Balls Deep: A Home Run Derby Diary

Baseball's best bombers took over Minneapolis, and we were in the stands (with a poncho)

Yoenis Cespedes
Elsa/Getty Images
Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A's bats during the Gillette Home Run Derby in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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The public's lust for home runs is insatiable. Unhealthy even.

We talk about enjoying the nuanced and subtle bits of the game – defense, pitching, smart baserunning, other boring stuff – but deep down we all know this is a lie. What we really, truly want from baseball, on a very primal level, is to see large men hit balls very fucking far. We demand dingers.

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And no other evening in Major League Baseball provides such a pure, mainlined dinger rush as the annual Home Run Derby. The consistently strong television ratings – secured in spite of the ongoing maniacal broadcast presence of one Chris Berman – confirm America's long ball addiction.

This year's event was held at Target Field in my hometown of Minneapolis. So, ahead of tonight's MLB All-Star Game – 8 p.m. ET on Fox – I put on my press cap and monocle (reporters wear monocles, right?) and headed into the breach to document the night's magic. Here are a few scenes from the evening.

Act I: The Rain Delay

I am from Minneapolis myself so I can say this without fear of retribution: we are a homely, poorly dressed lot and generally do not deserve your attention. We are content to toil away in cold obscurity, away from the national spotlight. Aside from the Replacements, Prince and lyrics to Hold Steady songs, we don't have much to offer you coastal, craft-cocktail types. It is cold and unglamorous and we are content.

We understand and accept that what most people instantly think of when they visualize Minneapolis is cold, snow, ice, igloos, whatever. We get it and are used to it, but the All-Star Game represents one of the few moments we've had to leave the rest of the world with an impression that we live in a place worth visiting.

So naturally, Monday's Home Run Derby was delayed almost an hour by driving, frigid rain. According to ESPN, it was 56 degrees when the first pitch was thrown, making this the coldest Derby ever. Not exactly dispelling the stereotype.

Drinking alcohol is something we do about as well as enduring the cold, and the former is often a means to the latter. As a result, the assembled crowd responded to the delayed start by standing tightly packed in the rain-soaked interior corridors near the beer stands, imbibing itself to peak lubrication. To distract us from the ongoing wait, the good folks of Target Field piped in classic rock jams with lyrics relevant to the evening's events – including "Centerfield" by John Fogerty, "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel and the rare Lenny Kravitz B-side "Baseball Baseball Sports Ball Bunt."

The mood was growing increasingly uneasy as the crowd reflexively thumbed for new updates to the weather forecast on their phones, worried the storm wouldn't pass. The assembled national media waited, bored and cold, as evidenced by this compelling video I took of John Smoltz:

Finally, mercifully, at 7:54 PM CT, the tarp was removed from the field and the festivities began. A roar lifted from the crowd. Let the crushing commence.

As I'm sure you saw on TV, a massive rainbow emerged, framing the city perfectly. Late evening sun reflected off the glass monoliths of our modest downtown as the retreating storm clouds faded into obscurity, Wisconsin's problem now. It looked like this:

You really oughta come visit us sometime.

Act II: Giancarlo Stanton is Not a Nice Man

No, Stanton didn't win the contest, but he did win the unofficial award for most vicious home run of the evening. This shot carried a projected 510 feet into the third deck in left field:

Were the stadium 20 feet smaller, the ball would have ended its journey by smashing the window of a light-rail train on 6th Street.

Act III: Yoenis Cespedes is Also Not a Nice Man

Plenty of players put on an entertaining show for the assembled crowd of 40,000 on Monday night, but no participant provided the same visceral and violent display of power that Yoenis Cespedes did. The ball continually sprang from his bat with ill intent, lasering into the upper left-field deck. The crowd responded with a startled joy that escalated upwards with each shot.

Watch for yourself:

Cespedes defected from his home country of Cuba in 2011 to pursue his lifelong dream of playing professional baseball. The journey was fraught with danger and almost ended in tragedy. Flash forward to 2014 and he's the starting left fielder for the historically-dominant Oakland A's, and the Home Run Derby champion for the second consecutive year, a feat previously only accomplished by Ken Griffey Jr. Not a bad turn of events for Cespedes.

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Act IV: Tremendous Advancements in Technology

Monday night bore witness to two new entertainment features that will likely be coming to a stadium near you, if they haven't already.

First, the self-serve beer dispenser. Much has already been made about this in the national media, likely because the concept sounds positively magical. Ordering beer from a vending machine with as much ease as I do a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos?!? Sign me up!

The reality falls far short, however. People seemed a bit confused by how the machine worked, and the cost of buying a beer was actually more than if you simply ordered from a beer stand. So basically you pay extra to do someone else's job for yourself.

