Nations: HR Derby worth watching

By Jeff Nations

I’m morbidly interested in Major League Baseball’s annual Home Run Derby, and here’s why.

This season baseball fans will get the opportunity to see not one, but two sluggers from the famed Beltway take vicious cuts at batting-practice lobs from middle-aged coaches in front of thousands and thousands, with allegedly millions more tuning in for the very same spectacle.

On the face of it, the Home Run Derby doesn’t seem all that interesting. Hitting home runs, which these guys do with regularity in actual games, against actual pitchers with actual pitches that actually travel faster than 75 miles an hour — now that is interesting, if for nothing else than the unpredictability of the feat. Much as we’d all wish, pegging a home run in any particular at-bat (with apologies to Babe Ruth) is darn near impossible.

The Home Run Derby, then, is the ultimate pay lake of hitting — fans not only expect to see home runs, they plan on seeing lots of home runs. Tape-measure shots, too, not the cheapie, just-over-the-left-field-fence variety, either.

So every year since 1985, MLB lines up what it hopes will be a first-class group of mashers to entertain the crowd. Over the years, the particulars have changed — the number of participants has varied from as many as 10 to as few as four, sometimes its been divided by American and National leagues for the opening round, sometimes not … in 2005, the Derby featured eight sluggers representing eight different countries (Venezuela’s Bobby Abreu won that one-year experiment).

The Home Run Derby has provided a few memorable moments, I suppose. Tops for me remains the 2008 edition at Yankee Stadium, when then Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton delivered the most ridiculous exhibition of batting-practice power ever seen during All-Star weekend when he crushed 28 homers in the first round. He still didn’t win, as the Twins’ Justin Morneau outhomered Hamilton, 5-3, in the championship round.

The Orioles have had their moments to shine during the Derby — Cal Ripken Jr. won the 1991 competition with 12 homers, and Miguel Tejada slammed 27 to win the 2004 edition at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The Derby has been a regular who’s who of Orioles sluggers over the years — Ripken, and Tejada, Eddie Murray, Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro … even B.J. Surhoff took his hacks one year for the Birds.

Washington’s Home Run Derby history is decidedly more modest — in fact, the Nationals have never had a participant. That is supposed to change this year, with prized young outfielder Bryce Harper named to the National League side by captain David Wright of the New York Mets. Cool random fact — Wright and Colorado’s Michael Cuddyer are both native Virginians, and both will swing for the fences in this year’s Derby.

Harper is a bit of a surprise, since he’s missed a good portion of the season due to injury, but he still generates enough buzz among baseball fans to merit a spot.

The Orioles also landed at least one spot on the American League squad — AL captain Robinson Cano of the Yankees is holding off on naming the final participant until he gets confirmation from that player. Slugging first baseman Chris Davis will represent the Orioles as the first Baltimore player chosen to participate since Tejada’s last appearance in 2006. Davis should even be the favorite, for what that’s worth — heading into Tuesday night, he’d already clubbed an astounding 33 homers. That’s a pace that would break Roger Maris’ still-cherished 61 home run season, a mark which has been eclipsed several times by suspected and/or admitted dopers Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

There are risks for both Harper and Davis, of course, and not just the potential embarrassment of an untimely power outage with the cameras rolling next week. Harper still isn’t far removed from the knee injury that sidelined him for a good part of the season — rest might be the wiser course. As for Davis, you always have to worry about just what effect all those exaggerated home run cuts might have on his new and improved swing, the one that has allowed him to make much better contact this season and consequently drive baseballs over the wall at an (old) record rate.

It should make for good TV, at least this year. I’ll tune in next Monday night, even if it is little more than glorified batting practice.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>