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July 10, 2012
What You Need to Know
Tuesday, July 10
The Home Run Derby Takeaway
More than any other day during the major-league season, the Derby enables both players and fans to kick back, relax, and watch the balls fly. There are no rivalries to stand in the way of friendships, no heated arguments with umpires, and no careers hanging in the balance. On the day of the Derby, David Ortiz can hug Robinson Cano, and no one at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium will flinch.
The All-Star Game used to be that way, but now that home-field advantage in the World Series hinges on its result, the stakes and tensions have both been raised. Since then, the Home Run Derby has in some ways become analogous to the National Football League’s Pro Bowl, where unwritten restrictions on defensive players essentially produce a touchdown exhibition. To some fans, the home run/touchdown bonanzas, during which normally ultra-competitive players fraternize like old college roommates, are boring and meaningless. To others, those all-in-the-name-of-fun events, which occasionally produce compelling storylines, are important parts of every season.
I’m still writing, and you’re still reading, so it’s safe to assume that we both fall into the latter category. And in that case, it’s worth considering what we remember from past Home Run Derbies. If I put you on the spot, you probably could not tell me who won the 2002 Home Run Derby, who the runner-up was, or where it was held*—and, 10 years from now, you may not remember that Prince Fielder beat Jose Bautista in this year’s final round. But you probably remember Josh Hamilton’s 28-homer opening round at Yankee Stadium in 2008 and Robinson Cano celebrating his victory with his father and Derby pitcher, former major leaguer Jose Cano, in 2011.
With all of that said, come back to the 2012 Derby: What will our most lasting memory of it be? The question is almost rhetorical. We can probably all agree that the boos raining down on Robinson Cano as he was announced, and the Bronx cheers he heard after each out during his homer-less opening round, are both what we will most remember and what we least want to remember. Clearly, what happened at Kauffman Stadium last night was bad for baseball—and, as is the case with anything that is bad for baseball, admitting it raises the question of what should be done to remedy it.
Here’s my take, and I encourage you to comment with yours.
The fans in Kansas City last night had the right to boo Cano for any reason—whether it was because he failed to offer Royals designated hitter Billy Butler a spot on his Derby team or because they believe he prefers Memphis-style barbecue sauce to their own. Fans pay for admission to the ballpark, and as long as they are not being abusive toward their fellow fans, they have the right to express their feelings about the players and their actions. Meanwhile, I do not think those expressions have a significant effect on the outcome of the event—at least, not as significant an effect as a player getting three hours of sleep after playing four games in three days—and even if they do, fans who have an interest in the outcome have the right to try to produce it.
And that’s where the problem arises. By instituting the “team captain” aspect of the Derby, where one player from each league selects the other three, in 2011, Major League Baseball created an opportunity for fans of a particular player (or team) to feel slighted by the captain’s decision not to include him. Because Cano chose Jose Bautista, Prince Fielder, and Mark Trumbo, instead of kick back, relax, and watch the balls fly, the Derby became kick back, relax, watch the balls fly, and boo Robinson Cano. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt, and Royals fans were hurt.
But the Derby is the one event during the Major League Baseball year where no one is supposed to be hurt. One way to remedy the problem, advocated in this column by Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports, would be to require that a player from the host city’s team be placed on the Derby squad every year. That would silence the boo-birds at future host cities, but there are two notable issues with this solution.
All of that boils down to this simple notion: We want the four best sluggers available representing each league. And earmarking three of the eight spots would often push the outcome away from that.
My solution would be to do away with the team captain system entirely, and to either return to fan voting or simply use the top four available players on the home-run leaderboard from each league on a certain date. The result with the latter option would have been rather similar to the teams selected by Cano and Kemp, though a different champion would have been crowned, because Fielder is currently 18th in the American League.
But remember that, come 2022, the winner of the 2012 Derby may no longer matter. The baseball world’s impression of the Kansas City fans—an impression they have seldom had the opportunity to make on national TV—is likely to prove prove more lasting.
And that’s plenty of motivation for Major League Baseball to restore the Home Run Derby to what it should be: An exhibition of power, all in the name of fun.
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