The Home Run Derby and the beauty of baseball that doesn't count

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Monday, July 16, 2018

One summer day a few years ago, a bunch of 16-year-olds were playing ball in Southern California. Nobody was keeping score, nothing mattered for any standings. It was just a bunch of kids with bats and gloves, sun beating down, school still weeks away. It sounds glorious, doesn't it?

But the scene actually touched the sadness parts of my brain. These kids were playing not for fun but because there were dozens of scouts and major league execs watching them at a showcase event. Those scouts weren't all that interested in this game -- they were there to see the 17-year-olds -- but the teenagers were still trying to stand out. The pitchers were trying to light up radar guns, the batters were selling out for power, the fielders were overthrowing cut-off men to show off their arms, every baserunner was trying to steal. Nobody was keeping score, but this all counted, and it counted mostly to the extent that it would affect some major league team's chances of winning a World Series someday. The stands were full, and nobody cheered.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with any of this, and there is a lot of joy in seeing a teenager with a dream. But it struck me that these players had already been drawn into the gravitational pull of Major League Baseball's championship season. In the year 2018, most baseball has been: the minor leagues, once upon a time their own independent competitive pursuits, now exist almost entirely to take care of the big league teams' resources. The best college and high school players are seen to matter mostly as future draft picks. American fans see foreign leagues mostly as talent to pull over here. To a lot of us, all of the world's high-level baseball counts only to the degree that it matters for 30 teams' chances of winning the World Series someday.

Last year's best baseball moment, in my opinion, was the Home Run Derby. That's an event that doesn't count, except on its own terms -- it certainly doesn't help anybody win a World Series. But Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton cracking opposite-field dingers 480 feet while Cody Bellinger cackles at the absurdity of it all will stay with me forever, perhaps more than any other part of the 2017 season. It was suspenseful in its own way, it was a memorable display of athleticism, it was the finest moment of one of our era's finest players, and it didn't need to count toward the World Series to be any of that.

It joins a long record of fantastic baseball that didn't count. There used to be a lot of really fun bonus baseball going on. This is just an observation -- not a call to action -- but it's worth asking whether the future will still include any bonus baseball. What would it look like? Well, historically speaking, it looked like this:

It looked like Babe Ruth barnstorming.

They still talk about the time Babe Ruth came to town.

Which town? Almost any town. There's a plaque in Dunsmuir, California, a tiny city in the state's far north, where reports at the time said Babe "drove a ball to the top of a fir tree, a distance of 604 feet and 5 inches (measured by a surveyor)." In Rutland, Vermont, the Rutland Historical Society devoted one volume of its quarterly to Ruth's visit in 1919, when Ruth hit a ball that "soared so far into right field that the Rutland outfielder lost sight of it." In the small Southern California city of Brea,the Heritage Center displays souvenirs from when Ruth supposedly hit a 550-footer off Walter Johnson. In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the university claims with absolute, bold-print confidence that Ruth hit "the longest home run in the history of the sport."

Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs that counted -- and 15 postseason homers that really counted -- but to a fan in the 1920s, Ruth's career went far beyond that because he spent most winters barnstorming towns such as these.

"If you were a pretty good baseball player in the twenties, professional or amateur, big-city or small-town, the chances were pretty good that you played against Babe Ruth at least once in your life," biographer Leigh Montville wrote in "The Big Bam." "He had played between 200 and 250 games every year, 154 of them in big-league parks, but the rest in the Dyckman Ovals of America.

"His best records weren't recorded in books; they were kept in individual memories of an astounding sight witnessed on a warm afternoon, the memories transferred by word of mouth. There were no rules in many of these games he played. Sometimes he would bat every inning in these small towns. Sometimes he simply would stay at the plate, swinging until he hit one out.

"In how many towns and cities had he hit the longest ball anyone ever had seen? The news reports back to New York from the barnstorming road would be a paragraph, maybe two, and most of the time they would mention his one or two homers and half of the time would mention the longest home run ever seen in Rutland or Binghamton or Minneapolis."

His 1924 barnstorming tour drew more fans per game than the average major league contest that year -- at least, if his publicist at the time is to be believed.

It looked like Willie Mays playing stickball.

Now, you've undoubtedly seen a picture of Willie Mays playing stickball, just like maybe you've seen a video of Bryce Harper joining a slow-pitch softball game. But you might have assumed, as I did, that this was a one-off thing, a photo op or a spur-of-the-moment impulse. In fact, Mays played stickball all the danged time, even when he was the NL's MVP.

"He would play stickball in the afternoon before night games, or he'd play in the evening when the Giants had a day game," James Hirsch wrote in Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend. "New York sewers are reportedly placed about 30 yards apart. A two-sewer hitter was pretty good, but Mays was a mind-blowing five-sewer slugger. Could he really hit a rubber ball 450 feet? Who knows, but a report that he could hit the ball six sewers was a definite exaggeration. Monte Irvin thought Mays was going to damage his swing ... As a rookie, he once lost track of time, and with a real game about to start [Manager Leo] Durocher sent Forbes to look for him. He found Willie on a manhole cover."

A Colliers headline from the time: "Willie's best hits aren't for the Giants." Even late in his career, as a Met, Mays sometimes stopped at a park to play stickball on his way to Shea Stadium, Hirsch reported.

It looked like Barry Bonds hitting against a pitcher on a trampoline.

In an empty stadium in 2002, a Japanese television show convinced Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi and Bonds to bat against a bunch of absurdist obstacles: Pitches thrown through smoke screens, pitches thrown by a lefty and righty winding up simultaneously and, finally, pitches thrown from a guy on a trampoline.

