The Home Run Derby: A Visitor’s Guide

Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

Today, Major League Baseball’s biggest bats–or their replacements–band together for a great cause:  BASHING SWEET, SWEET LONG BALLS.  And that makes us feel pretty special, here in America.

We all know how sluggers are born in this country:  They are birthed out of Industrial Baseball Facilities in the midwest as 20 pound infants, taking adolescent school courses like “Ambiguous Responses to Drug-Related Media Inquiries,” ”Bat Flipping for the Cocky Asshole,” and “Maintaining Dignity in the Latter Years of a Ridiculous Contract.”

Ready for the world, they enter minor league farm systems via a secret draft, in which GMs pop dollar-sign pupils just dreaming of the gate takes once the young, power-hitting 1B/3B/LF becomes the grinning face of a franchise, filling their mantels with MVP  Awards and Home Run Derby trophies.

But did you know that America is just one of many other countries on the earth?  It’s true.  And there are home run derbys in almost all of them.  Well, all the ones that have/had pro baseball.

So, like, seven, or something.

Canada

Baseball has a rich history in the Great White North.  Legends carved on snow cave walls show prospectors armed with bats battling hideous, knuckleballing yeti.  Those yeti, fueled by the warm human meat, went on to form the first Canadian congress, paving the road for pro-yeti legislation that is still in place to this very day.

In 2003, Canada tried to bring baseball into a sportscape that was almost religiously split between hockey and women’s hockey.  Ex-Major League scout Tony Riviera sat at the head of the Canadian Baseball League’s formation, surrounded on either side by Microsoft executive Charlton Lui–the chief financier–and Baseball Guy You’ve Actually Heard Of Ferguson Jenkins, who served as commisioner.

So what went wrong?  Well, namely, the Canadian Baseball League existed in Canada.  Despite the abundance of gold buried in every hillside, Canadians TV networks still required “money” to broadcast CBL games, and “interest” for the games to draw up any viewers.

With half a season under it’s belt, the CBL proudly announced its inaugural All-Star Game, “…to include Brandt, Toth and Clemett!”  No, they were not the names of the prime minister’s favorite sled dogs.

After the game ended in–what else–a tie, the CBL made one of its many mistakes in holding the home run derby after the All-Star Game.  Fans who stuck around because their sled dogs had frozen to each other were treated to a resounding slugfest that ended in zero home runs.

Today, the CBL sits quietly in its Wikipedia entry, waiting for someone to mistakenly visit while Googling the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.  But it will always have those neat memories of a month and a half in 2003 when baseball in Canada meant more than Jose Bautista.

Israel

Israeli baseball described itself as “Nothing but fun!” which (as well as the biblical references) sets it apart from the American form, which we all know is an endless, horrible six-month examination of our deepest fears and anxieties.  I know how I feel watching the Phillies this season, and I’ve got to say spreading that experience from nation to nation across the globe wouldn’t be “fun.”  It’d more like Contagion.”  But with feelings.

Israel’s incarnation of a Home Run Derby was interesting, because they chose not to utilize the ancient practice as a midseason fungo carnival.  Instead, the reverence of the derby was upheld by placing it in any game that remained tied after the traditional seven innings of play.

Which makes you wonder; how would such a turn of events be displayed via the highly graphical practice of baseball scorekeeping?

WHOA.

It does not seem that any of the home runs hit during the extra baseball would count for a player’s season total, and there doesn’t seem to be any wild new stat to give credit to the slugger who, you know, wins the game.

But kudos to the league, for knowing what the basic recipe is for attracting fringe fans to the game–more home runs, all the time, in your face.

Sadly, the attendance for the game above was 386.

Italy

In late May of this year, a 65-year-old woman was standing in her kitchen in the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy.  Quite suddenly, a registered 5.8 earthquake broke the world in half and brought the house down around her.   A wayward piece of furniture toppled strategically over the woman’s body, providing her with cover as debris fell like rain during what must have seemed like the earth’s interminable shudder.

12 hours later, rescue crews pulled her free, transporting her safely to the hospital as aftershocks reaching as high as 3.5 haunted the region.  17 lost their lives, 350 were injured, and thousands of homes were destroyed, all courtesy of the second quake to throttle northern Italy in merely a week.

It was this frantic disaster that ran the show this year at the Italian Baseball League’s 2012 Mine (MEE-nuh) Home Run Derby.  Alex Sambucci was crowned the winner with a total of three home runs.  The long ball, it seems, is far more of a treasure in Italy.  Sambucci was his team leader in dingers in 2009 with five.

With that in mind, the announcement that the Italian Baseball Softball Federation would donate 50 euros to the Emilia earthquake’s victims for every home run may not have been extremely daunting financially, but the sluggers managed to blast 21 round-trippers for a good cause, totalling 1050 euro.

A hallowed page from the game’s narrative, showing that this is more than a sport that traumatizes our young children and ruins us emotionally.  It can be a global tool for good.

Sort of makes “home field advantage in the World Series” feel like even less of a… of a thing.

Japan

All-Star Games in Japan are less of a burst of talent and more like an endurance contest.  From 1963 to 1988, they played three of them every season, until the players union demanded they trim the number to only two played every three out of four years.

The league agreed, but suspiciously came up with reasons to play three every year, like the 50th anniversary of the league in 1999, then again to celebrate the opening of the Sapporo Dome in 2001, and then again in 2002 because “…come on, do you seriously want to waste this beautiful weather?”

Like us, the Japanese hold their derby before an All-Star Game, but unlike our’s, their’s has Willy Mo Pena.

With the voting for Japan’s Mazda All-Star Game Home Run Derby wrapping up today, we can safely say that Willy Mo will be there representing the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, alongside other MLB legends like Tadahito Iguchi and Alex Ramirez.  But instead of players being asked, refusing, and being replaced by Rickie Weeks, the Japanese fans get to choose which sluggers put on the show.  The winner will receive a giant check worth five million yuan ($785,670).

Eligibility is decided by–wait for it–the number of home runs a player has hit in the current season (at least seven) or in total for the previous season (15).  Again, these numbers sort of put in perspective the lavishing of home runs we Americans receive, giggling maniacally as we’re showered in long balls, rubbing them on ourselves as our western perversion dictates.

Tonight, as we all sarcastically live-tweet the event that will almost certainly be used for little else than blog fodder or an excuse to play a drinking game by yourself, remember that there are home run derbies that have served a great purpose, or untied tight games, or been the funereal swan song of a lost cause.

That this display, at times, can serve as an electric cross section of popular culture–not only of what our baseball is like, but what our country deems important, whether it be disaster relief or yeti control [EDITOR'S NOTE: Just gonna jump in here and reiterate that that is not a thing].

And that is of course the BASHING OF SWEET, SWEET LONG BALLS.

Topics: All-Star Game, Home Run Derby, MLB

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