MINNEAPOLIS — The damp Minnesota weather and the graveyard dimensions at Target Field reduced the annual Home Run Derby to a chore, a drag, calisthenics to be endured. Not even Yasiel Puig — neon sleeve down his right arm, star etched into his haircut, bat twirling in his right hand, ready to be flipped halfway to Lake Minnetonka — could enliven the bore. None of the pitches Robinson Cano’s dad, Jose, threw him cleared the fence. The zero on the scoreboard remained unchanged, and the lumber retired un-flipped.
The place yearned for energy, and then a man who looked like an outside linebacker crossed with a mountain lion stepped into the batter’s box. It was a Home Run Derby made to hate-watch, until it was redeemed by Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton.
The thing was endless. Stanton actually hit no home runs in one round and didn’t win. Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes, who won last year, beat Todd Frazier of the Cincinnati Reds in the final. Doesn’t matter. Did you see the ball Stanton almost hit out of the ever-loving stadium? Or the way the reigning NL MVP, Andrew McCutchen, lost his mind when it happened? There were brackets this year. There was something called a FlexBall. There was a swing-off. There was another swing-off. Again: Doesn’t matter. By all rights, it should have been terrible. For a while it was. And then Stanton happened.
Stanton roped one ball to dead center, into a deck overhanging a fence marked “403.” Target Field erupted. The giddy all-stars sitting outside the dugout didn’t know what to do with themselves. ESPN estimated the ball would have traveled 476 feet if not for the ballpark’s interference.
That was nothing. That was the sound check. When he had one out left to work with, Stanton annihilated a baseball. Everyone in the stadium gasped. The ball screamed to left field, where three decks are stacked on top of each other. Over the third, there was nothing but the night sky. That’s where Stanton’s rocket seemed headed.
The ball landed halfway up the third deck, presumably covered in scorch-marks from re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon giggled and couldn’t stop. Stanton stepped out of the box, allowing the crowd to process what it witnessed. ESPN’s tracking technology said the ball would have traveled 510 feet. That seemed to short him by a couple thousand feet.
Stanton hit more homers in the first round than any of the National League hitters, an accomplishment that rewarded him with a bye to the third round. For the sake of competition, that was all well and great. For the sake of what mattered, it meant less Giancarlo Stanton and more Not Giancarlo Stanton. That’s what you call a backfire.