Major Garrett is the chief White House correspondent for CBS News.
Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby, set for Monday, is a tedious monstrosity of batting-practice gluttony, a swing-killing relic of the steroid era. It is an elephantine affront to the grace, agility and precision of the game.
The derby, a home-run-hitting competition that precedes the All-Star Game every year, bears as much resemblance to baseball as a hippo does to a thoroughbred. Four players from each league take turns at the plate. The catcher might as well not wear a glove because most pro ballplayers could catch these lobs barehanded. The slow, arching pitches float right into the hitter’s sweet spot, where he can generate maximum power to send the ball over the fence. Batters don’t even wear helmets. The best home run swing is an upper cut, which gives the ball distance and loft. In other words, the swing major leaguers use during real batting practice — the one that yields a line drive — is either invisible or devalued. You score only by hitting a home run.
This can take hours. So organizers have introduced an NBA-style five-minute show clock for each batter, one that will still pause each time a home run is hit in the final minute. Here’s a better idea:
Stop it. Bury the derby and its increasingly desperate bells and whistles. It cannot be saved. It must go. Now.
Replace it with a skills competition that celebrates the essentials of the game, the fine-tuned subtleties upon which winning and losing precariously teeter: bunting within tight lines down the first and third base lines; throws to home from the outfield, by the catcher to second, by infielders to first, with points awarded for accuracy and velocity; races around the bases with actual hits and timed trips from home to second, third and back home; and last, an abbreviated, one-round homer derby in which points are doubled for opposite-field round-trippers and subtracted for dead-pull wall-scrapers.
Don’t quibble about the mechanics of any of this. If the MLB is willing to pollute between-inning lulls with air guns that shoot hot dogs and T-shirts into the stands, then machines can pitch to bunters, fire ground balls to the hole and send frozen ropes off the outfield wall in the gap.
This skills competition would celebrate the plays that make baseball magic and elevate the talents at the heart of the game’s success. It could feature the most promising minor leaguers and current all-stars, setting up a healthy generational contest over baseball fundamentals. These are skills and habits that the meagerly compensated players of a previous era — competing with inferior bats and gloves on roughshod fields, and wearing suffocating wool uniforms — refined to a near-religious level of precision. Today’s players, encouraged to compete on the basis of these skills, with contract incentives to sweeten the pot, might find more time to devote to some of these lost arts, like bunting: The top 10 bunters for base hits in MLB history doesn’t include anyone whose career started later than 1976.
I know something about how the Home Run Derby was born. I was there when the All-Star Game first offered a showcase for fans to see the sport’s best do their work the day before the big game. My beloved San Diego Padres hosted the All-Star Game in 1978 and opened San Diego Stadium the Monday before so fans could watch their heroes take batting practice, shag grounders and chase flyballs hit by coaches.
More than 30,000 came. Admission was free and seating open. I don’t recall a PA announcer, and there were no corporate logos. I listened for the crack of the bat and imagined the sound of sizzling grounders. I beheld the long, curling arc of flyballs through the sky and added to the roar when a ball burst from the batting cage and cleared the outfield fences. I saw the players joke and nudge one another around the diamond. I felt as if I were in the presence of immortals, peering into their secret world of camaraderie and craft.
The atmosphere was innocent and improvisational — concepts utterly alien to the wheezing, wormy test pattern that is the modern Home Run Derby. When the derby officially debuted in 1985, it was, by the standards of that bucolic pre-steroid era, a success. There was no TV coverage. Players wore their teams’ uniforms. The event was held during the day. Tape-delayed TV broadcasts began in 1993 and live coverage in 1998. Even then, commercial interruptions and corporate logos were not as genetically interlaced with the proceedings as they are now — so much so that the derby itself feels like an afterthought to the hucksterism.
The derby was a fan favorite and a decent TV morsel for many years. Prime-time coverage and steroids certainly amped up the spectacle. But the competition was always undermined by foolish rules that ignored the cumulative number of homers struck. Typically, a player wins the derby by prevailing in each elimination round. To advance, he has to hit more homers than his rival in every round. Oddly, this means he can hit more home runs than everyone else overall and still lose. Search the Web for fan-archived “greatest moments,” and you’ll find highlights of Josh Hamilton (2008), Mark McGwire (1996 and 1999) and Ken Griffey Jr. (1993) — the undisputed stars of the derbies in which they competed — all enveloped by the same idiotic ignominy: Not one of them won.
No wonder the allure — along with the ratings, which last year were the lowest recorded since 1997 — is gone. The big leagues have admitted as much by reducing the number of participants and adding the time clock. What’s worse, more and more sluggers fear that the derby will screw up their swings. Bobby Abreu won the derby in 2005 with 41 homers, a score without equal before or since. In the months before the derby, Abreu hit 18 home runs for the Phillies. For the rest of the season, he hit six. There’s a legitimate statistical debate about whether the Home Run Derby “curse” is real, and MLB managers are divided. But I trust the players, the ones paid to hit during the regular season. And mega-stars such as Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Colorado Rockies standouts Nolan Arenado and Troy Tulowitzki want no part of it. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon wants young stars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who have both been announced as participants, to steer clear, fearing that the derby will disrupt their carefully honed swings.
So the ratings are lousy, the spectacle demeans the sport it supposedly celebrates, the game’s best players are becoming allergic to it, the uniforms are unhinged from the game’s history and the only satisfied customers (and I’m beginning to wonder about them) appear to be the corporate sponsors.
Baseball is a beautiful game with a startling array of subtle skills displayed within the varied geometric dimensions of every ballpark. Let the stadium for each All-Star Game become a shrine for the best baseball produces — not this clownish descent into slow-pitch slobbery.