July 14, 2008
A Matter of Relative Importance
The Futures Game deserves better than it gets. It takes place on the wrong day at the wrong time, causing what should be a glimpse at the game's future to be lost amidst a full schedule of its present. If it's important enough to have, it's important enough to have at a time when baseball fans are actually likely to watch it.
The solution is simple: play the game on Monday night, in the spot currently held by the Home Run Derby. The Futures Game should be treated with much greater hype and much more coverage than it actually gets, and if you hewed to the rules for it to so that it featured a greater percentage of the game's top prospects-rather than Nate Schierholtz and Jamie D'Antona-you'd have a game that would do a lot more to grow interest in baseball than watching eight familiar faces take batting practice.
I readily admit that there's some personal bias here. I find the Home Run Derby to be exactly like the NBA dunk contest, a neat idea at the time that has long since outlived the interest level in it. Both had the participation of the very best players in the game, the top stars, at the time they were initially created. Arguably, at their peaks in popularity both event overshadowed their sport's All-Star Game. Both, however, have deteriorated during the same period in which the game's administrators have desperately tried to keep them relevant. Both highlight events that, ripped from the context of the game and witnessed again and again, lose their value pretty rapidly.
It's a great moment when Kobe Bryant makes a steal at midcourt, dribbles towards the hoop and throws down a crowd-energizing reverse. It's less interesting when Josh Smith runs from the baseline with no one guarding him, without dribbling, and dunks. Home runs are the same-turning around a 95-mph fastball with a win on the line means something; yanking batting-practice pitches out just doesn't. That's not a skill, it's a drill.
The dunk contest can never measure up to the heyday of MJ and 'Nique and Spud Webb. Tonight's contestants can't make the memories that Big Mac and Junior and Sammy did. The players know this, and have shied away from the events. Hitters, most famously Alex Rodriguez among them this year, are reluctant to participate for fear doing so will mess up their swings. Whether this actually happens or not is less important than the perception that it will; if I'm a fan of a team, and my team's star player thinks the derby will mess up his swing, I'm not going to argue with him. The derby means less to them and to me than the 70-odd games left in the season.
So you end up with a home-run derby in which almost none of the players is really a home-run hitter. Justin Morneau probably comes the closest, and Dan Uggla certainly gets most of his value from his home-run stroke. But guys like Chase Utley, Lance Berkman, and Grady Sizemore are great hitters who happen to have hit a lot of homers in the first half. In the same way that the dunk contest was supposed to be about the stars showing off, the Home Run Derby is designed for the monsters who hit baseballs a long way.
I think the world of the eight participants as ballplayers, but when was the last time your jaw dropped watching an Utley home run? Why are we having a Home Run Derby with a guy who has 16 career bombs (Evan Longoria)? Because those are the guys who said, "yes," that's why. If that's what the Derby has come to, kill it off and let the Futures Game have the stage the day before the All-Star Game. I'm not arguing that the Futures Game will have that much more drama, but it will be more interesting.
Now, the Home Run Derby is a huge moneymaker for baseball, so my idea that it would be eliminated has as much chance of happening as snowfall tonight. Just the ballpark revenues alone are staggering, and when you toss in a variety of sponsorships and the TV money, it's essentially a massive cash grab. So keep the Derby, but stick it somewhere else. Put it on Monday afternoon; if it's so popular, it shouldn't be hurt any by that. (See also: interleague play.) If you can have a day-night doubleheader involving the Yankees and Red Sox, surely you can have the derby at 2 p.m. and the Futures Game at 8 p.m., clearing the park between the two? This enables you to sell three All-Star event tickets, and while you'll cough up some parking and concessions revenue, you will get that back over the long term by putting the future of the game in prime time.
I admit, I don't care what you do with the softball game. No one does. Play it in a local park. Play it on a barge floating down the river. Invite no one. Tell no one. The Futures Game is a better event than the Home Run Derby. It can do more for baseball. It doesn't have the tired feel of the Derby, and it doesn't have the problem of begging for participants. Let it play the main stage for a while, where it doesn't have to compete with 14 games on a Sunday afternoon, and see if it can grow into something that people talk about, and care about, and look forward to, the way they did the Derby a decade ago, or for that matter, the All-Star Game 20 years ago.