Greg Cote

Home Run Derby, not All-Star Game, is real star of baseball’s midsummer break

How? Why? It is a made-up competition. It's just for fun, really. The pitches are lobbed right over the middle of the plate — that's the whole point.

And yet, to many fans, the Home Run Derby has become the star attraction of Major League Baseball's Midsummer Classic, usurping even the All-Star Game in popularity and anticipation.

So it is that we expect something great or even magical to happen Monday night at Marlins Park when eight power hitters — led by hometown hero Giancarlo Stanton and Yankees phenom Aaron Judge — christen the 33rd annual Home Run Derby and first in Miami.

And then merely hope the game itself, Tuesday night, will justify its ceremonial top of the marquee.

It is not a mystery why the home run contest, its format under constant tinkering since its inception in 1985, has endured, grown essential and is now more popular than ever.

The home run hitter, the slugger, is the most magical archetype in sports, a Brobdingnagian figure, imprimatur of strength, giant of deed.

The aura around this special athlete is such that the man who invented the art of long ball, Babe Ruth, remains the single most iconic name in baseball lore, and arguably in all of sports history, 82 years after he last played.

The Babe: Forever current in the American lexicon, the imagery around him so real even those few of us are alive who can recall having seen him play.

The aura of the home run is why Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are embedded in the American conscience in a way that Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew (who have the NL and AL batting title trophies named for them) are not.

The mystique around the home run hitter proved tough enough and deep enough to survive even steroids and the fake, tainted, cartoon accomplishments of the Sosa/McGwire/Bonds crowd.

The home run rallied, overcame.

Finesse has its place in baseball, yes. The pitchers who live on the black edge of the plate. The leadoff hitters able to drop a feathery bunt down the line.

But it is the home run that is visceral. We know it from the sound the bat makes, from the gasp of the crowd, how it lifts us off our seats.

We marvel at what we used to call the “tape measure” shot, the distance an estimation. That was before everything went high-tech and they measured distance electronically, by lasers, to the centimeter. And augmented that with bat speed and mph at which the ball left the park, not to mention trajectory.

All we required back in the day was the sound of bat on ball and we knew. That and the sight of shoulders slumping on the mound and that instinctive pause in the batter's box as the hitter admired his work.

(Oh, but don't you dare pause too long, batter, or luxuriate to trot the bases too slowly, or you will have embroiled youself in the violation of perhaps baseball's most sacredly held Unwritten Rule).

In the Home Run Derby there are no pitchers to show up, no bases to run, no opposing dugout to enrage. There is just you and your raw power.

The Derby fascinates in part because it is an unapologetic display of machismo, of my-bat's-bigger-than-your-bat. It's the baseball equivalent of being on the carnival midway and watching two men alternately swing a sledgehammer to see who can make the bell ring first.

Players want in it. That's why Logan Morrison, the ex-Marlin with 24 home runs for the Rays, publicly complained he should have been invited.

That's why Stanton eagerly wanted to defend the Derby crown he won last year — the first Marlin to win it, and with a record-shattering 61 total home runs hit.

ESPN, televising the Monday slugfest, will get the Derby of its dreams if Stanton replicates last year's fireworks in his home park and in the championship round meets the Yanks' Judge, who leads the majors with a Ruthian 30 homers.

(Marlins fans might prefer Stanton in the final versus teammate Justin Bour. Could happen. They're in different brackets).

The Home Run Derby is what the slam dunk contest and three-point shooting contest used to be to the NBA All-Star break, back before superstars stopped deigning to dunk for show and the three-point shot became so common it took over the league like stinkweed.

The Home Run Derby is what the NFL has forever failed to find as an adjunct to its awful Pro Bowl.

Be honest. Baseball stopped being as popular as football a long time ago. It isn't as sexy or hip as basketball. Even baseball fans say the game is too slow.

What baseball continues to do better than anybody, though, is the All-Star break, and that starts with what we will see Monday night:

Moonshots over Miami.

HOME RUN DERBY PARTICIPANTS

Seeded player: 1. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami Marlins

Ht, Wt.: 6-6, 245.

Age: 27.

First-half home runs: 24.

Outlook: The reigning champion defends his title in his home ballpark, which could be a good thing for Stanton, who has hit 94 of his career home runs at Marlins Park. Stanton broke records for most homers (61) in Derby history at Petco Park last season and his longest traveled (497 feet).

Seeded player: 2. Aaron Judge, OF, New York Yankees

Ht, Wt.: 6-7, 282.

Age: 25.

First-half home runs: 30.

Outlook: Judge has been the story of the season in the majors and became the first Yankee rookie ever to hit 30 or more home runs in a season surpassing Joe DiMaggio’s record (29). With many comparing the young power hitter to Stanton due to his powerful swing and comparable physique, many around baseball have their fingers crossed that Judge and Stanton will meet in an epic final round.

Seeded player: 3. Cody Bellinger, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers

Ht, Wt.: 6-4, 210.

Age: 21.

First-half home runs: 24.

Outlook: While Judge has made an almost air-tight case for Rookie of the Year in the American League, Bellinger is making his own mark among rookies in the National League. His timely and powerful bat and versatility on the field have been major reasons the Dodgers head into the break with the best record in the NL.

Seeded player: 4. Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals

Ht, Wt.: 6-0, 215.

Age: 28.

First-half home runs: 25.

Outlook: Moustakas nabbed a spot in the Derby and later a spot in the All-Star Game by finishing first on the AL Final Vote ballot. Two years removed from winning a World Series championship, Moustakas is chasing the Royals’ team record for homers in a season (36) set by Steve Balboni in 1985.

Seeded player: 5. Miguel Sano, 3B, Minnesota Twins

Ht, Wt.: 6-4, 260.

Age: 24.

First-half home runs: 20.

Outlook: Like his first-round opponent Moustakas, Sano has never hit a ball in Marlins Park. Don’t be surprised if he gets acclimated quickly, though, as 35 of his 63 home runs during his first three seasons in the majors have come at road parks. Sano could prove to be one of the sleeper contenders in this year’s competition should any of the favorites falter.

Seeded player: 6. Charlie Blackmon, OF, Colorado Rockies

Ht, Wt.: 6-3, 210.

Age: 31.

First-half home runs: 20.

Outlook: The oldest player in the Derby is having one of the best hitting seasons of any player at his position. He enters the break with the most home runs of any center fielder, and earlier this season hit a ball 458 feet. Can he duplicate the success he has had at hitter-friendly Coors Field in Miami is the question.

Seeded player: 7. Justin Bour, 1B, Miami Marlins

Ht, Wt.: 6-3, 265.

Age: 29.

First-half home runs: 19.

Outlook: Bour’s powerful lefty bat could prove to be an advantage if he can pull some to the right-field stands as he does often at his home park. Bour overcame an awful April in which he hit only .222 with four homers with a spectacular May in which he hit .344 with 11 home runs. Bour has the tallest task of anyone in the first round — literally and figuratively — as he is bracketed against Judge. But an upset could really make things interesting especially if his teammate Stanton also gets far enough to meet him in the final.

Seeded player: 8. Gary Sanchez, C, New York Yankees

Ht, Wt.: 6-2, 230.

Age: 24.

First-half home runs: 13.

Outlook: The Yankees’ second-year catcher’s first-half home run totals are low since he missed most of April with a biceps strain. But while he received sharp criticism from former Marlin Logan Morrison, one of the league’s leaders in the category this season, Sanchez has proven his home run potential with 33 in his first 112 career games.

ANDRE C. FERNANDEZ

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