Monday, July 11, 2005
The 'new' Home Run Derby
By Skip Bayless
I'm not sure if you're 10 or 20 or finding it hard to believe you're almost 30.
For all I know, I'm writing this to the ageless kid in me.
But in a way, kid, I'll feel sorry for you tonight. I fear you've been spoiled beyond repair. You've watched Home Run Derbies featuring Mark McGwire (in 1999) and Sammy Sosa (2000) at their larger-than-life strongest, and you'll inevitably find tonight's competition a toy-soldier bore.
Yes, I had the privilege of watching the solo slugfests by McGwire (at Fenway Park) and Sosa (Turner Field) from those press boxes. Well, "privilege" isn't the right word. Let's just say I was in the audience for both freak shows, and yes, I was in as much awe as anyone watching.
McGwire and Sosa, of course, had engaged in the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, with the Cardinals' Paul Bunyan outclubbing the Cubs' muscled-up version of Chico Escuela 70-66. Sosa sold it as two great friends going at it, which was a complete fabrication, but that's another story.
Then again, that was the homer-launching height of an entire era that was one big lie, wasn't it? The Steroid Era, it's now called in tougher-testing hindsight.
Even 10-year-olds know that.
You weren't exactly spoiled, kid. You were tricked. Now the Home Run Derby will never quite measure up to those juicefests.
Now, readers complain that we journalists should have reported at the time that so many sluggers were on steroids. Did I hear lots of wink-wink whispers? For years, kid. But did I have any proof? Did I witness a player injecting himself or find a teammate who would blow the whistle? No. I repeatedly tried and failed.
You cannot accuse a major-leaguer in print of using an illegal drug without double-source proof. Even now, we're still only at the strong suspicion stage. Even now, we have to be careful about what we write.
Then again, kid, I'll be the first to admit I was as caught up in the daily home-run derbies as any fan. Obviously, chicks weren't the only ones who dug the long ball. And I'm talking l-o-n-g. For me, how far was even more awe-igniting than how many.
That night in '99 at Fenway, McGwire put on the greatest display of tape-measure slugging I'll probably ever witness. In Paul Bunyan's first round, the Green Monster might as well have been just another Devil Rays shortstop. McGwire's 13 homers were just beginning their ascent when they cleared baseball's most famous left-field wall.
Officials estimated the last one at 480 feet. Yet it traveled beyond the limits of measuring devices -- over Landsdowne Street, far into the night. Honestly, kid, it looked like it might hit the CITGO Sign in Kenmore Square on one bounce.
Nomar Garciaparra, then with the Red Sox, told reporters: "I'd like to question some of those measurements. I don't think it's 480 feet to the Mass Pike."
McGwire, who exhausted himself in the first round, hit only three in the second and didn't make it to the finals. That's why the format is flawed -- and why so many All-Star sluggers began dodging the Monday night contest. The bar -- or "juice" bar -- was raised too high. Too much pressure to hit too many homers too far for too many rounds.
Not only can swinging for the seats on every pitch mess up a grooved power stroke. But a favored slugger can feel like he played a tripleheader when it's over.
God only knows how much megadosing was done before some of those Derbies. Now, who can live up to those feats?
That night at Fenway, I thought we were seeing the future. Now I know we were seeing the past.
The following year in Atlanta, Sosa put on the greatest sustained exhibition of slugging I've witnessed. It was like watching aerobic power-lifting -- how many times can you bench press 400 pounds in two hours? Boom, boom, boom: A sweat-soaked Sosa pounded shots out of Turner, turning ESPN's Chris Berman hoarse. Boomer couldn't even get the first "back
" out of his mouth before these rockets hit high in the seats.
Six in the first round, 11 in the second, nine in the finals to Ken Griffey Jr.'s two. Two were measured at 508 feet. But to my eye, each traveled farther than the announced 524-footer Sosa hit two summers later at Milwaukee's Miller Park.
Naturally, or unnaturally, Jason Giambi won the 2002 Derby. Later, of course, the leaked BALCO grand jury testimony reported by the San Francisco Chronicle would make Giambi the shrinking poster boy for suspected steroid abuse.
