How to Make the Derby Watchable

Happy second-worst day of the summer, everybody. I don’t think there’s any question that the Wednesday after the All-Star Game, with no baseball of any kind at all, is worse, but the Home Run Derby and the celebrity softball nonsense don’t do a whole lot to save the Monday prior, either.

That said, and despite the title of this post, I will actually watch the Home Run Derby. I’ll watch it live or DVR it and flip through it late tonight. But I won’t really care, and I won’t really pay attention; unless somebody goes all Josh Hamilton on the thing, it’ll just be something to have on in the background.

It still seems like a relatively popular thing, by cable TV standards, so I’m sure ESPN is in no hurry to change anything at all. But here are some things that would make me care about it, anyway, in descending order of importance:

1. Just Make Chris Berman Go Away. I don’t care how this is done or who replaces him, and I really mean that. This is the one night a year where I think I could deal with the brain-exploding inanity of Joe Morgan or Steve Phillips (and by the way, is it in Morgan’s contract that he has to be smugly wrong about every single thing ever? And was Phillips hired only to agree with Morgan’s wrongness in an even more smug way? Watching the Cubs/Cards game last night was like being continuously kicked in the teeth for three hours. The only tolerable part was the two or three minutes where the sound went out).

But that’s the point–anybody could do the HR Derby job, even Phillips. You give little factoids between swings, and you get a little excited when somebody hits it a really long way. Jon Miller would be fantastic. Just–anybody but Berman. I remember thinking his little nicknames and (then-)30 year old rock music references were funny when I was twelve or so, but to hear them now, I’m pretty well convinced that I was a slower-than-normal twelve year old. I caught parts of a few classic HR Derbies over the weekend, and I think they’d be a lot of fun to re-watch if not for Berman’s incessant distracting, unfunny bleating.

2. Get rid of at least one, and preferably two, rounds. The first round is always great fun. Everything worth remembering that has ever happened in the Derby has happened in the first round (may not actually be true, but it seems that way to me). You see all eight guys get to take their swings, and they’re all fresh and trying to kill everything. Then you get to the second and third round, and everything kind of dies…some of which I blame on Berman, but it also just seems to run out of steam all around. And it goes on forever.

Everybody thinks, or at least acts like, Hamilton won the Derby in 2008, and I think even real-winner Morneau probably knows Hamilton should have won. He put on an incredible show that was certainly the most entertaining the Derby has ever been, and then he was punished for that by having to go out for two more rounds when he had nothing left because he’d taken something like twenty more swings than anybody else. I’d keep it an eight-man contest, but give everybody ten outs and get out of there. The Derby is supposed to be about power, not endurance. Seems to me the award should go to the guy who can hit a whole bunch of batting-practice home runs rather than the guy who can continue hitting some batting-practice home runs for the longest time.

3. Bring back the Classic Derby Format. As an alternative to #2, I’d like to see them bring back the old 50’s TV show format for the second (and final) round. The eight guys compete in the first round in the current, ten-out format, and then the top two slug it out for nine innings. I’d like to see it at least tried, anyway. They might get even more tired, but they do get to take breaks while the other guy swings…so I don’t know.

4. Keep sprinkling in “pure hitter” types. I’m very interested to see how Joe Mauer does tonight, and I’m disappointed that Ichiro! reportedly turned their offer down. The most (someone like me might say “only”) interesting thing about the NBA Slam Dunk Contest is when the little guy — Spud Webb, Nate Robinson — gets up there and does something no one his height should be able to think about doing. Wouldn’t it be similarly fascinating to see someone like Ichiro beat the big boys at their own game?

You always hear people say that guys like Cobb, Boggs and Ichiro are/were such great hitters that they could hit for power if they really wanted to, but that they decided to focus on batting average instead. That’s always struck me as ridiculous, and if it is true, Ichiro should be fined or something for intentionally choosing not to do everything he can to help his team. But that’s a little different from saying that, in a batting practice situation where all they have to try to do is hit 60-MPH fastballs out, Mauer or Ichiro could be really good at it. No doubt some of the time, or most of the time, they’d come up with 0 or 1. I’m half-expecting Mauer to turn in a performance like that tonight. But then what if he hits 12 or 15 in the first round and beats out the likes of Howard and Pujols? That would keep me interested, and I think they ought to try to get one guy like that in there just about every year.

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