Monday's Home Run Derby, the annual exhibition of glorified batting practice that has nonetheless become a popular staple on the eve of baseball's All-Star Game, is so circa 1998-2001, don't you think?
No doubt about it, home runs are exciting to see. Well, real home runs are, the ones that are hit in real games. Against real pitchers. But the ones hit in Home Run Derby, with a certain ESPN announcer giving apoplectic descriptions of their grandeur, well, it's much ado about nothing, to coin a phrase. They even have "captains" for the Home Run Derby "teams." Seriously. Home Run Baker must be spinning in his grave.
But this isn't a call to cancel Home Run Derby, nor is it a scolding for those who, unaccountably, enjoy Home Run Derby. This is a call for Major League Baseball to add other "derby" competitions to All-Star Game Eve, to take a cue from the National Hockey League and make All-Star Game Eve more of a skills competition that spotlights the many facets of the sport. For example:
As popular as home runs are, real baseball fans know that triples are rarer, feature more action and are often more dramatic. They involve real running, test the defense and often include getting dirty — you know, sliding.
Remember the Moonlight Graham character in "Field of Dreams" played by Burt Lancaster? Remember when he talks about his fantasy if he had ever had the opportunity for one big-league at-bat? He doesn't fantasize about hitting a homer and jogging around the bases. He fantasizes about hitting a triple.
"To feel the tingle in your arm as you connect with the ball, to run the bases, stretch a double into a triple, to flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That's my wish," Lancaster's Moonlight Graham says.
Don't laugh. Whenever you see a player on the home team execute a perfect sacrifice bunt, the fans explode into cheers. Whenever you see a player on the home team successfully bunt for a hit, the fans go wild. And rightly so. It's not as easy as it looks, it's strategic and, come on, it's the opposite of an ego-inflating, glory-mongering home run. A bunt is humble. It's unselfish. If Chris Berman does the telecast, Bunt Derby could be every bit as popular as Home Run Derby.
"It's hugging the line!" Berman might bellow. "Rolling, rolling, it's gonna stay fair!"
It's an important baseball skill that many, especially the home-run hitting galoots, don't possess. Those same bullpen coaches who throw in Home Run Derby can throw in Opposite Field Hitting Derby. But now the point isn't for the hitters to obliterate the ball. The point now is to use restraint, finesse, a different (dare we say more difficult?) kind of hand-eye coordination.
Self-explanatory, but here's the explanation, anyway. Batters hit fly balls that stay in the park. An outfielder makes the catch. A runner tags at third and tries to score. The outfielder throws to the catcher. Is it dangerous? Well, it's not Patty Cake Derby. Have a Scott Cousins Rule that prohibits baserunners from plowing into the catcher, football-style. Otherwise, let's have some fun with this.