Commentary

By passing on Derby, A-Rod comes up very small

Originally Published: July 14, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Paul O'Neill did what Yankees luminaries are supposed to do in Yankee Stadium on Sunday -- pound a goose-bumpish home run deep into the Bronx ozone.

OK, so there's a minor technicality. He hit it in the Legends & Celebrity Softball Game. So it's safe to say it won't go down as one of the 10,000 most memorable homers in the history of The Stadium.

But as you listened to the cheers reverberate around the great baseball cathedral, it was a bittersweet reminder of what's going to be missing Monday when Yankee Stadium hosts its first -- and last -- Home Run Derby:

Yankees.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
Rich Kane/US PresswireAlex Rodriguez is 13th all time with 537 career home runs.
And by that we mean any Yankee.

Where's A-Rod? Where's Jason Giambi? Heck, we'd settle for Shelley Duncan at this point. Or even the legendary Reginald M. Jackson. Who cares if he's 62 years young?

"Oh, I have no doubt," one baseball executive said Sunday, "that if Reggie was in that thing, he'd launch a couple."

Well, maybe not. But there is no doubt about one thing: If this were three decades ago and Reggie Jackson were back in his pinstriped, drink-stirring heyday, nobody would have had to talk or beg or bribe him to take part in a Home Run Derby in his house.

Unfortunately, however, this isn't Reggie's heyday. So all the talking, begging and bribing Yankees officials and baseball officials have been firing at an extremely high-profile, extremely well-compensated Yankee for weeks now has gotten them nowhere -- and given us this:

A Home Run Derby in Yankee Stadium with no Yankees.

What a crime.

But this is a crime with an official No. 1 suspect: a fellow named Alex Rodriguez.

According to a source with knowledge of the Derby's inner workings, baseball wanted A-Rod to do more than just take a few hacks in this Derby.

It wanted him to be the centerpiece of this Derby.

And why not? This is his town. Those are his No. 4 train riders hanging out in those bleachers. And this is a historic week in the life of Yankee Stadium -- a ballpark whose very existence stands as a testimonial to the power of the long ball.

So do you really think the powers that be at Major League Baseball wanted to make a guy from Boston (David Ortiz) the poster boy for this Home Run Derby? You really think they wanted to let a man in a Red Sox cap play the role of George H. Bambino Ruth in the much-ballyhooed Call Your Shot promotion in this Derby?

C'mon. No way. But the guy they wanted to call that shot, to get his face plastered over all the billboards -- A-Rod -- told them absolutely not. Not doing it. Period.

So the torch was passed to Ortiz -- an idea the Yankees liked about as much as they enjoy those roving midnight pothole crews on the Major Deegan.

But what choice did they have? Their guy wouldn't help them.

Then, however, the baseball gods gave them a second chance. Ortiz hurt his wrist and had to drop out. But somebody had to front this promotion. So MLB doubled back, the source said, and tried A-Rod again. But again, they got nowhere.

2008 Home Run Derby

The eight players who will participate in Monday's Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium (8 p.m. ET, ESPN):

  • 1. Lance Berkman, Astros
  • 2. Ryan Braun, Brewers
  • 3. Josh Hamilton, Rangers
  • 4. Evan Longoria, Rays
  • 5. Justin Morneau, Twins
  • 6. Grady Sizemore, Indians
  • 7. Dan Uggla, Marlins
  • 8. Chase Utley, Phillies

So Workout Day's biggest show will go on. And the shot-calling will get done. It will just get done by whichever two mashers make it to the Derby finals.

Great. Whatever. Somebody had to do it. And somebody will. But it's still an affront to the baseball fans of New York that a man who structured an entire contract negotiation last winter around his $300 million desire to set the all-time home run record as a Yankee couldn't work a little Home Run Derby action into his schedule.

A-Rod told The New York Times last month that he didn't want to take part in this Derby because "it sets your swing back about three weeks." But we'd like to know exactly what he bases that on.

Because it isn't the facts.

The last time A-Rod took part in a Home Run Derby was 2002. Want to know how far he set his swing back that year? He damaged it so irreparably, he hit four homers in the first four games after the break.

Then he went on to bop 30 home runs in the second half. Thirty. That's more than any player in the whole sport, by the way.

So if the Derby messed up his swing, we can think of about 500 players who would pay big bucks to get that messed up.

Or maybe A-Rod is referring to the fabled Home Run Derby Curse, a dubious slice of baseball folklore that is supposed to make us believe that Derby champs constantly have their swings and psyches devastated by their night in the Derby spotlight.

If A-Rod wants to cite that one, he can point across his very own locker room at Bobby Abreu, a man who thumped 41 home runs in the 2005 Derby -- and has hit a total of just 47 in the three years since. If anybody's been cursed by the Derby, it's him.

Except that Abreu wasn't a big home run hitter before that night. So why would anybody expect him to be the second coming of Jimmie Foxx since? History shows us that the true home run hitters -- men like, well, A-Rod -- have just about nothing to fear from Derby success, except maybe fear itself.

We've studied that Derby Curse for years now, and we've concluded it's a bigger hoax than the Loch Ness Monster. Want to hear the facts?

He's afraid of not winning. He's afraid of being ripped in the tabloids. He's afraid of hearing it's all Madonna's fault.

Three Derby champs -- Ryan Howard in 2006, Cal Ripken in 1991 and Andre Dawson in 1987 -- actually used the Derby as a springboard to win an MVP award. And 12 other Derby champs -- including Vladimir Guerrero last year -- went on to finish in the top five in the MVP voting. So where's the curse exactly?

"I'll tell you why he doesn't want to do it," theorized an official of one team Sunday. "He's afraid he's gonna get Madonna-fied."

And there's a good chance that's exactly what A-Rod is afraid of. He's afraid of not winning. He's afraid of being ripped in the tabloids. He's afraid of hearing it's all Madonna's fault.

But ask yourself something. Is that how our biggest stars are supposed to think? Is that how they're supposed to act? Don't they have a responsibility to their sport that's bigger than themselves? Don't they have a responsibility to their team, in seasons like this and settings like this, to put their own personal schtick aside?

Ken Griffey Jr. has taken part in eight of these Derbies. Mark McGwire was in seven of them. Think what you want to think about Barry Bonds, but he agreed to let it fly in six of them (although not the year when this event was in his home park). Giambi has hit 68 Derby homers in his day -- and would have taken part in this one, too, sources say, if he'd made the All-Star team.

But it's not important enough, apparently, for Alex Rodriguez to risk not living up to his own ego. How sad is that?

Some day, A-Rod wants people to watch him walk down the street and say, "There goes the real home run king." Well, we hate to break it to him, but real home run kings think the Home Run Derby is part of their job description, not somebody else's problem.

Especially when it's a Home Run Derby in their very own town -- and their very own temple of baseball.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com