Some twists and tweaks to make Derby better
Expanded eligibility, shorter format, prizes could add interest
Before we interject, before we whine and whimper, let us begin with an acknowledgment that the State Farm Home Run Derby is, as currently staged, a rite of summer for the tens of thousands in attendance and the millions watching at home each year.And with rites, of course, come rights. Namely, the right to maintain the status quo. We all know the knocks on the Derby, the reasons so many high-profile sluggers decline to participate. The most oft-cited is the perceived health threat the Derby poses to its participants.
"It's too long," said the Rangers' Josh Hamilton, who put on perhaps the greatest power display in Derby history in 2008 at Yankee Stadium but begged off this year. "It's an event that's longer than the game is. The more you spread guys out hitting, and the more time they have between hitting, the more chance they have of pulling something and getting hurt."But not everybody agrees with this claim. On a conference call with reporters last week, analysts Bobby Valentine and Aaron Boone, who will be part of ESPN's coverage team for Monday night's event, enthusiastically disputed the presumption that participating in the Derby is somehow detrimental. "I mean, come on, give me a break," Valentine said. "Guys take batting practice every day. ... What do you think home run hitters do during batting practice? Hit ground balls to right field? No, they try to hit home runs. We're talking about people who just don't want to put the effort in on an off-day, and I can understand that. So just say it." More to the point, however, was the synopsis provided by Mike Ryan, ESPN's vice president of programming and acquisitions. "[The Derby] is, by far, our highest-rated baseball event of the year," Ryan said. "The rating holds throughout the entire event." As long as those ratings hold steady, and as long as a sold-out crowd remains the standard, Major League Baseball and the network covering the Derby have little reason to fix something that isn't perceived to be broken. But with that advisory out of the way, let's approach the Derby from a fan's perspective and admit that, if we had our way, this haven for home runs would be inhabited by only the creme de la creme of competitors and would have all the drama of Game 7 of the World Series. The NBA's Slam Dunk Contest has become a target for criticism because there are only so many ways to dunk a basketball and superstars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade ignore it, watering down the product. The fear, of course, is that the Home Run Derby is headed in the same direction. This year's Derby field -- the Brewers' Corey Hart, the Cardinals' Matt Holliday, the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez and the D-backs' Chris Young from the NL; the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, the Red Sox's David Ortiz, the Yankees' Nick Swisher and the Blue Jays' Vernon Wells from the AL -- certainly possesses some of the game's premier talents. But that field won't satisfy everybody's craving. Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer finished first in the State Farm Home Run Derby Fan Poll. But that's a fan vote, not an enforceable mandate. Neither of them will be involved (though Mauer's power outage this season certainly made Derby participation a shaky proposition anyway). Nor will Hamilton or Rangers teammate Vladimir Guerrero or the Phillies' Ryan Howard or the Brewers' Prince Fielder. They all opted out. "It may have lost its appeal among the players, kind of like the Slam Dunk Contest," said the Astros' Lance Berkman, a four-time participant. "The biggest challenge is getting the marquee guys to do it." And even with marquee guys, simply watching fly ball after fly ball leave the yard can get a little stale. In the end, the showcase event on All-Star Monday comes down to enticement, for players and fans alike. So, how do we entice thee? Let us count the ways. 1. The old-$chool model. Want to get the top talent in the Derby? Make it worth their while. The Dodgers' Garret Anderson, the 2003 Derby champ, said the trophy awarded to the Derby winner just isn't cutting it. "If you go off how competitors think, if you put something on the line, you might get some more people that want to do it," Anderson said. "We play every day for a ring. When you do [the Derby], you get a trophy for it. We've all got closets full of trophies. We all were the best at what we were. ... There was a time when you couldn't get in that thing, everybody wanted to do it, and now nobody wants to do it. If you put something on the line, you might spark some more interest." Is it as simple as a ring? Probably not. It's probably not as simple as straight cash, either. You (or your parents or grandparents) remember what happened at the end of those old "Home Run Derby" shows from 1960. The winner received $2,000; the runner-up $1,000. Hit three out in a row, and you claimed a whopping $500. Of course, this was at a time when the average Major League salary was somewhere in the neighborhood of $13,000 a year and guys were working part-time jobs in the offseason. It's not exactly the same scenario today. "A cash prize?" said Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, a 2008 Derby participant. "I think most of the guys who hit that many home runs are fine financially." Still, money talks. And if it were to be yapping in support of a player's favorite charity, well, that might