The whole thing is outlandish -- Bonds, in dungarees, telling Giambi to hurry up so they can go get some chicken wings, while a laugh track shrieks in the background -- but it's also a wonderful glimpse at Bonds. Williams and Giambi can't hit a single pitch fair. Bonds, after mimicking Ichiro's batting stance, cranks a home run and starts to raise his arms as though he just hit No. 756.

"I've seen everything," he says. "I thought I've seen everything. But I haven't seen everything."

Or when he challenged softball star Jennie Finch to pitch to him.

It's everything you love and hate about Bonds: He'd take on any challenge, but only if he could be grumpy about it. He'd praise another's greatness, but only, you sensed, so that it would reflect more brightly on him. He dares her to "throw the cheese" but refuses to take full swings, then taunts her ("Oh, I'm sorry") when he successfully taps her pitches. There's a moment when, after claiming that a series of pitches down the middle were all balls, Finch says of one, resignedly, almost sadly, "that was a strike," and Bonds' whining reaches an even higher pitch. "I truly believe you could strike me out," he says after the session -- but only after he's dead sure he has proven that she couldn't.

Neither clip was baseball, exactly. They just took place on a baseball field and involved Barry Bonds holding a baseball bat, and without them, the ambivalent record of his baseball career wouldn't quite feel complete.

It looked like the City Series, and it looked like in-season exhibition games.

Babe Ruth's first game as a position player came on May 5, 1918, in the middle of the Red Sox's series against the New York Yankees. But it was a Sunday, and the law prohibited baseball in New York on Sundays, so the Red Sox were instead in New Jersey playing an exhibition game. Their regular first baseman injured a finger in the previous day's game, so Ruth -- a pitcher who had been clamoring for more chances to hit -- was put onto the field. "Ruth went hitless in two plate appearances but played well in the field, well enough that he made his major league debut as a position player the next day against the Yankees at first. [Manager Ed] Barrow had cracked," Montville wrote.

One of Ruth's final games against major leaguers came in June 1939 -- five years after his retirement. Two squads were playing a midseason exhibition game in Cooperstown to coincide with the dedication of the new Hall of Fame. At least nine future Hall of Famers, still in their primes, played in the game, and in the fifth inning, Ruth pinch hit against Syl Johnson. He popped out.

These sorts of in-season exhibition games were common, all the way up to the era of collective bargaining, when players negotiated limitations on them. Researcher Walter LeConte has found records of around 5,000 such games, which pitted major league clubs (or collections of All-Stars) against other major league clubs or against semi-pro or amateur teams or against military teams, often to raise money for charities or to sell war bonds. Ruth hit at least 72 home runs in such games (including one when he was playing as a Brooklyn Dodger and one as a New York Giant). Five years before his famous "called shot" in the 1932 World Series came this scene, from in an in-season exhibition game that LeConte describes:

"Before 35,000 fans, the Babe, in the bottom of the 10th, signaled to the crowd that they may start for home and then hit a tremendous blast way over the right field fence."

Lou Gehrig played dozens of these games during his ironman streak, and his final appearance as a major leaguer was in such a game -- a little more than a month after he played his final official game.

Similarly, teams often played extremely competitive postseason series against each other, most often pitting one team from a city or region against the other or a team from one major league against another. These games were emotional and popular long after the World Series had become the official postseason series of the sport. Indeed, wrote Fred Ivor-Campbell in Total Baseball, "The early World Series were, in fact, exhibition games raised to a higher plane of seriousness."

Said John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, "When the Red Sox came back from being down three games to none in 2004, I may have been the only one to recall that it had happened in postseason once before." He's referring to the 1912 City Series in Chicago, in which the White Sox came back from a three-game hole. At the time, the largest baseball crowds in Chicago history had been for City Series games, none of which counted.

Tonight, we'll see another Home Run Derby, and the men who lead the majors in home runs -- Jose Ramirez and J.D. Martinez -- won't be there. "We made a decision, all of us together, and we just decided it wasn't the best thing for me to do at this time," Ramirez explained through an interpreter. "It's really a long season. I need to save energy for the second half and, God willing, the playoffs as well."

Judge and Stanton and Mike Trout and Mookie Betts all wanted no part of the Derby. Joey Gallo said he has talked to a lot of guys who "regretted doing it," Nolan Arenado said he "was thinking about the second half," and any number of hitters might buy into the idea that it could exhaust them, injure them, mess up their swings or just get in the way of a chance to recharge. Baseball in 2018 is far more physically demanding than it was 100 years ago, and the stakes for these players are arguably much higher; it's good and fair that players get to say no, and it's not at all surprising that they choose to.

I don't worry about the Derby, which will certainly feature suspense, long dingers and some fun, young player hollering joyfully in the background. I'm more worried about the story baseball in 2018 is telling about itself: The World Series matters, and everything else is unimportant. Such a narrow definition of success diminishes the rest of the sport -- so much so that even the All-Star Game had to be pulled into the World Series gravity, under the now-discarded plan to assign World Series home-field advantage based on its outcome. (This Time It Counts!) That way of thinking crowds everything else out. If your gravity gets too strong, you become a black hole.

I didn't bring a solution, and I won't even claim with confidence that this is a problem, rather than just my slightly sadness-tinged observation about a thing that has changed. I'm glad the world's best players get to play against each other in this incredibly competitive league. I'm glad players have the agency to decide what's important to them and to say no to extra work. I'm glad that even in 2018, in a fractured culture and media landscape, the World Series still means a lot.

I just really like that Willie Mays played stickball. He was also one of the greatest players who ever played the game, but if not him, somebody else would have been. The stickball, though, only he did that, and it made the world and the sport and the city and our history richer. It didn't count, but it meant something.