Baseball's all-star game is the most compelling of its kind. Far more interest exists for baseball's 'midsummer classic' than for the all-star games of other North American sports.
Home Run Derby the feel-good hit of the summer
Baseball's all-star game is the most compelling of its kind. Far more interest exists for baseball's "midsummer classic" than for the all-star games of other North American sports.
More than 27 million ballots were cast by fans to elect the players who will start in Tuesday's game, which will draw some of the best television ratings of the summer in the United States.
In the past decade, however, the Home Run Derby, which takes place the night before, has almost eclipsed the game. Fans, as well as players, watch in awe at the power of the game's top sluggers.
In past years, Major League Baseball (MLB) chose the players and extended the invitations. But in a shrewd rule change this year, MLB appointed players as team captains and allowed them to choose three teammates. David Ortiz, who won the 2010 Home Run Derby, was selected as the American League captain and Prince Fielder, the last National League player to win the derby, in 2009, was selected to lead the NL team.
The new arrangement generated even more interest. Ortiz invited his Boston teammate Adrian Gonzalez, along with Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays and Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees. Fielder went with his Milwaukee teammate Rickie Weeks, Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Matt Holliday of the St Louis Cardinals.
There were some notable omissions. Alex Rodriguez, the game's top active homer hitter, was passed over, as was his Yankees teammate, Curtis Granderson, who was tied for second in the American League. In the NL, Fielder overlooked Lance Berkman, who was leading the league.
Moreover, there were complaints of regional bias. All four American League participants came from the East division; three of the four in the NL come from Central division teams.
But such controversy is probably good for the event, as it drums up interest and invites fan debate.
Even the idea of a home run competition is quaint. The derby has its roots on the playgrounds and streets, where anything other than a home run is an out. The derby takes a backyard hitting contest and places it on a big stage.
"It's fun," said Ortiz, who has participated in a handful of contests over his career. "It's great for the fans and the players really enjoy it. When I watch, I feel like my son, like a little kid again."
Left unsaid by players and MLB executives: it is also easier to like now that the steroid era is, for the most part, a thing of the past. It may only be a warm-up to an exhibition, but now that the contestants are not artificially enhanced, it feels a little more real.
Players of the week
• Aramis Ramirez, Chicago Cubs. Not much has gone right for the Cubs this season, but Ramirez is on a tear of late with nine homers in the last two weeks. Last week alone, he was 9-for-24 with three homers and nine RBI.
• Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston. Ellsbury was named to the American League all-star team last weekend, then showed why when he hit .440 for the week with six runs and seven RBI in a span of six games.
Teams of the week
• Los Angeles Angels. The Angels have rebounded nicely from a slow start and were just a game behind first-place Texas after a 5-2 week.
• Atlanta Braves. The Philadelphia Phillies may have the best record in either league, but the Braves are not letting them run away in the NL East, remaining just 2 games back thanks to a recent 6-1 run.
Duds of the week
• Roger Clemens. As jury selection began in his perjury trial, it is worth remembering that Clemens, above, brought this misery upon himself by volunteering to testify before Congress. Now, all that is at stake is his legacy and freedom.
Series of the week
• Boston at Tampa Bay, Friday-Sunday. This is a potentially pivotal time for the Rays, who finished the first half of the season with a series against the Yankees and open the second half with three against the Red Sox.
• St Louis at Cincinnati, Friday-Sunday. The NL Central is a jumbled mess, with four teams separated by just three games entering the weekend. This is an opportunity for the Reds, who trail three clubs, to make up some ground.