Fixing the Derby

In 1959, the television show Home Run Derby featured the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Duke Snider, and Gil Hodges. Monday night, the 2007 Home Run Derby featured, in the final round…Alex Rios?

I try to avoid indulging in nostalgia for events that took place decades before my birth, but if you’ve ever seen an episode of the TV show, you might—like me—find it hard to get revved up about an event that purports to determine baseball’s top slugger from a small field including such sluggers as Rios and Matt Holliday.

I don’t mean to take anything away from anyone who partook this year—hell, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, and Ryan Howard might have made the cut if I had selected the eight players I’d most like to see in the event—but this particular all-star week sideshow seems to be retreating further and further to the margins.

Home run champs

Of the eight participants this year, Vlad Guerrero was the only one with more than 300 career dingers. Only two more—Pujols and Magglio Ordonez—have more than 103. Among active players, Vlad is 17th; there are 10 active 400-homer men and a quartet of 500-homer players who sat on the sidelines.

Even if the derby ought to be tilted more toward current-year leaders, we’re left with no Alex Rodriguez (30 bombs to date), Adam Dunn (24), Ken Griffey (23), Gary Sheffield (21), or Carlos Pena (20). Instead, we’ve got the surprising second place finisher Rios (14 this year) and Ordonez (13). Pardon me if I didn’t Tivo it.

The missing

Of course, it’d be a little much to ask that Bud Selig (or anyone else) could simply call his ideal list of eight players and have those sluggers magically appear on derby day. A handful of the active leaders are nursing injuries while others, who weren’t selected to the all-star team, are choosing to spend some free time with their family.

What irks me, though, are all the hitters who are in San Francisco this week, many of them stellar past performers in the derby, who sat this one out. Is it such a burden for Bonds or Griffey to take a few swings? As Bonds likes to put it, he may have nothing left to prove, but one could easily extend that logic to his playing career and allow him a graceful exit into retirement.

A proposal

The derby doesn’t have the same history as the all-star game; it’s never been more than a sideshow, even if it once was a better one than it is now. As much as I’d like to come up with some motivating factor to get Bonds and Griffey (and A-Rod and Dunn and—what the hell—Sosa) to participate, I understand their reluctance. The last thing we need is another version of “This Time It Counts!” so that the derby winner’s league could, say, choose the World Series umpiring crew.

So if it’s just a curiosity for the enjoyment of home-run crazed fans, let’s—gasp!—put it in the hands of those fans. Let every team nominate three players for the derby after checking with those players to ensure that, if selected, they’d take part. You’d have the odd occurence of an Xavier Nady showing up on the ballot now and then, but it’d be nothing that fans don’t know how to ignore from years of all-star balloting.

From that 90-man ballot, give the vote to the fans. Make it something like the all-star game “Final Vote,” just on the internet over a relatively short period of time. Under a plan like that, my guess is that Fielder, Pujols, Guerrero, and Justin Morneau would’ve gotten in just as they did under the current system; what interests me is who else might’ve made the cut.

Think about who you’d want to see in the derby. For me, Miguel Tejada‘s performance in the 2004 event made me want to see him back every year. I’d vote for him. I’d also cast my 25 ballots a day for Jack Cust. I’m not the first to suggest this (by far), but it’d be a blast to see Ichiro compete. And maybe I’m just a hopeless Brewers fanboy, but Ryan Braun would’ve been a great late addition to the field.

(Yes, I am a hopeless fanboy, but that’s kind of the point of fan balloting, isn’t it?)

Such a system would be fraught with the same occasional mishaps as the existing all-star balloting system: a built-in edge for Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox and a tilt toward recognizable names. But, you know, I’d imagine that MLB already looks at the derby much like networks looked at the old TV show; why not let fans say who they’ll tune in for? Heck, if Cust or Braun had been competing, I might have even watched this year.

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