So the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton said this before Miami All-Star Week launched for real with the Home Run Derby on Monday night:
“Everyone’s trying to put big pressure on me being at home or defending the title. Hey, I don’t care if I’m out in the first round or win it — I’m having fun!”
His teammate Justin Bour had a little bit of that, too.
Stanton unexpectedly got knocked out in the first round of the HRD to siphon energy from the huge, festive Marlins Park home crowd, but Bour put it right back with a 22-home run show vs. New York Yankees phenom Aaron Judge — only to narrowly lose the verdict to Judge, 23-22, in a finish that had the whole house abuzz including all of those Judge fans in their black robes and white powdered wigs.
One held a sign: ‘All Rise,’ it read.
All did, throughout that epic Judge-Bour duel. And again when Judge — a 6-7 cyborg living up to an awful lot — prevailed over the Twins’ Miguel Sano in the final. Judge leads the majors with 30 homers at the break, under the weight of playing in Pinstripes, and now adds a Derby crown in his first-ever time inside this ballpark. No, “phenom” does not feel like hyperbole.
“Hope the fans enjoyed the show,” he said afterward. “Bour put on a show for these fans!”
Stanton proved he was still having fun in the midst of Bour’s run. Bour was stuck at a modest 12 homers with 1:24 to go in his 4-minute round when he called timeout. Out came Stanton, like a boxing cornerman, and with a laugh stuffed a donut in Bour’s mouth. It was obviously a PED: a performance-enhancing donut. The magic energy boost helped Bour electrify the crowd with a huge finish including consecutive home runs of 446, 450 and 455 feet.
That round, no matter who won, underlined what Stanton had said. This should be all about the fun. Only that.
All of this has grown so comically oversized. The press conference before this Home Run Derby was streamed live in New York’s Times Square on Monday. Players in Tuesday’s All-Star Game will be feted with a “red carpet show” — a midday heroes’ parade through downtown Miami. Did I mention a baseball card signed by Judge just sold for $14,000?
And yet what’s lovable about baseball’s annual Midsummer Classic, even amid the idolatry and bombast, is how the players themselves feel about it. That is the small joy and treasure of it.
These two days magically turn the most accomplished ballplayers on the planet back into little boys who can remember — easily — the first glove they ever owned. These two days turn the game’s most famous Major Leaguers back into fans who marvel like the rest of us at what they are seeing.
For this precious little break in sports’ longest season, it isn’t about egos or money or stats or pennant races. It is about the game these men fell in love with when nobody knew their names or their futures.
It’s good Miami finally gets its first All-Star Week because we could use that two-day break from reality, too. From the negativity forever around the Marlins. From the sale of the team and snags in negotiations. From Jeffrey Loria. From the gloomy speculation whether there might be another fire sale. From the harshest reality of all seen in that Jose Fernandez memorial in the northwest plaza outside the ballpark.
This is the pause in the season should be all about what we loved about baseball.
Stanton cast his memory back to games his father would take him to at Dodger Stadium.
“My Dad was really good about knowing the best hitters who were coming through town and taking me to see them,” he said. “Sometimes we’d only stay to watch them for a couple of at-bats. He just wanted me to see what great hitters looked like.”
Stanton became one of them to the tune of a record 61 home runs in last year’s Derby. In Tuesday’s first HRD at Marlins Park he’d been a co-favorite along with the Yank’s Judge, who at 25 is only 2 1/2 years younger than Stanton but grew up following him.
“Coming up through the minor leagues I’d watch a lot of video of him,” said Judge.
How does that make Stanton feel? “Old,” he said, smirking.
The Home Run Derby has revitalized itself with the new format including a time clock. “Brought the buzz back,” as Stanton put it.
The hurried-up Derby is perfect for our microwave, instant-everything times. Why wait six months and 162 games to crown a home run champion? Do it in two hours!
Hardly anybody even knows or remembers who won the “official” homer title last season. It was Oriole Mark Trumbo. But it was Stanton who became America’s de facto Mr. Longball before a new king, a Judge in pinstriped robes, won the title Tuesday.
It wasn’t Stanton this time, no, or Bour.
It was all that matters, though: Fun.
Derby kings Stanton vs. Judge will be interesting to watch in the coming years -- two Californians of similar size and power.
Now comes the 88th All-Star Game right back here Tuesday night, and the Home Run Derby set a high bar to top.
More Stanton and more Judge in the same game will be a good start.