Second, the machine gun T-shirt dispenser. This was quite simply terrifying. I can't be sure but I believe several people were actually decapitated by it on Monday. Video evidence:

Despite the bloodshed, the machine gun was a big win. The crowd was genuinely startled by the pure destructive power of the device, with gasps leading to nervous laughter and eventual cheering. We probably won't be as amused during the robot uprising.

Act V: The Ballhawks

They are not widely known, but there is a subculture of dudes who obsessively collect, archive and track baseballs that they snag during Major League games, batting practice sessions and more. They sometimes refer to themselves as "Ballhawks," and they congregate digitally at websites like MyGameBalls.com, which features an insane array of statistics and data surrounding the balls they've snagged. Competitions amongst Ballhawks to see who has the largest hauls rage on indiscriminately.

The All-Star Game – and the Home Run Derby in particular – is a perfect storm for a Ballhawk. All the major stars of the sport are present, arching perfectly tattooed baseballs deep into the stands where enterprising 'Hawks can scrum their way to another treasured keepsake for their collection.

Before the game, I caught up with Tony Voda – a Minneapolis Ballhawk since 2009 and keeper of the MLB-affiliated blog "Plouffe's New Hairdo" – to talk about what the weekend means to the Ballhawk scene. He was wearing an orange sport coat and carrying a large, homemade sign that said "Pelota, por favor?" Pelota is Spanish for ball, you guys.

He and his buddies had been at the stadium since early in the afternoon, drinking beers and snagging souvenirs during batting practice when the crowds were thinner. "This is like Ballhawk Heaven. It's three full days of baseball festivities with various commemorative baseballs, which are extremely cherished," he says. I glance down at a black leather sack he's toting, stuffed to the brim with balls.

"How many balls do you have after batting practice today?" I ask.

"I have two in my pants…" he pauses for comedic effect, "…and 321 at home." Very clever.

Later in the evening, Voda was in the thick of it in the outfield scrums, trying to grab a ball from a live Derby home-run shot. He came achingly close to being the proud owner of one of hometown hero Justin Morneau's right field blasts (more on him in a moment), but lost out to some dick in a Kansas City Royals Zack Greinke jersey.

Undeterred, Voda will be back for more ballhawking at tomorrow's All-Star Game.

Act VI: The Return of Morneau

Despite the presence of an actual Minnesota Twin amongst its participants – second basemen and darling of the analytical community Brian Dozier – the Home Run Derby's true Minnesotan Hometown Hero for the evening was current Colorado Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau.

Morneau played with the Twins for parts of 11 seasons, during which time he collected an MVP award, 4 All-Star appearances and a cameo in this great commercial where he lifts weights with a bear.

Stoic and easy-going, Morneau fit right in amongst the reserved and humble Midwesterners whom call themselves Twins fans, and was generally beloved. Unfortunately, his career took an unfortunate turn when he suffered a nasty concussion midway through a dominant 2010 season. Morneau was never the same again, and he was eventually traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in August 2013 in an attempt to get some return for his expiring contract. But it wasn't a trade that anyone locally ever felt particularly good about.

We wanted the best for Justin. He had become "one of us," and once you're in, you're in for good.

That's why it has been so rewarding to see him revitalize his game with Colorado this year, and be chosen for the Home Run Derby. Not surprisingly, his introduction to the Target Field crowd on Monday night elicited a standing ovation and the strongest roars of the evening.

Of course, then he went out and hit two home runs and lost a "swing off" to Todd Frazier. Life is cruel sometimes.

Act VII: Summation

Admittedly, the Home Run Derby isn't what it used to be.

Each year there are a few notable absences, as star hitters choose not to participate due to ongoing (though disproven) concerns that the Derby can lead to poor second-half performance by jacking up a player's swing mechanics. For instance, seeing Mike Trout this year would have made the night even more explosive.

And yeah, overall home run production is down significantly in recent years, as the game continues to experience fallout from the Steroid Era and pitching catches up to offense. To date, only 2,525 home runs have been hit this season, which puts the league on pace for roughly 4,450 home runs for the entire year. If that trend holds, it will be the lowest number of home runs in a single season since 1995.

In short, the dinger is endangered, which is yet another reason the Home Run Derby remains Major League Baseball's premiere event. Sure, the All-Star Game is fun to watch and means more now that the outcome determines which league will carry home-field advantage in the World Series, but it can't provide the kind of wonder and joy the Derby can.

There is simply nothing quite like watching the best power hitters in the world do nothing for an entire night but aim to entertain men, women and children alike with feats of strength. I know that now.

Our unending, ancient thirst for home runs rages on. Even in the rain.

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