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MLB Home Run Derby: One Player’s Perceived Poison Is Another’s Perfect Power Play 

The Home Run Derby in MLB isn’t for everybody.

The Home Run Derby in MLB isn’t for everybody. Players like Oakland A's masher Yoenis Cespedes participate and generally thrive in this competition because they're searching for recognition beyond what they’ve attained as one of nine functioning pros sharing responsibility on a baseball diamond.

The history and tradition associated with the MLB Home Run Derby dates back to the 1960's when MLB legends would face off against each other on TV for one round. Any baseball fan old enough remembers the battle between legends Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays? Mantle was down big, but came back to out-slug Mays 9-8. It’s classic black and white footage, capturing the true essence of throwback baseball. 

Since its inception in 1985 at Minnesota’s Metrodome when a star-studded cast of big boppers from the NL and AL went head-up, all of the celebrity faces of baseball – those considered the prolific power hitters and Ruthian-like sluggers of their day – have competed in MLB’s Home Run Derby at some point . Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Jim Thome and a host of other players from baseball’s all-time homer list have given fans the thrill of watching balls take flight high and deep into the night, over and over again for pure amusement.

Before last year’s Derby win at Citifield, A’s outfielder Yoenis Cespedes wasn’t exactly a household name. He’s in his third year in MLB and he’s never hit more than 26 homers in a season.


His power and power potential is undeniable though, and after joining Ken Griffey Jr. (1998 and 1999) as the only players to win consecutive Home Run Derby titles by demolishing Todd Frazier 9-1 in the 2014 Derby Finals (the largest margin of victory in a HR Derby Finals), the 28-year–old Cespedes who's one of a crop of gem-studded Cubans to grace MLB in the last five years, has elevated his recognition and status as one of the game’s premier power hitters.


It’s not an optical illusion because he really did blastoff the past few years and display uncanny physical strength. However, being part of a gladiator-type of exhibition created to prove brute strength (sort of like if baseball had a strong man competition) and becoming the face of the home run in baseball (if just for a night) has skyrocketed Cespedes’ popularity and his marketability in real games. When you can mash, it also brings attention to your defensive skills, which Cespedes has nuff’ of.

 

Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout is the emerging kingpin of Major League Baseball, similar to Junior “the Kid” Griffey, who came up in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, rocking his hat to the back, always smiling, inflicting that beautiful swing on baseballs and becoming a crowd favorite. Chicago White Sox rookie first baseman Jose Abreu is a rookie leading MLB in homers with 29. Both ducked the Derby.

As the supposed “face of MLB” Trout owed it to the fans to be there. However, he chumped out…err excuse me…opted out at the request of manager Mike Scioscia. Abreu also fronted, but he could have used the platform to boost his popularity. Old head Bobby, the 2005 HR Derby winner is a more well known Abreu.

Dudes like Griffey got it. Cespedes gets it. The All-Star activities are all about the fans and do wonders for a player’s rep. People remember special moments like the All-Star game and if you are a participating player who does something to inspire, excite or entertain, then fans remember you forever as a fixture and catalyst of that moment. Being an ambassador and showing respect to the fans should always be a top priority.


While cats like Trout and Abreu believe that changing their swing to try to hit home runs can have damaging, lingering effects on their hitting stroke once regular season play resumes, Cespedes doesn’t give an eff. All of that other talk is just an excuse not to earn your stripes as MLB’s power puncher.

"I'm somebody who's very conscious of the power that I have," Cespedes said through a translator. "So I don't need to put more of a swing or more of an effort in order to hit a home run. I just have to look for a good pitch and put a good swing on it and it usually takes care of itself."


Sounds like Cespedes thinks these cats are copping pleas, while he’s taking mega cuts and trying to put the ball in parking lots. On Monday night in Minnesota, a rain delay dampened the air and the spirit of some of the balls taking flight. No player hit more than nine homers in a round except Jose Bautista who ripped off 10, including a 428-foot blast in Round 1. Giancarlo Stanton had a rip that traveled over 500-feet and led the NL with six homers in Round 1, but lost his momentum after a bye into the third-round and never hit another. 

