The remade/remodeled rules of the thing enabled Pete Alonso to win Monday night’s Home Run Derby in Cleveland’s Progressive Field. And Alonso, who’s one of the extremely few bright lights on a Mets team described charitably as a basket case, would have been the star of the show all around if it wasn’t for the kid named Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.
Gone is the longtime ten-outs window through which the Home Run Derby’s participants had to perform in the past. In is the three-minute, no-outs window through which they get to mash to their hearts’ content and their swings’ contact. Through that window did the chunky Blue Jay mash his way into becoming half of the only father-and-son tandem ever to win the Derby.
And, into the hearts of both the packed Progressive Field (commentators invariably noted the full house stayed full from late afternoon until the Derby finished) and the television audience. Hitting 91 home runs on the evening can do that for you, especially if you’re as effervescent as this son of a Hall of Famer showed himself to be.
It was great entertainment.
But it wasn’t baseball.
And there was the chance going in that this year’s Derby could be won by a guy who wasn’t even an All-Star in the first place.
As likeable as he is, as promising as his future still appears to be despite his awkward career opening after he’d turned the minors into his personal target practise, Guerrero isn’t even a member of the American League’s All-Star team. And Joc Pederson, whom Guerrero beat to set up the final showdown with Alonso, isn’t a member of the National League’s All-Stars this time. The Derby operates by a slightly different set of criteria than the All-Star Game, which has problems enough every year.
But Alonso is an All-Star. So is Alex Bregman, the Astros’ deft third baseman who often seems to be six parts Little Rascal and half a dozen parts high on laughing gas, and you’re never quite sure which side dominates at any given time. Bregman was eliminated in the Derby’s first round after a mere 14 blasts. He may not necessarily have been complaining.
Watching the showdown between Guerrero and Pederson, who put on a big show of their own (including two swing-offs) before Guerrero yanked his way to the final showdown with Alonso, Bregman got off the arguable second best line of the night: I couldn’t imagine three rounds of that. I was gassed after two minutes of it. The arguable best line of the night? It showed up on Twitter: Joc Pederson’s going after that $1 million like he’s behind in his rent.
And, on television, Dodger pitcher and All-Star Clayton Kershaw inadvertently provided the most charming moment—his two young children, Cali and Charley, accompanied Daddy to the ballpark for the Derby. There was Cali Kershaw, pretty in pink, pumping her hands and hollering, “Let’s go, Joc! Let’s go, Joc!” The little lady’s a natural scene-stealer, just as she was during last year’s National League division series.
This year’s Derby winner added $1 million to his bankroll for his effort. In Alonso’s case, earning $1 million for one evening’s glorified batting practise all but doubles what he’s earning all season long as a Met. And, entering the Derby and the All-Star break, Alonso out-performed the guy down the freeway in Philadelphia who signed a thirteen-year, $330 million contract by the time spring training was about two-thirds finished.
Alonso also made good on his very public promise to divide ten percent of the Derby prize money equally, if he won, between the Wounded Warriors project (which aids post-9/11 military wounded) and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, named for the firefighter who lost his life on 9/11 trying to save lives in the World Trade Center.
“There’s a lot I was hitting for tonight,” the exhausted Met said after he was handed the winning medal and trophy. “I’m just happy that I can donate some money to the causes that I wanted . . . I mean, I have the utmost respect for the people that put their lives on the line every single day. And I just want to show my gratitude, because a bad day for me is a lot different than a bad day for the service men and women that serve this country.”
Whom among the Derby participants is also an All-Star? Ronald Acuna, Jr. (Braves), Josh Bell (Pirates), Matt Chapman (Athletics), and Carlos Santana (Indians). Ridiculously, one of the Derby semi-finals was between two guys who aren’t even All-Stars this year. Alonso beat his fellow All-Star Acuna to set up the showdown with Vlad the Impaler, Jr.
Even an observer who isn’t irrevocably wedded to the more stubborn of baseball’s traditions is justified in saying that the Home Run Derby is more entertainment than baseball, since it is tied explicitly to the All-Star festivities, if it invites those who didn’t make either All-Star team as well as those who did.
And one is reminded even briefly that Yankee star Aaron Judge preempted any participation in this year’s Derby during spring training, when the Leaning Tower of the South Bronx said he was more concerned with helping his team win games after the All-Star break than with joining and winning a Derby. Judge won the Derby in 2017. His second-half performance wasn’t quite the same as his first half, and he won the American League’s Rookie of the Year award anyway. (He also may have exacerbated a shoulder issue while swinging for his Derby win.)
I analysed Derby winners’ seasons at the time Judge declined and discovered at least half of them had lesser than equal or better second halves of the regular seasons in which they won their Derbies. Last year’s champion, Bryce Harper (now a Phillie), had a better second than first half, to name one; Guerrero’s Hall of Fame father (then an Angel) had a lesser second than first half when he won the Derby, to name one more.
It’s great entertainment.
But it isn’t baseball.
And, contrary to the naysayers, nannies, and nattering nabobs of negativism (thank you, William Safire, of blessed memory), baseball games are better entertainment than million-dollar batting practise. Even million-dollar batting practise that turned out to contribute to two extremely worthy causes.
If there’s a 50-50 chance that a Derby winner will have a lesser than better second half after winning the prize, with or without Alonso’s admirable charity intentions, it’s a little more alarming for baseball than it is engaging for Joe and Jane Fan.
And guess who’s going to be the first to complain, of course, if and when their heroes in the Derby become less at the plate and in the field, especially if and when their teams hit the stretch drive running.