Event out of juice

All-Star contest just isn't captivating anymore

On the Home Run Derby

July 15, 2008|By PETER SCHMUCK

First, a confession: There was a time when I thought the All-Star Home Run Derby was a great idea.

The thought of bringing the best power hitters together for a batting practice slugfest summoned memories of the old black-and-white Home Run Derby television show (even though I'm really not old enough to remember 1959) and unquestionably captured the imagination of baseball fans when the All-Star version debuted in 1985 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

It made perfect sense. Fans - and not just the chicks - loved the long ball, and home runs still were coming in reasonable numbers in the mid-1980s. The "juiced-ball" era, which would eventually become known as the "juiced-player era," would begin a few years later and take the concept to a new level, but we were blissfully unaware of all that at the time. We, and by "we" I mean everyone from Major League Baseball brass to the media and the fans, wouldn't actually have to start lying to ourselves for another decade or so.

The Home Run Derby was one of several components of an expanded All-Star celebration that allowed baseball to maximize corporate sponsorship of the Midsummer Classic, and it immediately added a fan-friendly dimension to the All-Star workout day, which previously had been a perfunctory media event. It was fun and harmless and it provided some entertaining moments, most notably for Orioles fans when Cal Ripken Jr. dominated the contest at Toronto's SkyDome during his 1991 Most Valuable Player season.

So, it probably was a good idea when it was conceived, but the novelty has long since worn off, and you can make the case MLB's All-Star version of Muscle Beach Party remains a symbol of all that was wrong with baseball the past 20 years.

Maybe, at first glance, it seems like a stretch to link the Home Run Derby to baseball's steroid scandal, since the event predates the onset of the widespread abuse of illegal performance-enhancing substances, but the logic is inescapable. Though fans have long had a love-affair with the home run, the advent of a made-for-TV event focused entirely on how many and how far sent a clear message to future players that they needed to get bigger and stronger to be ready for prime time.

I'm not blaming the All-Star home run contest for the steroid era. That would be silly. I'm just saying that it helped create the mind-set that allowed a whole generation of players to rationalize the questionable means they employed to enhance their power numbers. There were more important factors - such as the salary explosion that came with the free-agent era and a declining societal emphasis on pure sportsmanship - but it would be naive to think the Home Run Derby wasn't part of the mixed message baseball was sending to its fans before Congress pressured the game to crack down on illegal drugs.

Steroids aside, the event has spawned its own set of suspicions and conspiracy theories. There have been whispers that the specially marked All-Star baseballs used in the past few home run contests seem to have a little more giddyap than the everyday balls, and not just because they are being thrown to the best home run hitters. There is no empirical evidence to prove the derby balls are juiced, but what were you supposed to think after Bobby Abreu hit 24 homers in a round at pitcher-friendly Comerica Park in Detroit three years ago?

Happily, this year's event featured a bunch of relatively normal-sized humans. Sadly, it was more compelling when it was a freak show.

No doubt, Major League Baseball will continue to stage the Home Run Derby as long as big companies are willing to sponsor it and some network is willing to pay a rights fee to televise it. There's no crime in that. I just think the TV types could put that All-Star Eve airtime to better use if they put their minds to it.

The derby was new and exciting in the late 1980s. It was interesting for all the wrong reasons in the late 1990s. Now, it's not very interesting, unless your favorite player stays in it to the end and you've been programmed so the words "back, back, back" occasionally snap you out of an ESPN-induced hypnotic trance.

No disrespect to Chris Berman, who works very hard to inject humor and excitement into each round, the Home Run Derby has outlived its appeal. It doesn't tell us anything we don't already know and it reminds us of a time we would all like to forget.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on most Saturdays and Sundays.

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