Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Grady Represents in HR Derby (plus some guy named Hamilton)

I’ve never been a fan of the All Star Game, it just seemed so artificial in recent years. The players rarely seem that into it, the voting process and subsequent starting lineups are usually a joke, and it just isn’t that fun to watch. I’ve always enjoyed the Homerun Derby though, even after the whole steroid mess. While past contests lost much of their charm after the steroid bubble burst (McGuire vs. Sosa anyone?), watching such an awesome exhibition of raw power by some of the best sluggers in the league hasn’t lost its appeal, at least for me. Even the players get excited about the Derby, the awed faces and practical jokes between teammates are proof of that. If you can get David Ortiz to just stare and mouth “wow” to your handiwork, then that’s quite an accomplishment with the bat.

I’m familiar with how recent contestants suffered from a power outage after the break and that certain players are wary of participating now. I was still stoked when I heard Cleveland’s own Grady Sizemore would be on the marquee for this year’s event. Sure, there’s the possibility that he’ll wear himself out a little, but at least it gives Cleveland fans something to cheer about during the break. Besides, if contenders like Utley and Braun are willing to put forth the effort, it’d be disappointing to not see the A.L. homerun leader step into the batter’s box. Despite sending a small army’s worth of All Stars to the game in past years, Cleveland hasn’t had a Derby participant since Jim Thome was runner-up in 1998 (Ken Griffey won with 19 total).

Sizemore got off to a solid start in his first Derby appearance. An endorsement from Peter Gammons on ESPN and a short right field porch suited to Grady’s swing seemed to hold some promise. Anyone who’s seen Grady turn on a pitch inside and send it to the upper deck at the Jake knows he would fit right in at this year’s Derby venue. Actually, five of the eight participants were left-handers hoping to bank on Yankee Stadium’s friendly dimensions of 318’ (LF), 399’, 408’, 385’, and 314’ (RF).

Sizemore batted second behind Florida’s Dan Uggla in the first round. Sizemore matched Uggla in total homers with six, but Grady racked up a greater distance, as in Pronk moon shots to right field. I figured Grady would show some pop, maybe hit a couple into the upper deck, but he certainly didn’t embarrass himself tonight. Five of his taters landed deep into the upper deck, with the longest landing 459 feet away.

Sizemore seemed more relaxed than Uggla, Utley, and Braun and showed a more fluid, natural swing. It’s too bad Grady got eliminated so early because he didn’t appear to be straining himself considering how far he hit the ball and probably had a lot more fuel in the tank for the second round. On the other hand, it’s better that he not wear himself out in an exhibition that ended up being a blow out.

Watching Josh Hamilton tear apart the field this year was like watching Tiger Woods play in an amateur tournament at Firestone. The other players were too busy watching Hamilton launch insane shots off the center field advertisements to care about winning some silly contest.

Hamilton went last (probably some strategic planning by ESPN programmers), but ended up eliminating Uggla and Sizemore by the time he was done. There’s really no way to describe the onslaught that the 6’4”, 205 lb. Hamilton unleashed on the fans in Yankee Stadium, so I’d suggest catching the replay on ESPN later this week. It was epic.

The longest shot was 518’ feet and just failed to clear the white picket fence atop the center field wall, one of three 500’ blasts from Hamilton. It was interesting how the announcers were discussing Josh Gibson and his legendary homer out of Yankee Stadium. While it hasn’t been proven, it wouldn’t surprise me if a hitter as prolific as Gibson were to actually clear an unmodified Yankee Stadium in 1934 (the outfield wall had a much lower profile back then).

Hamilton easily surpassed Bobby Abreu’s record of 24 taters in a round with 28. Hamilton’s 35 total homers are also the second most in a Derby, falling short of the 41 mark set by Abreu in 2005. Hamilton ignored the fact that he could have quit well before he reached 28 homers, but chose to put on a memorable show for the fans in attendance. The fans returned the favor by chanting “HAM-IL-TON” on several occasions, willing the slugger on. Every player sitting on the sidelines circled around Hamilton after his turn was over, congratulating him on the ridiculous feat of strength he had just put on.

In a rather anti-climatic ending, Hamilton fell just short in the closing round when the homerun totals were reset for each finalist. Justin Morneau took home the trophy by hitting five homeruns to just three by an exhausted Hamilton. Morneau seemed almost guilty in accepting the trophy, as Hamilton had really provided the spark for this year’s event.

Granted, the Homerun Derby has its flaws, but I find it hard to believe that any fan would fail to be impressed or at least entertained by this year’s contest. Oh, and good try Grady, better luck next year.

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