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Episode 196: Julia Stiles, Paul Anka, and Edible Pigtails
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Forever One Summer. Forever Summer Summer. So Major League Baseball tried to make the derby count, using the one tool that can make anything count: money.
The winner of the contest would get a million bucks. The winner of that contest might well make only half that much for playing the entire baseball season. That was the first big moment, the million-dollar prize. The next big moment came in , when -- in a nod to the popularity of baseball prospects -- MLB mandated that each league's derby contestants should include at least one minor league prospect.
And one of those minor league prospects -- Oneil Cruz, a 6-foot-7, left-handed slugger in the Pirates' organization -- actually won. The prize was no longer just an incentive to encourage superstar participation. Viewers actively rooted for the underdogs, wanting to see them cry with joy while accepting a giant check. The underdog prospect became such a big part of the show's narrative structure that MLB went further: An amateur prospect technically, a recently drafted amateur, to get around rules that at the time prohibited college players from being compensated must also be included.
And then the league began giving one slot to an amateur non-prospect: Just some guy in his 30s who could mash, chosen from play-in competitions. It was easy to justify using a spot this way, because the mashing amateur -- with a swing and training regimen devoted to mastering the derby format -- often out-slugged major leaguers in the contest. Soon, MLB was putting on not one derby a year but a half-dozen, all in prime time. Then, more. Two things became clear from the success of non-major leaguers in the derby: The skills required to hit 40 home runs in 10 minutes against grooved 70 mph pitches were very different from the skills required to hit one home run every four days against 94 mph cutters; and the derby skills could be trained, with proper focus.
Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball--And America--Forever (Hardcover)
But for scores of muscular minor leaguers, the incentives shifted. The minor leagues required long bus rides for terrible pay and extremely long odds of reaching the majors; but the derby was a way to get rich. Some of these minor leaguers began training with a derby swing coach to develop derby-specific strength, techniques and stamina.
Some made fortunes. Tim Tebow, a football icon, had tried and failed, with much scorn among some baseball watchers, to convert to the traditional sport; but he tried and succeeded, in his late 30s, at derby. The derby stars came in all shapes: Some were behemoths imported from strongman competitions, swinging colossal ounce bats. Unlike in traditional baseball, bats rarely break in derby. A player would name his bat, and mythologies would arise around some bats.
Bats would be passed around, sold, bequeathed.
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Some bats were almost as famous as their swingers. Other stars were bat-control technicians who mastered the act of hitting balls just a few feet farther than necessary, over and over and over, and who never seemed to tire or take a bad swing. When Anthony David "A. His bat went to the baseball Hall of Fame -- the final derby souvenir that would be sent to Cooperstown. By , Big League Derby realized the sport wouldn't keep growing without innovating. It needed to give audiences some variety, and it began by reconsidering the physical space.
All the empty greenage of a baseball diamond and outfield would be, for derbies, a giant canvas. Venues built stages in center field and had the biggest musical acts perform during derbies, behind the safety of nets. They launched fireworks shows from second base, the home runs cutting through the sparklers and smoky clouds.
They built berms on which spectators could sit in the outfield, so fans could watch the home runs soar directly overhead. Fifteen-foot nets behind the pitcher's mound caught line drives. Because there was no need for foul territory, and no wild pitches, spectators could crowd around the hitter, like at a golf tournament: Seating and netting began 6 feet behind home plate, with more seating and netting 40 feet in front of the hitter, a terrifying -- if totally safe -- viewing experience.
BLD then realized it needn't follow the restrictive layout of a baseball stadium at all. Derby fields were built just offshore, with platforms for pitcher and batter and home run targets erected as mini islands feet away; on mountain plateaus; across covered thoroughfares; and in the middle of cities, the "fences" demarcated by story buildings.
Some derbies had degrees of fair territory; others had only degrees, to add difficulty. Non-league matches were often filmed in batting cages and transported, by digital effects and television production, to the moon, or above the clouds, or into fantasy worlds populated by giant reptilian monsters that swatted down home runs. The competition became more elaborate, and tournaments followed their own house rules: Rounds of speed hitting might interspersed with the more patient, wait-for-your-pitch rounds; pitching machines might be used to deliver perfect strikes progressively faster, until batters had to hit mph pitches in final rounds; and in team competitions, lefties and righties on opposing squads would hit simultaneously in a single-camera race against each other.
Each competition also had its own scoring quirks: extra points for hitting pitches that were out of the strike zone; progressively higher rewards for consecutive homers; requirements that homers be sprayed to different parts of the bleachers; and scoring based on total distance, or longest homers, in addition to number of homers.
Some people hated it, naturally, just as some people hate any sport. Many traditional baseball fans hated it, but it was never intended to be a replacement for traditional baseball. It was a clearly distinct alternative. It offered none of the leisurely pace traditional baseball did, but it also had none of those things that drove many baseball fans crazy: There were virtually no injuries and no elbow surgeries, no umpire mistakes, no pace-of-play issues, no strikeouts, no foul balls, no hours spent trying to keep track of anonymous relievers churning through middle and late innings, no labor stoppages.
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- Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball—and America—Forever.
In Big League Derby, the celebrity of the players could easily be highlighted, rather than suppressed. The biggest stars of the sport were easily found, in closeups, in celebrations, always on screen and unobscured by even a batting helmet. And a casual fan could turn on a contest and understand immediately who was winning, how the game worked, and that a ball traveling that far was something to behold. Baseball isn't nearly the cultural force it once was. Some blame Big League Derby.
But it was clear to many, even in , that this decline was already well underway. The fan base had gotten much older, and competition for young viewers' attention by other entertainments and technologies had become overwhelming. Meanwhile, the sport's style and pace of play had turned many viewers off, and MLB -- wary of doing anything radical and risking its owners' immense present-day profits -- would do little more than tinker with the rules. A livelier baseball led to more home runs, and more short-term profits, but those home runs paradoxically exacerbated the style and pace-of-play issues that made the modern game stagnant.
Historians still debate how actively MLB "allowed" this livelier ball. When Big League Derby split off from Major League Baseball, taking many of the traditional sport's top sluggers with it, baseball faced a crisis. How could it compete, with just two home runs per game, against a sport that had 40 homers between commercial breaks? Baseball's perpetual quest to rebrand itself For The Kids began, finally, to seem hopeless. And so the sport went back to what it had been at the start: a very complicated, and lively, game of tag. Bleachers were torn out, and outfield walls were moved back and raised to feet, so that almost every fair ball would stay in play.
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Bases were moved 2 feet nearer each other to encourage baserunning, and baserunners. Outfield gloves were restricted to 9 inches. Each team could carry only three pitchers per game. The strike zone was expanded, and foul balls were no different from other strikes, no matter the count. Speed, defense and the ability to put the ball in play were the most highly valued skills in the sport.
Few true sluggers chose baseball over derby by that point, anyway. But baseball was active again. It was a shrinking sport but not a dying one. Baseball fans loved baseball. To the derby fan, the phrase "home run" is an idiom, its meaning detached from the original, literal meaning of its component words.
There is no home. There is no running. A home run is the thing you do in a home run derby, nothing more. But in baseball, the phrase has become ever more literal.