The Home Run Derby was, from top to bottom, the best in the event’s three-decade history. (I want to hug the phrase “buzzer-beating home run.” We’ve finally perfected sports.) MLB is rightfully being universally praised for introducing new rules that increased the drama, excitement, and competition, and I don’t want to take anything away from that. But after three perfect hours in Cincinnati, the party-pooper in me wonders if that magic can be captured again.
The format was aces: a timer brought an unexpectedly wonderful new element to an untimed sport. The bracket layout made every round feel instantly meaningful. Even the rule about having to wait for a ball to land to deliver the next pitch added a ton of tension as the clock approached zero. If MLB ever gets away from this format, its offices should be burned to the ground. But just how much of the entertainment came from the format itself, and how much was from everything else breaking just the right way?
Last night was the perfect storm. Consider:
• The Great American Ball Park is a bandbox. You couldn’t design a better stadium for a Home Run Derby, and certainly not for one predicated on pure volume of dingers rather than completion percentage.
• A hometown boy won the thing. As objectively thrilling as the competition was, the party atmosphere came largely from the crowd going nuts for Frazier’s rounds. The excitement was palpable and infectious:
• Frazier made things close, too. He won two of his rounds in sudden death, and took the other just as his time expired. You couldn’t have scripted three better match-ups.
The question is, is any of this reproducible? There’s not enough of a sample size to know if this format will consistently create so many match-ups that come down to the final seconds, or if last night was an anomaly. There’s absolutely no way to guarantee that a player from the home team will be successful, or even compete. And we know for a fact that next year’s All-Star stadium—cavernous Petco Park—will only provide a fraction of last night’s homers.
Even the weather conspired to make last night special. Shortening rounds to four minutes from five made things much better, as players were clearly tiring at the end of their turns. And cutting the bonus time keep things tight while making regulation time feel more important.
The details can be tweaked and honed over the coming years, and the format is a clear winner. But everything broke right this time, and paired with the novelty, that Home Run Derby isn’t going to be topped. It’s probably not even going to be matched, not for a while, not even with the timer and bracket. That’s OK. What we have is infinitely better than what we had, and the very fact that it achieved an unattainable-seeming level of fun is a victory for everyone.