I love it because there are no judges as exist for the NBA’s Slam-Dunk contest and no radar guns as the NHL uses for its hardest-shot competition. It’s just some of the best thumpers in the game seeing who can hit more balls over the fence.
Some people grumble about the contest, as they are wont to do about everything. It’s boring, they say. The best hitters don’t always compete, they whine. And Chris Berman really needs to take a Valium.
I’ll grant you that the Boomer is hard on the eardrums and the sanity. I’ll even agree that it would be better if the best hitters paid the game back by stepping up to the plate. I’d like to see A-Rod in the contest at Yankee Stadium. Everybody would. We’d also like the National League to bring in Ryan Howard, the strongest hitter in the game. But with or without those guys, we’ll still get our show.
It could be better. Jayson Stark at ESPN has suggested giving players nine outs instead of 10 and splitting the final round into three-out innings. That’s a great idea. Three and nine are baseball’s magic numbers – three outs in a half inning, three strikes and you’re out, nine innings in a game, nine players on the field. So why not honor the numerology of the game and make HRD a nine-out affair instead of 10, a number which has no special meaning in baseball.
But just because it could be improved doesn’t mean it’s bad because it’s not. If you ever get the chance, get a ticket and see the show live. The stadium’s packed and the fans go crazy and the hitters are competing for all they’re worth. It’s electric and watching balls travel impossible distances never gets old. Even the players have to watch.
It’s easy to understand why. The home run is hitting distilled to its essence. There are plenty of ways to score two or even three points in basketball, and in hockey the hardest shot isn’t the best one. But in baseball, the only way for a player to score all by himself is to hit a home run, and that almost invariably means hitting it out of the park. You could hit an inside-the-park job, but that’s an awful lot of work. Plus, you don’t get to pose and admire the wonderfulness of yourself as the ball soars into the upper deck.
If you hit it far enough, you’re not at the mercy of your own legs or the skill of the fielders. There’s nothing the defense can do. You hit it and trot around the bases and the crowd roars its approval of your character. And then you get to go sit down and bask in your own reflected glory.
For me, there were two surpassing thrills that a player can do at any time. One was striking out the side as a pitcher. The other was hitting the ball out of the park. And the home run is the best. If you strike out the side, you still have to go out and try to do it again. You don’t get to rest on your laurels. And no matter what you do the rest of the game, your day is a success if you’ve hit one out, and the newspapers and highlight shows will take note of your feat.
A-Rod may want no part of it, but the young stars who are in the derby are thrilled to be there. Win HRD and you are a hero not just to the public, but to your peers. You are the king at performing the game’s most dramatic feat.
And that’s never boring.
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