Following Joey Bats’ performance, Target Field was ready to rock when 23-year-old Yasiel Puig, who was among the favorites to put on a dazzling show, stepped to the plate. For Puig, it became another weird, head-scratching and comical moment in a career that has The Shadow League tabbing him as this era’s Manny Ramirez.

 

 

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Puig, looking very uncomfortable, strangely check swung the first pitch and made feeble contact, automatically losing an out in a competition that shaved down its allotted outs (an out is considered anything other than a homerun) from 10 to 7 this season. He couldn’t get one ball out of the park. The impact of his performance made the fans feel like they climbed a 200-foot mountain to grab a lost treasure worth millions, only to find a laundry basket full of dirty draws. I wouldn’t say this was one of the most power-defunct HR Derby displays, but it’s shortcoming's are comparable to the fate of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest when guys such as LeBron James, who are imperative to the survival of the exhibition don’t participate.

The NL squad was suspect. With all due respect to the hitting prowess of Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Frazier and Justin Mourneau, I wouldn’t consider these guys elite sluggers. Where’s Ryan Howard, Evan Gattis (in fairness, he’s banged up) Pedro Alvarez and feast-or-famine king Chris Carter? They’re guys with swings built for winning a HR Derby.

On the AL side, I was missing Nelson Cruz, Chris “Crush” Davis and 2012 champ Prince Fielder. MLB should just let cats juice for the Derby. It feels like it could use a boost. It seems as if homers are down, but if you check the numbers that’s not the case. We’re just still fighting the numbness the PED Era created towards the homerun.



Cespedes’ performance the past few years, however, make him part of a select group of all-time HR Derby Kings.


At Citifield’s All-Star festivities in 2013, Cespedes exploded for 17 homers in his first round en route to hitting 32 in total and edging Bryce Harper in the Finals 9-8. Cespedes was the only player out of eight power-hitting participants to reach double-digit bombs in any round. His 17 jacks ties him with with David Ortiz (17 in 2005) for third-most homers hit in a MLB Home Run Derby round.

Maybe Josh Hamilton’s record 28-homers in Round 1 of the 2008 Derby at Yankees Stadium spoiled us for life. Bobby Abreu’s 24 shots in the first-round was super live as he represented Team Venezuela back in 2005 at Comerica Park.

David Wright had a lumber party in Round 1 of the 2006 Homer Derby at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The Mets captain slugged 16 dingers and then mustered just six in the next two rounds and lost to Ryan Howard 23-22.

For all this talk about how HR Derby’s were better in the ‘90s and early 2000’s, Sammy Sosa’s juice and corked bat never got him more than 12 homers in a round (2002 Miller Park, Milwaukee). They were often majestic blasts but he wasn’t smashing everything out of the yard.


Sosa did crush the comp in 2000 at Seattle's Safeco Field by smashing 26 total homers. The next closest person was Griffey Jr., who hit 11 that year. In fact, when Junior won back-to-back HR Derby titles, he did it with modest totals of 16 and 19 homers over three rounds. Reflecting back, it seems like Griff had 15-plus homer rounds on the norm.

It’s interesting how nostalgia warps the reality of your memory of sports heroes. In 1990 Mark McGwire (1), Ken Griffey Jr., Jose Canseco and Cecil Fielder hit a total of one home run for the AL. The NL team that won featured Daryl Strawberry and Bobby Bonilla and managed just four home runs. Even when Strawberry won the contest in 1986, he hit just four homers. In his defense, the HR Derby only had one round back then and was executed in AL vs. NL format.

 

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For the HR Derby to stay relevant it needs VIP names providing an aerial display for the ages. If the big names won’t come to the event, then the event has to create its own stars. As long as cats like Trout keep ducking the HR Derby, dudes like Cespedes can fill a vacuum and collect all of that fan love they’re missing.

 

 

JR Gamble joined The Shadow League in 2012. The Deputy Editor and Senior Writer is in his 23rd year of covering sports and culture professionally. He has covered a wide variety of major sports and entertainment topics across different mediums, including radio, magazines and national TV.

His passion is baseball, the culturing of baseball and preserving and documenting the historically-impactful accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans in baseball.