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Gold balls go deep for good cause

Gold balls go deep for cause

SAN FRANCISCO -- Vlad Guerrero sat behind a silver trophy at the table in the interview room inside AT&T Park and happily -- if wearily -- answered questions that were relayed through interpreter Pedro Gomez of ESPN.

The Angels outfielder had flown cross-country the night before after a series at Yankee Stadium, he had just gone through what former Home Run Derby champion Cal Ripken has called "the hardest BP session you'll ever have," he had just survived a competition despite having to tape his right index finger and now he was doing interviews.

"The first time I came in 2000, I swung at basically every pitch," said the 2007 State Farm Home Run Derby champion. "I came back this year with a different philosophy. I was going to try to take a pitch between to rest a little bit."

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There was a palpable feeling of relief at the dais, and not only expressed by the Angels' perennial All-Star who still had the tape on his right index finger. Guerrero could let out some relief now, and so could the man immediately to his right. That was Mark Gibson, assistant vice president of advertising for State Farm, which is in its first year of a three-year contract as the official insurance sponsor of Major League Baseball -- and the first time as sponsor of this hugely popular All-Star week event.

State Farm and Major League Baseball will contribute $254,000 to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America because of 12 gold balls ($17,000 per ball) and a $50,000 bonus. After the first round, though, there had been only three. The bar had been set high each of the first two years of gold balls, good for $294,000 each year. Thank Toronto's Alex Rios, who provided the relief with that spectacular second-round run of five consecutive gold-ball homers and a standing ovation -- the biggest of the night.

"For a while, we were afraid," Gibson said. "But [Rios] got on a roll. If it's the gold ball that makes players try harder, then that's what we like to see. They know there is a greater cause in this.

"It adds a lot of excitement to the event. As exciting as it is for people watching it at home, it was even more so here in the ballpark. We at State Farm love the branding and the opportunity to give back to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. They've got a great champion this year in Vlad Guerrero."

The two-toned Rawlings golden baseballs again were substituted whenever each participant was down to his final out. Each of those baseballs hit for a homer meant $17,000 that goes to charity -- representing the 17,000 State Farm agents in the U.S. and Canada. The giant scoreboard at AT&T Park showed the capacity crowd the running total, and that has proven to add even more energy -- and meaning -- to this event.

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Once again, fans did not need to be rowing in a kayak or sitting in the bleachers to obtain one of the gold balls. They are on sale now at the MLB.com Shop. Each two-tone ball bears the official State Farm Home Run Derby logo and sells for $34.99.

The long-ball charity began immediately with Minnesota's Justin Morneau, the event's first hitter. With four homers and nine outs, the gold balls were inserted and he proceeded to knock out two in a row. It seemed like an auspicious start.

But that total stayed the same for the remainder of the entire round -- until the very end of it. That's when Ryan Howard, last year's winner, crushed a 477-foot homer to center. It brought the first-round gold ball total to $51,000. Howard had single-handedly accounted for $126,000 of the $294,000 in 2006 -- "it's about making money for a good cause," Howard had said -- and that had included four consecutive gold balls in the first round and two in the semis. Surprisingly, Howard never made such a showing in this one. He had three homers in the first round.

It was that kind of night for lefties, though. What was foreseen as a grandiose night for McCovey Cove wound up being completely focused on the left half of the park's power area. The wind was gusting out to left, and the right-handers were taking full advantage of it.

Especially when Rios was batting in the second round.

He followed Matt Holliday and went on a stream of unconsciousness with nine outs. Going into the gold-ball portion, Rios had seven homers in the round. By the time he was finished, he had 12. They were five majestic shots in a row, and the decibel level just grew and grew in the stands with each one because of the cause. After the fifth in a row, emcee Jon Miller of ESPN told the crowd: "It's showtime!"

It was money time: $85,000 from Rios, bringing the total at that point to $136,000. The electricity was incredible, not so easy to translate over live television. Rios responded to the roar of the capacity crowd.

"That was great, too," Rios said afterward. "To hit with that loud crowd was amazing."

Guerrero hit two gold balls out as the overall winner, both in the second round. The first one came after he taped his finger.

"I had to put tape on my fingers because otherwise my fingers will crack and they will open up," he explained.

The second of those gold ball beauties was the true monster: 503 feet. Again, a bomb to the left side. The cove was practically nonexistent, except for Barry Bonds' notable ball into the water during batting practice.

Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols made a valiant run in the second round but wound up one homer short of the finals. He did manage to knock out a pair of gold balls, though, bringing that grand total up to $204,000. Then add the $50,000 bonus and it was more than a quarter million of help for the third time in as many Home Run Derby events.

At the end of the night, it was a relief for everyone at the head table in the interview room. It was a good night for Guerrero, a good night for State Farm, and a good night for a whole lot of boys and girls thanks to the national pastime.

"It keeps the State Farm name in front of the public in a very relative way, and continues to let people know that State Farm is there," Gibson said. "Baseball is a great sport, and a wonderful family sport. If you looked around the stands during this event, there were families and generations represented all over. I'm sure it was the same if you could see everyone watching it on TV."

The Home Run Derby is a little different these days for those generations of fans. It's about hitting balls very far. It's about taking a pitch here and there along the way. And maybe just as importantly as anything, it's about making a difference in the big picture.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"content":["all-star_game" ] }