MINNEAPOLIS -- The thing about the Home Run Derby is that the more you care about Major League Baseball -- the more you value the game, the more time you give it, the more you want it protected -- the more you hate the Home Run Derby.
That's weird, isn't it? Soccer fans might not like that penalty kicks decide World Cup games, but they don't actually dislike watching penalty kicks. Even though the Slam Dunk Contest has gone through some lean years before a recent revival, NBA fans still all get into it. But your hardcore baseball fans despise the Home Run Derby. Try mentioning to your most dedicated smart baseball fan, the kind with a Baseball Prospectus subscription or access to Baseball Reference's Play Index. They will look at you like you put A-1 sauce on kobe beef. Like you think Transformers should win an Oscar. Like you took a gorgeously designed apartment and slapped a Fathead on it.
It's basically like this:
The Home Run Derby is the Merlot.
It stands for the lowest common denominator in baseball, and there's nothing a hardcore fan of anything -- baseball, music, food -- dislikes more than lowest common denominator fans. This is another reason baseball fans can't stand Chris Berman at the Home Run Derby. It's not just the verbal bombast. (Though there is also that.) It's that there's little evidence that Berman watches much baseball the rest of the season -- little evidence that he could even name all the teams -- so making this event the focus of his baseball coverage is telling. ("Sabermatics!") The Home Run Derby is for the most casual of all fans, and Chris Berman is the patron saint of casual fandom.
Thus, Home Run Derby hate. Here's a Tweet from new Baseball Prospectus editor-in-chief Sam Miller:
There's absolutely no reason for rain to disrupt a HR derby, right? Rain should be mandatory for a HR derby. Rain and fire, preferably.- Sam Miller (@SamMillerBP) July 14, 2014
While I'll confess that fire would be undeniably awesome -- as would other suggestions from Miller's followers, which included "dragons," "a volcano," "tigers on chains that get more slack with every non-home run" and "bees" -- this all seems a bit much. Because the Home Run Derby isn't for us. It's for them. And there are a lot more of them than there are of us.
Who, in this case, is "them?" It's:
• The dozens of school kids running around the outfield losing their damned minds every time a ball came near them. There aren't many things more charming than little kids running around a Major League Baseball field, particularly when they're wearing gloves and trying to catch balls Yaisel Puig just sent 200 feet straight up in the air. This year was particularly amusing because it had rained so much beforehand, which meant they all kept falling down.
• The tens of thousands of fans feverishly filling out their Home Run Derby brackets after every round on Monday night. Placing the Home Run Derby in a bracket -- as opposed to whatever in the world the scoring system was every other year -- was a genius move. Human beings are physically incapable of not filling out a blank bracket. I'll fill out brackets for sports I don't watch, or even understand. If you told me that I had to put my eight closest loved ones in a bracket, I would be forced to pick winners out of pure human compulsion. (Sorry, Dad.)
• The lady in the chicken costume in the leftfield bleachers. There was a lady in the leftfield bleachers wearing a chicken costume. I mean, why not, you know? Freak flags fly at the Home Run Derby. You can't tell me someone wearing chicken costumes has ever made a sporting event worse.
• The players. Those guys lose their minds about the Home Run Derby, don't they? During Jose Bautista's first-round display -- in which he hit 10 homers, including two upper deckers in a row that were essentially hit to the same fan -- the whole American League dugout went apesh-t. It was like their heads all exploded at once, and then reconstituted themselves so that they could explode again. Scoff at the Home Run Derby all you want, but these professional baseball players -- who are the very definition of "seen it all" -- were laughing and dancing around and having the time of their lives.
And that Giancarlo Stanton homer that might have gone 500 feet? It turned them into the Key & Peele Liam Neeson sketch.
• The guy ahead of me in the bathroom line who started yelling, "BACK BACK BACK BACK BACK BACK … GONE!" as we waited out the rain delay. All right, so that's not someone with whom I'd necessarily want to associate myself outside the context of a baseball stadium bathroom. But it's nice to be enthusiastic about things, you know? Liking things is sort of OK?
When you watch as much baseball as much as the average die-hard fan, you can't help but get a little cynical about the whole enterprise. It doesn't mean you love the game less; it's just that the more you know, the more difficult it can be to ignore about how the sausage is made. When you spend that much time caring about something, you can't help but protect yourself a bit with distancing sarcasm.
But most people aren't like that. Most people just want to go to the ballpark and watch home runs go really far while drinking several beers and forgetting whatever they did at work that day. There are others who like home runs because they are kids and home runs are awesome when you're a kid. Some people like baseball, but they don't love it. For them, the Home Run Derby is a distillation of their favorite player in baseball, over and over and over. We mock it. But the Home Run Derby is just enough baseball for them. And that's fine.
I do not understand it. At Tuesday's All-Star Game -- an actual game, with strategy and defense and curveballs and everything -- I'm gonna need a double-no-hitter just to detox. To me, a Home Run Derby is like whippets: You get an immediate high, but only because you've killed millions of brain cells in a terrifyingly short amount of time. By the end of Monday night's contest, I wanted to crawl under a table and silently wait for death.
But I'm not the only one who counts. Casual fans count, too. They count just as much as we do. They might even count more. And as you watched them -- 40,000-plus of them -- wait out an hour-rain delay so they could stare and gasp at every single home run, over and over and over, for three hours, you had to admire them. They're the ones having fun. And that is, in the end, what this is all supposed to be about.
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