Major League Baseball's Home Run Derby, while still a fairly popular cornerstone of the All-Star break, has received its fair share of criticism over the past few years:
1. The contest is too darn long.
2. Not enough big-name stars show up.
3. A home run is a home run. When will we see something new?
There isn't much of a defense against the first argument. The Derby always drags on a bit, lasting about as long as your average baseball game—which some people already consider an unbearable duration.
But as far as marquee names and unprecedented sights, well, this year's competition had it all.
This year's Home Run Derby may have been the best in recent memory (Josh Hamilton's historic 2008 aside). It had a mixture of veteran talent and exciting young stars. It also had innovation, both logistical and technological. It had...
Well, he obviously enjoyed himself, along with millions of fans fortunate enough to watch last night's event.
Here's what stood out most from the 2011 Home Run Derby.
This year's Home Run Derby featured a new rule from the onset concerning how participants were chosen.
Prince Fielder and David Ortiz, the two previous years' winners, were selected as captains of the National League and American League, respectively. Each formed his own four-man team to battle it out for league supremacy.
This was a truly fantastic idea. The Derby has been—and still is—an individual's competition, but adding a team element to it—and one that directly correlates to the nature of the All-Star Game the next day—only creates more depth and excitement.
Okay, to be fair, it didn't exactly create any more competition this year; the AL steamrolled the NL, out-homering them 76-19. But the extra intrigue was present and unforced.
Fielder received flak from the Arizona crowd for failing to invite Justin Upton to the NL squad and providing the "hometown hero." Ortiz, meanwhile, made a last-second strategic adjustment, when he informed honorary umpire Cal Ripken Jr. that he would be swapping Robinson Cano and Adrian Gonzalez in his lineup, batting the latter first in order to "put more pressure" on the opposing group.
And if that didn't show how much Ortiz was into this contest, allow ESPN's Buster Olney to enlighten us further; this was one of his many tweets from last night:
"When Gonzalez and Cano were killing it in Round 2, Ortiz—eliminated—turned to me, spread his arms and yelled proudly, 'Look at my team!'"
It's what we always crave in sporting events: a sudden-death, win-or-go-home battle between worthy competitors.
That's exactly what we got last night when, at the end of the first round, three hitters—captains David Ortiz and Prince Fielder, along with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Matt Holliday—were tied for third place with five home runs apiece. Two of the three would move on to the second round, but how?
Three players, two spots, five swings each.
Short, simple and an effective way to renew interest after a somewhat sputtering end to the first round—the last five batters averaged a little fewer than four home runs each.
Holliday went first and hit two bombs. He was caught on camera afterward claiming confusion about the tiebreaker—five swings, not five outs.
Ortiz followed and cruised through his first three home runs, which automatically placed him into the next round. He wasn't done though, and with some flair, he hit a final shot on his last swing, accompanied by a classic Big Papi bat flip.
But it was Fielder who proved to be the star of the bat-off. Five swings and five home runs later, the crowd demonstrated their conflict of interests, as many cheered for the awesome display, but others held out due to continued allegiance toward the snubbed Justin Upton.
The last place you'd expect to find defense (after an NBA All-Star game) is the Home Run Derby. Yet some ambitious non-big leaguers made some very memorable grabs last night.
In the first round, Robinson Cano made his final out with a lazy fly ball to center field. While the All-Star second baseman turned to walk away dejectedly, one of the youngsters patrolling the outfield was sprinting to make the otherwise inconsequential play. He dove and made the last-second snare, much to the appreciation of the Phoenix crowd.
(Side note: I am eternally jealous of those kids who get to run around the outfield shagging the results of failed home run swings.
What could be better? You're standing in the very presence of actual major leaguers, treading over an actual major league field, catching actual major league fly balls—but let me stop now before I drown in my lost childhood dreams.)
Next, in the final round, Adrian Gonzalez sent a powerful blast deep into right-center field, where the iconic Chase Field pool resides. One excited fan caught the ball while diving into the pool.
Finally, one spectator failed to catch the home run ball he was after, but succeeded in giving everyone around him an unwanted sense of déjà vu.
During Prince Fielder's second round turn, a fan leaned over a railing in an attempt to snare one of the deep flies, but he missed and almost fell 20 feet down to the pool deck below. Two of his companions grabbed him before disaster struck.
This came only days after the tragedy in Texas, where a fan died after falling 20 feet out of his seat in an attempt to catch a ball tossed up to him by Josh Hamilton.
But it was fun and refreshing to see that MLB knows we are all currently living in 2011, and the players complied by showing they were truly enjoying the home run barrage.
We learned why David Ortiz (@davidortiz) paused and left the batter's box during his second round turn:
We witnessed Matt Kemp (@TheRealMattKemp) consoling himself after he hit just two home runs and was eliminated from the first round:
"I don't feel as bad now, Frank Thomas jus told me he hit 3 his first time...lol"
And we saw C.J. Wilson (@str8edgeracer) make an apt and playful prediction:
"Cano is for sure winning this thing. Playoffs 2010 all over again! Glad my ERA isn't involved #HRderby."
Who knows? Maybe we'll get to see some more live tweeting during the rest of the season...or at least during the All-Star Game.
Most of all, this Home Run Derby will be remembered for its champion.
Robinson Cano not only put on a tremendous show, breaking the record for most home runs ever hit in a final round (12), but he did it with sheer enthusiasm and loving commitment.
It looked like just a cute move when we saw Cano taking BP pitches from his father Jose (who had a brief stint in the major leagues himself as a pitcher with the Houston Astros). But as the contest went on and Jose remained stone-faced while Robinson continued to rise above the rest of the competition, it became clear this pair was in it to win it.
The best moment of the night came in the final round, where Cano, after hitting his 11th home run (tying him with fellow finalist Adrian Gonzalez), ran to the pitcher's mound and embraced his father. Caught on camera was Robinson saying, "I love you, Dad."
With his next home run, Cano sealed the deal, and his father finally broke, letting loose a smile that was instantly infectious. Robinson Cano continued to show his appreciation toward his father (and his mother, along with the people he left in his native Dominican Republic) as he was awarded the trophy from none other than his former manager, Joe Torre (now the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations).
It is rare, even in New York, that Cano receives the attention his talent and high level of play warrant. Somehow, during an All-Star week in which Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera were all sitting out, it seemed only fitting that the second baseman got his due.
And, best of all, he refused to take any credit before mentioning his dad. In a contest primarily devoted to individual performance, Cano made sure to let everyone know he had help.