But at least the Steroid Derbies didn't affect the standings or the sacred home-run records. That was the one good thing you can say about them. And in the Home Run Derby, no one really cared if the juicers had an advantage over the drug-frees. It was almost like watching those anything-goes bodybuilder contests and wondering what happens to the grotesquely muscled winners. Do they put them in the zoo?
You saw such inhuman Derby displays that, after a while, you thought you were watching video games. Cartoon-huge sluggers were launching balls to the moon.
You kids today would call it sick, as in awesome. I would now call it sick as in warped. These guys took us places we shouldn't have gone. They hit baseballs to the dark side of chemical cheating.
In truth, we were watching a lot of guys with rare hand-eye coordination and athletic leverage who willingly broke rules and laws by using anabolic rocket fuel. They risked psychological addiction and possible organ destruction. They tempted a lot of kids like you to play with the devil's fire by injecting unsupervised overdoses of the black-market crap loosely called steroids. But these grown (or overgrown) men took these risks because home runs sell. Tonight, those blasts will seem like retro rockets.
Oh, Andruw Jones and his 27 first-half homers are mildly intriguing. David Ortiz at least raises one of your eyebrows -- he's not muscled up, he was just born big. But Carlos Lee? Mark Teixeira? No Albert Pujols or Miguel Tejada?
Pujols told ESPN's Joe Morgan he was looking forward to competing -- until, apparently, he found out Ortiz is representing the Dominican Republic. It appears that with tonight's "world" format -- one player from each country or region represented in major league baseball -- that league officials are trying to distance this Derby from the steroid-fueled robo-slugging. No more gladiator vs. gladiator. Now, it will be sold as the Dominican Republic (Ortiz) vs., say, Canada (Jason Bay). This year, they don't even want Pujols, who has become the game's premier power hitter, in the competition.
I was pulling for Ichiro to enter because I've witnessed some of his magic-wand batting-practice performances. When he wants to, on his last six or eight BP pitches, this little man can stroke ball after ball into the seats. At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, he just might have become the smallest man to win the Derby.
Ichiro might have given us a new reason to be amazed: Look how skinny he is!
But alas, Ichiro said no, explaining to reporters: "I told them, 'If I had 20 homers, I would enter.'" He has six.
Now, kid, I'd rather watch reruns of "Gillette's Home Run Derby" on ESPN Classic than tonight's competition. "Home Run Derby" was my favorite show when I was a kid. It aired for only two years, 1959 and '60, but for me it was better than "Leave it to Beaver."
The first one featured Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays. Can you get much better than that? No crowd. Just a pitcher, catcher, umpire, some shaggers -- and the echoing cracks of the bat.
Just two of the greatest players ever, going at it for nine innings. If it didn't clear the fence -- or if the ump called a strike -- it counted as one of your three outs.
The only mild distraction was the host, a guy named Mark Scott who asked the kind of gee-whiz questions that Beaver's old man, Ward Cleaver, would have if he had been asked to emcee. Scott's questions -- and the stars' stilted, clichéd responses -- were straight out of the fairy-tale '50s.
But if you'd told me then that Mays and Mantle could be real jerks to reporters, or that Mantle could be a boozer and womanizer, I wouldn't have cared.
The home-run competition was all I wanted -- and that was so pure, so real. No caps on backward. No trash talking. No juiced balls or sluggers.
The winner got $2,000, the loser $1,000. That was a lot of money then. A third consecutive homer was worth $500, a fourth $500, and each consecutive homer after that an extra $1,000. Now that was pressure.
Mays led 8-2 when Mantle hit three out in the seventh and two in the eighth. Mantle won it 9-8 on the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the ninth. I had no idea how far it went and didn't care.
I'm not saying it was Mazeroski in the bottom of the ninth of the Seventh Game. But it was pretty great.
In all, 19 of the top sluggers participated over two years, including four future Hall of Famers. They all seemed so into it. Fittingly, all-time home run leader Hank Aaron ended up winning the most money, $13,500.
Now, kid, I wish neither of us had witnessed those Home Run Derbies of a few years ago.
Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice weekly on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.