Home Run Derby is still a hit with fans

Fans flock to Citi Field for the Home

Fans flock to Citi Field for the Home Run Derby. (July 15, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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Prince Fielder was sitting in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda Monday afternoon, perspiring along with everyone else at Citi Field, when someone asked the secret of his Home Run Derby success.

"Just hit home runs," the two-time champ said. He shrugged. "That's about it."

And why does he keep competing in it, even when some of his fellow major-league power hitters decline?

"I like doing it because my boys love it," he said, referring to his young sons, Jaden and Haven. He shrugged again.

That is as good a summary as any of the event's ongoing appeal -- even if it certainly has its flaws after nearly three decades, and even if it doesn't seem nearly as fresh as it once did.

It tends to appeal to young fans, in part because its essence is so simple and remains unchanged since the 1960 TV series that inspired the modern version. As host Mark Scott used to say, "It's a home run or nothing here on Home Run Derby."

More than a half-century later, the event's longest-running host, ESPN's Chris Berman, stood on the field during batting practice and echoed Scott.

"Here's the best part about it, and I'm reminded of it every year when I walk around and talk to people," Berman said. "We're not trying to explain the infield fly rule, not trying to explain the sacrifice. It's a home run or it's an out. This is fun. Baseball has to remember it still needs new fans. The Home Run Derby, I feel, is a one-shot deal to get some new fans to say, 'Hey, that was pretty cool.' "

"Cool" is a stretch at this stage, but give baseball credit for trying, including many format and competitive changes.

Most recently, in 2011, it started having players captain the teams and invite colleagues, sparking an increase in the attendance of marquee sluggers.

That's a good thing. It's less good that active players have been put in the awkward position of alienating opposing players and their fans by leaving them off the team.

Last year, it was Robinson Cano's turn in Kansas City. This year, David Wright heard it in Pittsburgh after initially leaving Pedro Alvarez off his roster.

"The guy obviously doesn't deserve that, and that's that," Alvarez said Monday.

"Pittsburgh showed me exactly how they felt," Wright said. "But I'm glad cities are that passionate about their players. I'm excited cities are that passionate about the Home Run Derby. I think it is good for the game. If I get booed a few places, so be it."

None of the players in Monday night's competition took issue with the player-selecting-player system. "I'm a beneficiary of it," said Michael Cuddyer, a close friend of Wright's. "Look, any time you have a player picking, they're going to make some fan base mad, there's no question about that. Is it right or wrong? I don't know. I know it's a lot of pressure on those guys."

One thing that cannot be denied is that the Derby would benefit from taking less time. By the finals Monday night, as MLB surely was rooting for 20-year-old rising superstar Bryce Harper to win it all, his father/pitcher began struggling with the strike zone on a steamy night and fans at home likely were struggling to stay awake. (Harper lost to non-All-Star Yoenis Cespedes.)

Like actual games, the Derby has grown longer over time and is overdue for streamlining. That would make it a shorter, less valuable TV show, though, so don't hold your breath.

"It needs tweaking," Berman said. "Three hours is too long . . . When we first did it, when [Ken] Griffey [Jr.] would win, it seemed like it was 2:20. It shouldn't be as long as an American League game." He suggested going from eight contestants to three after one round.

For now, this is what we have. Watching major-league bombers do their thing is a lot more impressive in person than on TV, but even there it attracts among the highest ratings of summer.

Why? "People love to see how far guys can hit baseballs," ESPN analyst John Kruk said. "No one comes out to watch people bunt a ball. Who cares about that? A lot of people can bunt."