On July 15, Target Field will host baseball’s all-star game, and almost all of the sport’s brightest stars will come out to shine. The home run derby, to be held the night before, won’t be quite so blinding.
Two of baseball’s biggest names, the Angels’ Mike Trout and the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, have already declined to participate. In addition, the three players with the most homers in the American League so far — Nelson Cruz (Orioles), Jose Abreu (White Sox) and Edwin Encarnacion (Blue Jays) – are all likely to take a pass. In fact, American League derby captain Jose Bautista is reportedly having trouble rounding up sluggers.
All of which raises the question: Is the home run derby going the way of the NBA’s slam dunk contest?
There are obvious parallels between the two events. Both take place the night before their respective sports’ all-star games, and both involve a single skill which is each sport’s most crowd-pleasing. One difference is that the slam dunk contest has long since turned into a showcase for the NBA’s young, lesser-known talents, whereas the derby may be just starting to trend in that direction.
A dunk contest in connection with an all-star game was first staged by the ABA in 1976. Fittingly, it was won by Julius Erving, the embodiment of the athletic, freewheeling game the upstart league wanted to display. The NBA immediately followed suit with its own version, but then shelved it until 1984.
The 1980s proved to be the golden age of the slam dunk contest. It attracted top players of the time, including Erving, Clyde Drexler and Ralph Sampson, and made a national sensation out of 5-foot-7 Spud Webb. Dominique Wilkins won it in 1985 and 1990, and Michael Jordan won it in 1987 and 1988. The 1988 contest undoubtedly stands as the apex of the event: The Bulls superstar, in full “Air Jordan” mode, nipped Wilkins for a result that sparked a controversy that lingers to this day (at least in ‘Nique’s mind).
Following Wilkins’s 1990 win, the rest of that decade was decidedly lacking in legendary names. The contest went to the likes of Dee Brown, Harold Miner (twice) and Isaiah Rider. The NBA even stopped holding the event after 1997 (which did feature the youngest winner ever, an 18-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant).
It returned in 2000 and immediately established a pattern that holds to this day: A noteworthy victory here and there — Vince Carter in 2000, Dwight Howard in 2008, Blake Griffin in 2011 — but other wise a steady succession of lesser lights. Quick quiz: You may recall that the Wizards’ John Wall took this year’s dunk contest, but who won it the previous two years? Don’t bother guessing, you don’t know. For the record, it was Terrence Ross in 2013 and Jeremy Evans in 2012.
Of course, one player could restore instant cachet to the dunk contest, and that’s LeBron James. He has hinted over the years at wanting to do it, but never has, and at this point, it’s hard to see the 11-year veteran bothering. James even went as far as kind-of promising to compete in 2010 before backing out.
In 2006, James had some revealing words about why he had not entered the contest, and probably would never do so:
“I’m not a slam-dunk-competition-type of guy. On the spur of the moment, I can do dunks during the game. I can’t think of a dunk before I do it. I’ll leave it up to the guys who don’t play as many minutes as I do. … I got the first two years out of the way and that’s when you usually do it. I don’t want to be defined as being in the slam dunk contest, it’s just not me.”
The line about “guys who don’t play as many minutes” gets to a couple of salient points. First, the NBA season is a physically taxing grind, and stars don’t relish the prospect of participating in two straight days of all-star contests, especially at a time when most of the league is resting at home. Second, it is increasingly difficult to wow judges with unprecedented dunks. Better to let some end-of-the bench guys take the time to dream up and practice crazy behind-the-backboard-and-over-the-ladder stunts.
It probably can’t be said that many NBA stars have skipped the dunk contest because they fear throwing their playing technique out of whack, but that is the predominant concern baseball players have about the home run derby.
Here’s Cabrera, to the Detroit Free Press: “I don’t want to mess with my swing anymore. I got enough going on with it.”
And here’s Abreu, to the Chicago Sun-Times: “I did it in Cuba several times, and I wasn’t much into it. … The first thing it does is affect you mentally. … And sometimes it messes with your mechanics.’’
It’s still a matter of debate about whether players who participate in the derby are actually negatively affected in the second half of the season, and why. A 2010 blog post at baseball-reference.com detected a drop-off, but posited that this could be explained largely by players having unusually power-laden first halves, then regressing to the mean. A 2012 study at fangraphs.com came to a similar conclusion.
Since its inception in 1985, the home run derby has featured a succession of baseball’s biggest stars. And even this year, the involvement as captains by Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki reflects that some of today’s bigger names still have an interest in participating. But the notion that the home run derby is bad for regular season batting technique has clearly caught on with many players, and that could continue to cripple participation in the contest.
If Trout, in particular, continues to sit out the event, either out of concern for his swing or a desire to get some rest, that could set the tone for an arriving generation of ballplayers. Many NBA players take their cue from LeBron James (and not just in free agency), and it is more than conceivable that Trout, if he keeps playing at a Hall of Fame level, could likewise be a very influential role model.
In other words, future home run derby winners may start to look a lot like baseball’s answer to Harold Miner.