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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 13, 2010 at 2:09 PM

Only one person can save the Home Run Derby: Ichiro

I don’t think there’s any question the Home Run Derby is starting to feel a little stale, as this column points out.

Many of the guys that fans would have love to see crank the ball — Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Justin Morneau — elected not to compete because of injuries or the belief that the derby has a deleterious effect on their swing. That has become a growing belief in baseball circles — that players get out of synch after spending 20 or 40 or 60 swings trying to hit the ball to Mars.

Not only that, but what made the Home Run Derby scintillating — let’s face facts — is the fact that in the 1990s and 2000s, players were hitting the ball a mile. Two miles. It was thrilling to watch those mammoth blasts into the upper deck, or out of the ballpark completely. Now times have, ahem, changed. Body types have changed. Power is on the wane. It’s The Year of the Pitcher, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m not saying that every Home Run Derby star of recent vintage was juiced up, because I don’t believe that. There have always been big ol’ horses that can hit the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone, as the old baseball saying goes. Babe Ruth wasn’t juiced, nor was Ted Kluszewski or Frank Howard.. All of them could hit the ball 500 feet. And I don’t believe for a second Ken Griffey Jr. was juiced when he hit the warehouse at Camden Yards in the 1993 Home Run Derby, one of the seminal moments in the event’s history. But, as a generality, players aren’t as big as they used to be, and they’re not hitting the ball as far. Draw your own conclusions.

It’s naive to believe that reality hasn’t had an impact on the Home Run Derby, though even in the testing era, you still have memorable slugging showcases like the one Hamilton put on at Yankee Stadium in 2008 — the greatest single display of power hitting I have ever seen. Hamilton hit 28 bombs in one round, including (as Jayson Stark recently pointed out on ESPN.com) a home run on 13 swings in a row, and 16 of 17, and 20 of 22, and 22 of 25. Hamilton hit three balls in excess of 500 feet and sent the crowd into delirium. You had to be there to understand the giddiness over Hamilton’s heroics. I feel fortunate I was.

But those kind of displays of sheer, unadulterated, legendary muscle will be the exception, rather than the rule, moving forward. The televisions numbers remain strong, for now, but I’m wondering how long that will be true, with lackluster showings like Monday’s. And with the big power hitters increasingly reluctant to participate (and their teams increasingly reluctant to let them), we can expect the Home Run Derby to become increasingly mundane.

So I have a solution — at least a short-term solution — to jump-start the Derby. As I sit here typing, I’m watching the American League take its batting practice for today’s All-Star Game. Ichiro, as usual, hit a series of bombs into the right-field bleachers. Watching him go deep during BP has become one of the time-honored rituals of following Ichiro. Numerous players have predicted over the years that Ichiro would win the Derby, should he ever decide to participate. Here’s what J.J. Putz told me during the 2007 Game in San Francisco, a quote representative of a sentiment delivered, on and off the record, by dozens of players over the years:

“I would put my whole year’s salary on it that he would win. You’ve seen him in batting practice hit 12 out in a row. And not just wall scrapers, but peppering the Hit It Here Cafe off the windows seven, eight times in a row. But he says he doesn’t want to disrespect the big power hitters.”

That’s one reason Ichiro has used for declining baseball’s overtures to participate in the Home Run Derby — and believe me, they’ve tried to get him. One year, he was nursing a hamstring injury. Ichiro has said he’s waiting for the right ballpark, one that suits his game, and then he’d consider it. When pressed on it last week, he smiled and said, “Stupid question.”

But now, it’s time for Ichiro to participate in the Home Run Derby, to snap it out of its doldrums. The Derby needs him. Baseball needs him.

Now that would be captivating, watching the skinnly little guy belt the ball out of the yard — and count me as one of those who believe Ichiro would win. The NBA’s Slam Dunk contest has gone through similar doldrums — Kobe and LeBron or most of the other mega-stars don’t participate any more — but what is it that periodically wakes up the interest? Why, it’s the little guys like Nate Robinson and Spud Webb, of course, soaring to heights that bely their height. People love that. And people would love the incongruity of slender Ichiro going yard, swing after swing.

There’s some risk involved for him. It’s one thing to have everyone say you’d win. It’s another thing to actually have to prove it. But Ichiro has always risen to challenges. In fact, he savors challenges.

It’s time for him to take on this one. The Home Run Derby needs him, desperately.

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