ing mi­nor lea­guers and cur­rent all-stars, set­ting up a healthy gen­er­a­tional con­test over base­ball fun­da­men­tals. These are skills and habits that the mea­gerly com­pen­sated play­ers of a pre­vi­ous era— com­pet­ing with in­fe­rior bats and gloves on roughshod fields, and wear­ing suf­fo­cat­ing wool uni­forms — re­fined to a near-re­li­gious level of pre­ci­sion. To­day’s play­ers, en­cour­aged to com­pete on the ba­sis of these skills, with con­tract in­cen­tives to sweeten the pot, might find more time to de­vote to some of these lost arts, like bunt­ing: The top 10 bun­ters for base hits in MLB history doesn’t in­clude any­one whose ca­reer started later than 1976.

I know some­thing about how the Home Run Derby was born. I was there when the All-Star Game first of­fered a show­case for fans to see the sport’s best do their work the day be­fore the big game. My beloved San Diego Padres hosted the All-Star Game in 1978 and opened San Diego Sta­dium the Mon­day be­fore so fans could watch their he­roes take bat­ting prac­tice, shag grounders and chase fly­balls hit by coaches.

More than 30,000 came. Ad­mis­sion was free and seat­ing open. Idon’t re­call a PA an­nouncer, and there were no cor­po­rate lo­gos. I lis­tened for the crack of the bat and imag­ined the sound of siz­zling grounders. I be­held the long, curl­ing arc of fly­balls through the sky and added to the roar when a ball burst from the bat­ting cage and cleared the out­field fences. I saw the play­ers joke and nudge one another around the diamond. I felt as if I were in the pres­ence of im­mor­tals, peer­ing into their se­cret world of ca­ma­raderie and craft.

The at­mos­phere was in­no­cent and im­pro­vi­sa­tional— con­cepts ut­terly alien to the wheez­ing, wormy test pat­tern that is the mod­ern Home Run Derby. When the derby of­fi­cially de­buted in 1985, it was, by the stan­dards of that bu­colic pre-steroid era, a suc­cess. There was no TV cov­er­age. Play­ers wore their teams’ uni­forms. The event was held dur­ing the day. Tape-de­layed TV broad­casts be­gan in 1993 and live cov­er­age in 1998. Even then, com­mer­cial in­ter­rup­tions and cor­po­rate lo­gos were not as ge­net­i­cally in­ter­laced with the pro­ceed­ings as they are now— so much so that the derby it­self feels like an af­ter­thought to the huck­ster­ism.

The derby was a fan fa­vorite and a de­cent TV morsel for many years. Prime-time cov­er­age and steroids cer­tainly amped up the spec­ta­cle. But the com­pe­ti­tion was al­ways un­der­mined by foolish rules that ig­nored the cu­mu­la­tive num­ber of homers struck. Typ­i­cally, a player wins the derby by pre­vail­ing in each elim­i­na­tion round. To ad­vance, he has to hit more homers than his ri­val in ev­ery round. Oddly, this means he can hit more home runs than ev­ery­one else over­all and still lose. Search the Web for fan-archived “great­est mo­ments,” and you’ll find high­lights of Josh Hamil­ton (2008), Mark McGwire (1996 and 1999) and Ken Grif­fey Jr. (1993)— the undis­puted stars of the der­bies in which they com­peted — all en­veloped by the same id­i­otic ig­nominy: Not one of them won.

No won­der the al­lure — along with the rat­ings, which last year were the low­est recorded since 1997 — is gone. The big leagues have ad­mit­ted as much by re­duc­ing the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants and adding the time clock. What’s worse, more and more slug­gers fear that the derby will screw up their swings. Bobby Abreu won the derby in 2005 with 41 homers, a score with­out equal be­fore or since. In the months be­fore the derby, Abreu hit 18 home runs for the Phillies. For the rest of the sea­son, he hit six. There’s a le­git­i­mate sta­tis­ti­cal de­bate about whether the Home Run Derby “curse” is real, and MLB man­agers are di­vided. But I trust the play­ers, the ones paid to hit dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son. And mega-stars such as Miguel Cabr­era, Mike Trout and Colorado Rock­ies stand­outs Nolan Arenado and Troy Tu­low­itzki want no part of it. Chicago Cubs man­ager Joe Mad­don wants young stars Kris Bryant and An­thony Rizzo, who have both been an­nounced as par­tic­i­pants, to steer clear, fear­ing that the derby will dis­rupt their care­fully honed swings.

So the rat­ings are lousy, the spec­ta­cle de­means the sport it sup­pos­edly cel­e­brates, the game’s best play­ers are be­com­ing al­ler­gic to it, the uni­forms are un­hinged from the game’s history and the only sat­is­fied cus­tomers (and I’m be­gin­ning to won­der about them) ap­pear to be the cor­po­rate spon­sors.

Base­ball is a beau­ti­ful game with a star­tling ar­ray of sub­tle skills dis­played within the var­ied geo­met­ric di­men­sions of ev­ery ball­park. Let the sta­dium for each All-Star Game be­come a shrine for the best base­ball pro­duces — not this clown­ish de­scent into slow-pitch slob­bery.

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Bryce Harper, theWash­ing­ton Na­tion­als right fielder, wears a Na­tional League uni­form at­Ma­jor League Base­ball’s 2013 Home Run Derby. He’ll sit out this year’s com­pe­ti­tion.

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