Let us begin by praising the clock in the corner of our television screens on Monday night, because it’s rare that any of us gets a chance to commend Major League Baseball for making anything in life more exciting, but during the Home Run Derby, the sport that exists out of time finally embraced the notion of speeding things along.
For that reason alone – and not merely because the Cincinnati Reds’ Todd Frazier, hitting in his home ballpark, wound up defeating the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson in the finals on the equivalent of a walk-off home run – this Derby was the most compelling we’ve seen in years. It moved, it emoted, it ran like pure entertainment is supposed to…and pure entertainment is not typically a phrase we use to describe anything related to baseball.
Everything that’s compelling about sports can eventually be distilled into tedium. This is the lesson of the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest, which now feels like a pitch meeting inside a Hollywood studio that run out of ideas; this was how the Home Run Derby felt, as well, largely because baseball has never figured out how to show itself off very well. The Derby was overlong, dull and it was punctuated by the crowing of a broadcaster who shall remain nameless, but who had spent years desperately attempting to infuse excitement into a staid event through the use of catchphrases that may actually be older than baseball itself.
I mean, don’t get me wrong: Every professional All-Star Game is silly, but the baseball All-Star Game had long seemed particularly silly because baseball is otherwise so religiously solemn. This is why Bud Selig’s wild notion to infuse the game with meaning by awarding the winning league home-field advantage in the World Series is both patently stupid and the most brilliantly anarchic thing the sport has come up with in years. I like it because it defies logic, and baseball, in this numbers-heavy, logic-burdened era, should defy logic every so often, and if you’re going to start figuring ways to do that, why not use the All-Star Game? It should be a laboratory experiment, because it’s inherently silly, anyway.
And so I liked the clock during the Home Run Derby. I liked that it was there, a ticking time bomb infusing everything with an underlying tension; I like, too, that new baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has essentially threatened to install a pitch-clock in the majors (they have on the minor-league level already) unless the players get their act together and stop dawdling on the field.
Let’s face it: Baseball will never again be a cutting-edge sport, but it doesn’t have to be. Part of its charm lies in its long stretches of pastoral boredom, in the way it languishes before you on a Sunday afternoon in endless tracking shots of rosin bags and batting-helmet adjustments, just daring you to take a nap on your couch. But there’s a way to marry that languorousness with a certain amount of adventure, to pull together traditionalism and suspense. That actually happened last night, and it made baseball more interesting, without killing the overarching classicism of the sport. Let’s hope that the clock is only just beginning to tick.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb