Monday, July 13, 2009

In Defense of the Home Run Derby

It has become all too commonplace amongst sports media elitists to suggest that the Home Run Derby, much like rotten milk, stale bread and Aerosmith, is well past its prime. If you've listened to enough sports radio and heard the talking heads on ESPN over the course of the last few days, you'd swear the Home Run Derby was a relic from the horse-and-buggy era, an event that has long worn out its welcome and is now passed out on the couch like Uncle Jack after a few boilermakers. Worst of all, though...

It's a meaningless exhibition.

God Forbid That, of course. We can't have meaningless exhibitions in a sport where the Pirates and Nationals and the Royals and Orioles routinely play each other even when both teams are about 25 games out of their respective divisions, and the outcome of the game itself is, um, meaningless.

Except in the truly phenomenal games does sports ever mean anything at all. I went to an Astros-Pirates game with two of my closest friends for my 30th birthday, and we had a great time. 'Stros won too, 6-4. Can't say the game itself changed my life, my perspective or altered my thought process in an impactful, soul-altering sort of way. Neither the Astros nor the Pirates will probably figure into the NL Central race, so the outcome was likely void of meaning. But it was a great day at the ball park and we had one hell of a good time, having drinks, watching the game, and busting each other chops. Probably spent a little too much money, but such is life.

In other words, JKIII, Brad and I saw a meaningless exhibition, and I really don't care. Lance Berkman wasn't having some sort of existential conflict playing first base. I seriously doubt that Astros manager Cecil Cooper was contemplating a double switch via Socratic method. Nor do I think I think Michael Bourne views his center field position as an extension of Nietchze's theory of religion (God is Dead. Just like potential triples hit to the flag pole on the hill at Minute Maid Park).

Sports can teach us many things, and perhaps I sometimes think a little too hard about what particular outcomes could mean in a much broader context. But at the end of the day, baseball, and sports in general, aren't philosophy classes. Why these sports pundits are all of sudden concerned with meaning when most of their lives are spent talking about nothing is beyond me.

But just in case they need a reason to care about something so utterly frivilous as the Home Run Derby, here I am to share a brief story of enlightenment.

I had the distinct honor and privilege of attending the 2004 Home Run Derby and All-Star Game. Mom, Dad, Grandma Tray and I arrived at Minute Maid Park literally hours before the festivities just to watch batting practice.

Let's stop right there for a second. The four of us drove into Houston, fought traffic and found parking to show up and watch a bunch of guys hit a baseball for no other reason than for warming up and practice.

Nothing that Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. or Albert Pujols hit counted towards anything at all. It was the very definition of meaningless. After all, we were talkin' 'bout batting practice. Not the All-Star game. Not the Home Run Derby. We were talkin' 'bout batting practice.

How silly was that?

Simply put, we were in awe. Especially of Pujols. Keep in mind, this is pre-2005 so Pujols wasn't Public Enemy #1 in Houston just yet. Pujols and his peers kept hitting perfectly curved comets of leather and stitching into the nether regions of Minute Maid Park, slipping the surly bonds of Earth only to crash with a rickety thud into the vacant Crawford Box seats. Pujols, himself, hit a few shots that Rube Goldberged their way across the train tracks above the bleachers.

It was like watching a 4th of July fireworks display conducted by a pyromaniac. Shots flying everywhere in any which direction, full of oohing and ahhing and a smattering of "Holy crap, that was pretty cool."

A few hours later, ESPN began the broadcast of the Home Run Derby by bringing onto the field every living member of the 500 Home Run Club. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson and my father's hero, Ernie Banks were all introduced by Chris Berman to the spastic Houston crowd.

Shortly after the introduction, we all cheered on our hometown guy, Lance Berkman, as he made the second round of the Derby. I think he had eight home runs, none of which were of prodigious note. I distinctly recall Dad and I admiring the hell out of Rafael Palmeiro's swing. Little did we know he was juicing at the time, but damn...his swing was as smooth as Billy Dee. Rafael Palmeiro might have been roided out of his mind, but that night it was like he was swinging equal parts of velvet and Godiva, Jameson's 18 and Sinatra at The Sands. During that first round, I developed a veritable man-crush on Raffy's swing. I have no shame in admitting this.

The second round was perhaps most memorable. Minute Maid Park pulled back the retractable roof and let Lance Berkman take dead aim at Crawford Street. Right around about the seventh or eighth home run, he wasn't just hitting them on to the street. He was smacking light poles on Crawford Street. He forced accidental pedestrians to duck for cover like they were in the middle of a misbegotten hail storm. Lance Berkman became Genghis Khan with a Louisville Slugger, and every baseball he saw was China. He crushed them further and further into the Houston night, exiling the baseballs some 520 feet away, sentencing them to solitary confinement far beyond the maddened crowd.

Berkman could hit only a few more home runs, finishing with ten, an incredibly respectable number in the second round. Miguel Tejada stepped up quietly afterwards, and while he didn't hit them as far, he carefully measured each shot precisely into the Crawford Boxes, only 315 feet away. He not only won the round from Berkman, but also won what was the all-time record for most home runs hit in a round with 15. Furthermore, he ended up pulling a Maximus and winning the crowd as well. A crowd that had already cheered its hometown hero with delirious praise. Dad and I actually gave Tejada a standing ovation, and remarked how much we'd love to have him on the Astros someday.

Tejada ended up defeating Berkman in the final round. I can't even honestly say I remember how many home runs either man hit at the very end. All I can tell you is this, though. The 2004 Home Run Derby was one of the 15 happiest days of my life. No joke. Everything about it was inherently meaningless, true. But watching Berkman and Tejada duel in that second round, watching Palmeiro swing the bat without any degree of effort it seemed, validated all those moments in the driveway re-enacting past Home Run Derbies with Dad and my sister, Caitlin. It validated all those summer days with my cousins playing Home Run Derby in their backyard, and later in the cornfields of Shenandoah, Iowa as well. That meaningless home run derby? Like hell, it is.

It is the connection between our past to our present. It is the connection between Banks to Berkman, a bridge so that we may not forget who we were at one time and to remember that it's not too difficult to go back to that place every so often.

Moreover, isn't happiness life's ultimate pursuit? If this is what makes people happy, how can it be meaningless?

So to those grizzled sportwriters, pundits and talking heads, I say this: Embrace your inner child and give it a hug. Grab a wiffle bat and go out to the driveway. Stand their with the bat in your hand, crouching, legs spread apart just like Jeff Bagwell. And just stand there in your Bagwell stance.

For about at least a couple of hours until it really starts to hurt, you pretentious asses.

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