BOSTON — It was one of those nights that retired the trophy for splendor, beauty, elegance, and wonder. For baseball lovers, it seemed an emotional overload that so much good could be concentrated in one spot.
It was Major League Baseball's All-Star home-run hitting contest earlier this week the night before the game - here in storied, 87-year-young Fenway Park in Boston. The best parts of Fenway are the supporting poles that block views from many angles and the overhang that prevents seeing the path of fly balls. It's old-timey in the best-timey ways.
Why in anybody's world would plans be going full speed to rip Fenway down and build a new facility? Greed can explain much but we digress.
The joint was jammed with the best players and exuberant fans. It seemed an unfair touch that the dazzling orange sunset beyond the outfield fences compounded the joy. It was an excess of goodness.
And nobody with an ounce of baseball romance in their hearts could peer down and not see Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Joe Cronin still playing.
The only discordant note was the home-run hitting contest.
Why does baseball do this?
It's like a freak show at the circus. You know, step right up, pay your money, and stare at the fat person lying abed inside the steamy midway tent. It's grotesque. It causes thoughtful individuals to avert their glance.
So, too, does the home-run hitting contest.
The problem is it is a charade. It's not what it appears. Hitting home runs in games is a singular accomplishment, a batter never knowing how fast a pitch is going to come at him, where it will come, how it will spin or drop, or curve or rise. Then, to hit a round ball with a rounded bat squarely becomes arguably the most difficult task in sport. That's why the accomplishments last season of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa cause everyone who understands to sigh in admiration.
What happens in the contest is a batting practice pitcher stands perhaps 10 feet closer to the plate than normal, then lobs straight and slow pitches to exactly the spot the player wants in order to swing from his heels. Doing this, both McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. hit 16 homers each. One of the lollipops delivered to McGwire was smote 488 feet.
This is not to say that any of us could do it. That's nonsense. But the point is, Major League Baseball players can do it and it's no challenge. Homers in batting practice and homers in games have about the same relationship as a sixth cousin on your aunt's father's great grandmother's side of the family does to you.
Something like this cheapens the game. In fairness, baseball is not the only one to do it. Basketball persists in having a slam-dunk competition - unguarded, of course, which definitely puts a different spin on the difficulty. Golf inexplicably puts on driving-distance contests. County fairs have greased pig contests.
All are fishing in a fish tank, hunting on a hunting preserve.
Make no mistake, the participating players here were vaguely embarrassed by it. That's because they know. When Griffey defeated Milwaukee's unheralded Jeromy Burnitz, he wasn't clicking heels in celebration. Shrugged Griffey, "Somebody had to win." Said McGwire, who homered a record 13 times in the first round, "Nobody's really going to remember this."
Yet, as much as purists dislike watching the trained seals bounce balls on their noses, fans as a group seem to like it. Mostly it's because they suspend disbelief. They don't dwell on how it's a setup fraud. They accept it as children do the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.
Fans delude themselves into thinking they are seeing home runs hit. They are not. They are seeing cheap imitations. People who love the home-run derby will be ecstatic over the Rolex watches they can buy on the streets of New York for $28 (two for only $75).
However, what the contest does do is give fans the chance to feast their eyes on the stars. Example: Sosa was here but hit only one home run.
Sosa was his typical good-natured self: "I'm just happy to be here." When someone asked Sosa what he'd most remember about the contest, McGwire interrupted and guffawed, "That you hit one homer." Both burst out laughing. It was the best moment of the home-run competition.
Actually, it was the only moment.
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