It shouldn't take more than 10 words to explain the Home Run Derby. The explanation should be so simple that it makes the person ashamed they even needed to ask, like asking, "What does a cigarette lighter do?" It should be the simplest sporting contest in the world.
Major League Baseball has fiddled with the Derby's format for almost as long as the event has existed. Each iteration has made it slightly more complicated, yielding what is now an actual bracket with byes and swing-offs. Somehow, hitting the most home runs no longer means you win the Home Run Derby. In 2008, Josh Hamilton lost despite hitting 13 more home runs than the winner, Justin Morneau. This is a problem because the Home Run Derby is supposed to be a contest of who can hit the most home runs.
This convoluted format means some people mistake this event for one of strategy. Much of ESPN's pregame show featured Barry Larkin and Aaron Boone debating whether they would want to hit first or last, various methods to conserve their strength and whether they would modify their swings (never mind the fact that the two of them hit 10.5 home runs per year combined during their careers). Stretching their discussion during the rain delay, Larkin and Boone tapped previously undiscovered ways to rephrase "they should hit as many home runs as possible." All of this served to highlight how needlessly involved the event has become, since the very thing that makes the Home Run Derby fun is perhaps the simplest thing imaginable.
Chris Berman began the telecast with a soft-focus recorded segment saying, "There's still a genuine wonder in the long ball." This remark would be undercut by the ESPN broadcast, which held the camera on each hitter's grimacing face while the ball soared (we assume) into the twilight. Much of the innate appeal of experiencing a home run was further reduced by having the crack of the bat drowned out by Berman's raspy voice. But practicalities aside, Berman's statement nevertheless holds true: There's something addictive about the home run's beauty that makes watching dozens of them in one night seem vaguely appealing in the way that eating a few boxes of Girl Scout Cookies in one sitting might. At least, it once did for me.
The Home Run Derby has had an identity crisis since the Steroid Era came to light. Our unabashed love for dingers became a moral quagmire as we saw the ends our athletes went to in order to provide them. What had once been the most magical moment in baseball became an invitation for speculation and shame. Home runs devolved into guilty pleasures, and so too did the Derby itself.
Nothing emphasized this more than a montage of great Derby moments prior to Monday's contest. I remember most of them from my childhood and for me they're still as innocent as my state of mind at the time: moments like Ken Griffey Jr. hitting the warehouse at Camden Yards and Mark McGwire setting off car alarms at Fenway. "Everyone gets to be a kid again on Derby night," Berman promised before the balls started flying. But they reneged on this promise, as the crew immediately remarked on how the Derby is "cleaner" now than it was back then. (I don't know why they felt the need to lump Griffey, a player who has never been credibly linked to PEDs, in with the likes of Barry Bonds and McGwire, but they did because that's the kind of broad strokes absolutists paint.) The problem, at least for me, is that I can't differentiate between the taint of the Steroid Era and the shame of youth. That is, I don't know whether I liked the Home Run Derby because it was actually better back then or I was just a stupid kid who liked Linkin Park.
ESPN's anti-steroids remark is a pure distillation of the era's cognitive dissonance. The Home Run Derby exists solely to see players hit the ball really far. Drugs help them do that and inarguably gave us some of the greatest Derby shows in its history. Yet, those moments now come with caveats and disclaimers simply because the players gave us too much of what we wanted. It's the kind of ex post facto erasure that ensures the Steroid Era will always be an uncomfortable utterance.
At least in my mind, the Derby suffered greatly from our inability to come to terms with the Steroid Era. The event is designed to showcase the very thing that exemplifies a decade or so of rampant drug use. In order to destroy the paradox, the Derby took on a different tone because we had to come up with some other reason for the Derby to exist. The Home Run Derby had to stop being about fun and had to be about competition. This was when things started to get complicated, the formats changed and the term "bragging rights" was inserted into Berman's lexicon between "back back back"s. He said it again on Monday night: "If the All Star Game means something, then this is also about bragging rights." It can't just be about slugging home runs, because we know how to get those.
There was only one moment of the 2014 Home Run Derby that resembled anything like entertainment, and it predictably involved Giancarlo Stanton and a very long home run. ESPN's tool for estimating home run distance told us that the ball would have gone 510 feet if the stadium didn't get in the way, which is approximately the height of a 40-story building and further than most people can sprint. The ball landed approximately two-thirds of the way up the third and highest deck at Target Field, a place where fans probably didn't consider themselves within the home run radius. Players on both teams jumped up and down in amazement, and anyone watching at home was completely justified in doing the same. It was a genuine thrill derived from the simplest of pleasures: seeing a ball fly through the air for a really long time and land really far away.
These moments now happen in the Home Run Derby by accident. The Derby won't be worth watching until we can admit to ourselves why we're here and make the event only about that one thing. Unfortunately, the Derby brings out the kid in all of us; that kind of complex reconciliation with the past is far beyond a child's capacity. I suppose we'll just have to wait until we grow up.