Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 11, 2019

Homers Galore, Followed By A Big Night For The Home Team

If baseball’s All-Star game is a meaningless exhibition, which it is, then the Home Run Derby must surely be an even more meaningless prelude, an emptier exhibition before the empty exhibition. Neither matters a whit to the standings, nor does the game (thankfully) any longer determine home field advantage for the World Series. And while some All-Star contests turn into slugfests, the Derby is just a slugfest without the benefit of at least being a game.

Yet for all that both retain their pull on the interest of fans, as clearly demonstrated by the twin capacity crowds packed into Progressive Field in Cleveland both Monday and Tuesday nights, first to watch eight players square off for batting practice, and then to take in the Midsummer Classic. Despite their lack of impact on the fate of the thirty big league franchises, the ongoing attraction of these two events, held every July during the annual pause in the Great Game’s calendar, should surprise no one.

The Home Run Derby has been a crowd pleaser since its inception in 1985, but in truth the event’s appeal goes back to when various rule changes and the emergence of the power-hitting Babe Ruth as the face of baseball brought an emphatic end to the dead ball era at the end of the last century’s second decade. Ruth slugged what was considered a phenomenal 29 homers in 1919, which was but a prelude to the numbers he would post over the remainder of his career. When he and Lou Gehrig embarked on a barnstorming tour of exhibition games after the 1927 season, fans filled local ballparks for the sole purpose of seeing how many balls the two would club over the fence. As much as purists lament the current decline of situational hitting and base running strategy, the ability to change the narrative of a contest with a single swing goes to the core of the sport. That the Home Run Derby lends itself well to both television and MLB’s Statcast, with its emphasis on statistics like launch angle and exit velocity, have only solidified many fans loyalty to the spectacle.

This year’s Derby was spectacle indeed, right from the start. Blue Jays rookie Vladimir Guerrero Jr. set the tone with a single round record 29 home runs as the very first batter, more than enough to advance. Then he engaged in an epic duel with Joc Pederson of the Dodgers. The two combined for 79 homers in their semifinal heat, with Guerrero moving on by the slimmest possible margin. By the time Mets rookie Pete Alonso won the Derby by out-homering Guerrero 23-22 in the final, the eight hitters had combined for a record 312 home runs, 91 more than the previous mark. That 91 also represented the total hit by Guerrero, far outdistancing Giancarlo Stanton’s 61 from 2016. It was a fitting Derby for the home run era.

Now more than eight decades old, Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game remains the one such event among our major sports that still closely resembles a regular season contest. Both the NBA All-Star Game and the NFL Pro Bowl abandoned any pretense of defensive play long ago. It’s only a matter of time, and probably not much, before the final score at the annual basketball extravaganza has both teams scoring over 200 points. As for the NFL’s Pro Bowl, the lack of defensive effort got so bad a few years ago that commissioner Roger Goodell threatened to cancel the event altogether. In addition, the risk of injury and the timing of the game, which has always been played at the end of the season and most recently the week before the Super Bowl, have combined to produce rosters that are often lacking in star power. The NHL went both those two leagues one better (or worse) by completely changing the format of its All-Star Game in 2015 to a single-elimination round robin tournament between multiple teams playing three-on-three.

In contrast baseball’s All-Star tilt remains immediately recognizable and familiar to every fan, including retaining the unpredictable nature of each of the regular season’s 2,430 contests. That was as true as ever in Cleveland. One night after records were set in the Home Run Derby, fans and pundits alike expected that in a season where the mark for total homers seems certain to be eclipsed, plenty of balls would be flying into Progressive Field’s outfield seats. If the tenor of the season wasn’t enough to convince one of that likelihood, there was the fact that the starting lineup for the National League came into the game having smashed 212 home runs, the third most of any lineup in All-Star Game history.

So naturally it took until the top of the 6th inning and the game’s 41st batter for the night’s first home run to be struck. It came off the bat of 33-year-old Charlie Blackmon of the Colorado Rockies. An inning later, in the bottom of the 7th, the Rangers’ Joey Gallo evened the home run count by belting one for the American League. While Gallo’s blow ultimately provided the winning margin for the American League, the dearth of power baseball was certainly one story of the game.

Another was the role of All-Stars with connections to the Cleveland franchise. Michael Brantley now roams the outfield at Minute Maid Park for the Houston Astros. But from his big league debut in 2009 through last season, he patrolled left field for Cleveland, and fans welcomed Brantley back to his long-time home with prolonged cheers when he came to the plate with Houston teammate Alex Bregman on second base. Brantley promptly recorded the first RBI of the game with a double to the wall in left center field that easily plated Bregman and brought an even louder salute from the Cleveland faithful.

Then 24-year-old pitcher Shane Bieber, who is 8-3 for Cleveland at the break, took the mound for the AL in the top of the 5th. Bieber had just become an All-Star the previous Friday, when he was named as an injury replacement for Mike Minor. He proceeded to strike out the side, setting down the NL’s Willson Contreras, Ketel Marte, and Ronald Acuna Jr., the first on a fastball, the second on a curve, and the last on a slider. Bieber walked to the dugout with the crowd chanting his name. The effort was enough to earn the Cleveland starter MVP honors.

Cleveland connections were recognized outside of the game as well. Yankees hurler CC Sabathia, who is retiring after this season and who pitched for Cleveland for the first eight years of his long career, was greeted warmly when he threw out the first pitch to former teammate Sandy Alomar Jr.

But the emotions truly overflowed when current starter Carlos Carrasco emerged from the dugout to stand with his Cleveland teammates and manager Terry Francona during the “Stand Up to Cancer” segment between innings midway through the contest. Carrasco has been on the Injured List since early June, and only just revealed that he is undergoing treatment for leukemia. In that moment fans were reminded of both the power of our games to deliver a message, and how for all that they remain just games.

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