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July 14, 2008: Home Run Derby!

Well, now I have proof that the Home Run Derby is even better live than it is on television. And I’ve always enjoyed it on television. Tonight I sat in the upper deck at Yankee Stadium and watched at least 106 balls sail out of the park. And that’s not counting batting practice!

We arrived at the Stadium around 5pm, managed to park in our favorite parking lot, and then headed out to find some food before being at the mercy of stadium concessionaires for the next six hours or so. What we found first, though, was a large Nike-sponsored amusement area, with a batting cage, PlayStation 3 setups for MLB: The Show, and souvenir stand. We amused ourselves there for a bit, then moved on to the pizza joint we like. Sitting in the back in the air conditioned area of the shop, eating Real New York Pizza ™ — the likes of which cannot be gotten in Boston where corwin and I live – I counted fans of no fewer than five major league teams, including the Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees (of course), Mets, and a large contingent for the Twins.

Outside the Stadium Chevy was running a promo where if we answered a survey about our car-buying habits, they would give us a free DVD about Yankee Stadium. Score!

Once inside, we wandered around the Main level for a while, watching batting practice. The American League was taking their practice then, and we hung around in the box seats watching that for quite a while. We were about to go off to see if they would do Designated Driver signups on an All-Star night (they do) when we realized Alex Rodriguez was about to bat. We decided to wait.

It was worth the wait. A-rod put on his own personal home run derby, launching the first ball that I have ever witnessed go into the upper deck in LEFT. Many of his shots were mammoth. It was impressive and really made me wish he had decided to do the Derby, but on the other hand, I would rather see him hit 25 more homers this season than see him hit any in a meaningless exhibition.

After that, we collected our free Designated Driver drinks and headed up to our seats.

There is lots of entertaining hoopla around the derby, of course, one piece of which is the introduction of all the Major League Mascots. Wally the Green Monster got one of the loudest boos I have ever heard at the Stadium. Yankees fans are already anti-mascot (an early 80s experiment with one was a horrible failure) but add to that the Red Sox connection and, well, the result was predictable.

Meanwhile, there is some stuff that makes it feel not that different from other special game days, like of course there is the National Anthem, and Reggie Jackson threw out the ceremonial first pitch. His catcher was Derek Jeter, which prompted a loud, unified, “Derek Jeter” chant from the fans.

The first contestant in the derby was Dan Uggla, whom I love just for his name, plus I’m partial to hard-nosed guys who make the most of their shot. Uggla, in case you don’t know or remember, labored in the Diamondbacks minor league system for years until he was left unprotected by them and went to Florida in the Rule V draft in 2006. That same year he was picked to be a reserve on the All-Star team, and has torn up the league since. He broke the ice immediately with a blast to left, and racked up a respectable 6 homers in his first round.

In between almost every hitter (or at least each pair), there are commercial breaks in the TV coverage, so for people in the stands there are all kinds of other filler, including video montages, various people being given charity awards and such, and little interviews with players. The on-field host for the event was Michael Kay, and at one point he interviewed Mariano Rivera. Mo is so soft-spoken half the time you cannot make out what he says anyway, and this time there was no chance since the fans broke into a quite loud and unified “Mariano” chant.

The man who would get the most and loudest chants of the night though was not a Yankee. Oh sure, there was a very strong chorus of “ass-hole, ass-hole” at the umpire who ruled that one ball which was going to fall short of the wall, but which was grabbed by a fan Jeffrey Maier style, was not a home run. But the thing that really raised goosebumps was the hitting of Josh Hamilton.

Hamilton is already MLB’s feel-good story of the year. A 1999 draftee, with a near-$4M signing bonus, he was working his way through the minors with his parents in tow in an RV. They had quit their jobs to follow his career. But a car accident resulted in injuries for his mother and his parents headed home to recuperate. On his own, Hamilton ended up falling into drug addiction, and then out of baseball from 2002 through 2005. He worked his way back, then was left unprotected by the then-Devil Rays and was taken by the Cubs in the Rule V draft. He’s bumped around a bit since then, but as a Texas Ranger this year he has been phenomenal, winning the starting center field job out of spring training and tearing up the place since.

We saw almost every major league team represented among the fans tonight. I never did see anyone wearing either Diamondbacks or Washington Nationals gear, and for the AL we saw no one with Seattle Mariners, Oakland A’s, or LA Angels stuff. I imagine we’ll see more of them tomorrow, but at least 50% if not more of those in attendance were Yankees and Mets fans. Since there was neither a Yankee nor a Met in the derby, the crowd quickly adopted Hamilton as our own, when one of the first homers he hit banged off the BACK WALL OF THE BLEACHERS. That got him a standing ovation, and while people were still on their feet for that, he hit one that hit the BANK OF AMERICA sign! Five hundred feet.

He hit them into every part of the ballpark. The upper deck in right. The bullpen. The “black.” He was also the hitter who came closest to hitting the “HIT IT HERE” sign, which if he had would have meant MasterCard had to pay some lucky fan a million dollars. He never did hit it, but he came within 50 feet of it, and the crowd stayed on their feet for most of his incredible 28 homers in the first round, a new single-round record for the HR Derby. Between pitches, he received one of the greatest honors a Yankee Stadium crowd can bestow, which is the rhythmic chanting of one’s name. For about a half hour or so, Josh Hamilton was adopted as an honorary Yankee.

The rest was mostly anti-climax, fun but not the incredible show-stopping performance that Hamilton’s first round was. In the end, too, because of the way the derby rounds work, Hamilton lost the final round to Justin Morneau, 5-3. Morneau is the guy I was betting on (though not with actual money…), so that is kind of neat. But in the end I was as won over by Hamilton as anyone.

Now we hope he smashes a couple more balls like that in tomorrow’s game. More to come! I’m going to FanFest and then to the All Star Game itself!

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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