increase interest. As it stands, the sponsor, State Farm Insurance, donates a healthy sum to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (last year, it was $5,000 per home run and $17,000 per "gold ball" home run). But why not institute an additional cash prize that goes to the winner's charity of choice? And while we're at it, offer fans of each participant's team a chance to back their guy by donating a dollar for every homer he hits. 2. Expand the pool. We acknowledged the knocks on the Slam Dunk Contest earlier, but there is at least one element from the dunking display that can and should be incorporated into the Derby. You don't have to be an NBA All-Star to compete in the Dunk Contest, and you shouldn't have to be an MLB All-Star to compete in the Derby. In 2007, Howard was left off the NL All-Star roster but was nonetheless invited to defend his Derby crown. There's your precedent. Run with it. Of course, as All-Star rosters continue to expand and the Final Vote ties up many loose ends, this is less of an issue than it was, say, a decade ago. But there are still some loopholes, such as Adam Dunn not being eligible. But please, don't expand the number of Derby spots. Eight is plenty. 3. Tighten it up. Hamilton said it best. The Derby shouldn't last longer than the All-Star Game itself. It's an accoutrement, not a main dish. And some of us have to get up in the morning. Two possibilities to pick up the pace: Limit the first round to five outs, instead of 10. The first round is all about weeding out the pretenders from the contenders. If you can't get hot within five outs, you're not worthy of the Derby crown. But if the 10-out threshold is a must, how about a strike zone? We're here to watch these guys pound whatever pitch is in their eyesight, not take 15 of them waiting for the perfect one to come along. If a pitch is right down the middle and you let it pass, strike one. Three strikes, and there goes one of your 10 outs. It has worked for more than 100 years in the real game. It can work in the Derby. 4. Fix the format. The 2008 Derby was proof of the flaw in the format. We remember what it was like to watch Hamilton crank out a record 28 home runs in the first round. Every swing he took was magic, a made-for-TV masterpiece in the final All-Star Week at The House That Ruth Built. But how many of us remember that Hamilton didn't even win the darned thing? After the first round, he was spent. Justin Morneau outlasted him in the finals, which didn't contain any of the drama of the first round. Let's let the first round stand as a means to whittle the field down to four. But let's do the second round in five-out increments to keep guys feeling fresh. Each player goes twice, with five outs to burn each time. The two players with the top two point totals after two rounds advance to the finals. "When I did it, I was one of the first ones to hit," Anderson said. "You've got all these guys and all these TV commercials you've got to do for ESPN to make all this money, and you got all of us waiting around. It's just a long time to sit there." A five-out rotation would help fix that (provided, of course, we don't still have a commercial break between each guy). In the finals, let's have three, three-out innings apiece -- a shortened version of the old TV show. It adds a level of "anything you can do, I can do better" drama and gives the competitors a chance to catch their breath a bit. 5. Get creative. We want to see guys literally hit one out of the park, not watch them hit liners that sneak over the wall. Let's reward the homers accordingly, with a point system that promotes potency. "Obviously, there's a big difference between a wall-scraper and a 500-footer," said Hamilton, whose 518-foot blast at Yankee Stadium was one of the longest blasts in Derby history. "So [a points system] would be a good idea. I'd like to see that." Hit a homer that goes 400 feet or less, you get the standard one point. If it's between 400 and 500 feet, you get two points. If it's 500 or more, you get three points. And if it's 600 or more? Somebody better check the bat. Speaking of the bat, if you really want to add a little spice to the Derby, lose the lumber and acquire the aluminum. When a guy is down to his final out, let him use a metal bat to try to pad his tally in the final moments. We might just see a 600-footer after all. Oh, but before we introduce the aluminum, let's get nets down the lines, to protect the innocent. 6. Whither the homer? Hey, nobody said we have to have a Home Run Derby on All-Star Monday, right? What if we ditched the Derby for some other skills competition? A situational hitting drill? A footrace between the AL and NL stolen-base leaders? Or, sexiest of all, a bunting contest? As you might imagine, the players surveyed all heartily gave those ideas a big thumbs-down. "It's not like hockey or anything like that, where there's definitely some different skills," Anderson said. "Our skill that sets us apart from other players is the ability to hit the ball out of the park on a consistent basis. We can all hit line drives, but not all of us can hit the ball out of the park consistently." Said Rangers third baseman Michael Young: "It would be fun to challenge players' skills, but I think everybody just wants to see players crush the ball." Yes, that's the prevailing thought here, and the ratings prove it. The Home Run Derby remains a midsummer classic in its own right. But that doesn't mean there aren't ways to make this rite of summer even more spectacular.