MIAMI - It took 88 years, but the All-Star Game has been reduced to undercard status.
We’ll give it the edge over the Futures Game, a showcase stocked with the Next Big Things. But the Midsummer Classic can’t measure up to an event with the ratings muscle of what we all drooled over Monday night at Marlins Park.
Ladies and gentlemen, your new American Pastime: the Home Run Derby.
Like any successful corporation, MLB has managed to distill the less desirable ingredients from its brand to create a more easily consumable, more entertaining product. And who better to stamp on the package than Aaron Judge, who blasted through what we thought were the boundaries involving baseball and bat by hitting 500-foot homers with regularity en route to the Derby crown.
“He made this ballpark look like nothing,” said former Yankee Robinson Cano, the 2011 Derby champ. “I thought I’d seen it all before, but he’s something else. He didn’t even look tired.”
People enjoy being awe-struck. The Grand Canyon. Macy’s fireworks on the Fourth of July. “Transformers 5: The Last Knight” on IMAX. Spectacular views. Massive explosions. Skyscraper-size robots punching each other.
To that end, MLB presented Judge and Giancarlo Stanton — or as the Rays’ Chris Archer described them, “two Avatars” — on a collision course. Just a bunch of giant guys with wooden clubs, trying to dent the flamingos adorning that infernal homer machine in centerfield.
Let’s amend that. Launching moonshots over the flamingos, as well as the swordfish atop that zany sculpture, as Judge did in blasting a 501-foot home run during his first-round smackdown of the Marlins’ Justin Bour.
You want suspense? Bour went on an incredible power surge, depositing baseball after baseball into the rightfield upper deck, and his 22-homer barrage threatened to knock off the Derby favorite.
All Bour accomplished, however, was to give Judge the opportunity to feed his growing legend. Unlike the pull-happy Bour, Judge sent long drives to every ZIP code of Marlins Park — at almost too-high elevations. One ricocheted off the dome’s rafters and was not counted. And because the balls took so much time to land, it looked as if the four-minute clock might expire before Judge’s strength did.
And yet he tied Bour at the buzzer, then beat him during his 30-second bonus period, smoking a line drive with :01 on the scoreboard.
The All-Star Game, which no longer decides home-field advantage, can’t match what Judge provided Monday night. After the furious first-round rally, Judge cruised to top Miguel Sano in the final, hitting 11 with 1:53 to spare. “He’s must-watch TV,” Bryce Harper said. “He’s going to hit a home run nine miles. As a baseball player, as a fan, you want to see that.”
This isn’t just our opinion. The public has spoken. On the resale market, tickets to this year’s Home Run Derby were more expensive than the All-Star Game, which features 71 players representing all 30 teams — not just the eight sluggers who pound away in four-minute intervals during the Derby.
That’s the key. MLB and ESPN revived the event last season by streamlining the format, making it tighter and faster-paced to keep audiences engaged for TV. They actually teamed up to adjust to evolving viewing habits and improved the sport, if you can call the Derby that. It’s appointment TV now. “Since they changed the Home Run Derby, it’s gotten really cool,” Archer said.
Monday night’s event was billed as if it were a UFC title match, the 6-7, 282-pound Judge vs. the 6-6, 245-pound Stanton. People were looking forward to the Derby more than the All-Star Game. “This year, it feels like the anticipation is bigger,” Stanton said.
It was. Gigantic, like Judge, the battle’s conquering hero. And the Home Run Derby not only pledged an epic night, it actually delivered.
The Midsummer Classic is merely a pleasant diversion now. The Derby is The Show.