Today, in what we all hope is the game's post-steroid era, wouldn't a baseball skills contest be just the thing? Catching the baseball, throwing the baseball, running the bases, some hit-and-run, maybe even an occasional bunt? This was, after all, how Japan won the World Baseball Classic. All right, this probably wouldn't sell as many tickets at world-class prices as the Home Run Derby. But it would take the juice out of the performance equation.
There are two problems with the Derby as it is currently constituted. From the standpoint of the way the events are now presented to the American public, the Derby has become the tail that wags the All-Star dog.
The Derby goes on at a length that rivals the Academy Awards telecast. "The problem with the Derby now is that the whole thing should be over in about 45 minutes," says a former Derby participant. And he's right. Before this thing became a mini-series, it was a lot more fun.
What happens during these endless hours, besides a lot of commercials? Some guys either hit a lot of home runs or they don't. I have to be honest. Up against a "Deadwood" episode, the channel is probably being changed. Maybe even up against a "Deadwood" rerun.
The other problem is that the Derby grew in popularity about the same time the use of performance-enhancing substances did. The reaction from a portion of the baseball public to these related developments has been kind of cute. Don't take those terrible steroids, don't take those awful steroids, don't take those deadly steroids, this kind of thing is tearing the integrity out of the game. But come on, what's wrong with you, hit that baseball further.
The Derby grew in popularity, even while embodying these contradictory impulses. But it wasn't like an island of immunity. Five former Derby winners have been implicated in steroid usage. This is not like saying that these five have been convicted. But it is also not like saying that they are above suspicion.
Baseball would do well to put as much distance between itself and these events as possible. The Derby is a push in the other direction. And that is not said to cast any doubt upon the integrity of the current participants. It is just that this event is a vivid reminder of how the game of baseball got into pharmaceutical trouble.
There is still a thrill in seeing the towering arc of a long, magnificent home run and all of us feel it. Monday night, watching people hit balls into the Allegheny River, even the home runs that bounced into the river, was a kick, and we all shared in it.
But some of us still believe that the triple is a more exciting play. How about a Triple Derby? No, I guess not.
The format was changed last year, with the sluggers representing nations. This was good, recognizing as it did the growing internationalization of the game. But then Bobby Abreu and Venezuela won. There was much waving of Venezuelan flags. And there were some people who actually didn't like that result and that display because the current Venezuelan government is not particularly friendly toward the United States of America, the land of the free, the home of the brave, and a place where $3 no longer gets you a gallon of gas.
You'll notice that format didn't return this year. Too bad in a way, because the only flag that would have been waved on this Monday night was Old Glory, the two finalists being Ryan Howard and David Wright, both Americans. Howard won, giving the Philadelphia Phillies a relatively rare winning streak.
A capacity throng of 38,702 in PNC Park obviously enjoyed the show and the power and the show of power. It was a fine evening in Pittsburgh and this ballpark has a setting that is second to none. Nobody got hurt, although somebody needs to tell those kids chasing the balls in the outfield to use both hands.
The Home Run Derby may go on as long as commercial time on its telecasts can be successfully sold at suitable rates. But in the current baseball climate, this event is no longer some blissful, unmixed blessing.
If Major League Baseball remains wedded to the Derby, then it needs to broaden its All-Star special event focus beyond raw power. And if that means 20 guys seeing who can move a runner from second to third with nobody out, that's just fine.