Home Run Derby isn't worth risk
Rangers should be grateful Josh Hamilton is putting health first, unlike Matt Kemp
The best thing about Monday's All-Star Game Circus -- also known as the Home Run Derby -- in Kansas City is that Josh Hamilton, of all people, has made one of the smartest decisions of his life: He's skipping it.
Of course, we all know that Hamilton hasn't always done the smart thing and perhaps if he hadn't already "been there, done that," if he hadn't already posted the most spectacular round in Home Run Derby history a few years ago, his thinking this time around would be different.
Whatever, he's skipping it and what you may have thought was a sudden wind gust a few weeks back when Hamilton announced his decision was actually general manager Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington each letting out a deep sigh of relief at the same time.
Trying to spice up the All-Star festivities with a Home Run Derby was one of Major League Baseball's best ideas back in 1985. Baseball's All-Star Game was losing a bit of its luster and MLB was looking for a way to spread the glory out over a two-day period, instead of just the game itself.
Now, I'm not so sure. Now, I'm thinking baseball may be risking too much for what amounts to little more than a sideshow that ultimately means nothing.
With so much riding on star players being able to stay healthy enough to carry their teams to the postseason, allowing a Hamilton, fragile enough as it is, or a still-on-the-disabled list Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers to step up and whale away with the full intent of hitting a batting practice pitch as far as humanly possible seems risky at best and perhaps even downright foolish.
MLB finally seems to be learning what the NBA understood a long time ago: Star power is what fans are yearning for, what they come to see. Yes, it's a team game, and, except for the occasional overpowering pitching performance, no baseball player is likely to have the nightly impact on a game as a star NBA player does. Think LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.
But it's important that baseball publicizes its stars, puts faces with their names and their incredible numbers. The Home Run Derby has certainly helped do that for some of the game's most powerful hitters.
Maybe, though, the risk is too great. How is MLB going to feel if a team, like the Dodgers, loses a star player for several months because he was trying to knock the cover off the ball to win the Home Run Derby? Is it worth it, really, if Kemp re-injures himself? Kemp hasn't hit a home run that actually means something since the end of April because he has been injured and has missed 51 of L.A.'s past 53 games. He last played in a game for the Dodgers on May 30.
And the first thing he's going to do before actually returning to the Dodgers' lineup is stop off in Kansas City to try to win the Home Run Derby?
Remember, Kemp has been sidelined for almost six weeks and the Dodgers' offense has gone completely into the tank without him. With Kemp in the lineup, the Dodgers can win the National League West. Without him, they're burnt toast.
Kemp won't play in the actual All-Star Game, mind you, though at least that has some meaning.
"That's what this is about," Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote in Sunday's editions. "While the Dodgers are concerned about Kemp's body, they are also mindful of his psyche. They didn't feel they could take away both the All-Star Game and the derby without putting him in a sort of funk that could affect his comeback.
"That's probably smart. But more than that, it's also incredibly risky."
I've heard Kemp's argument before, that it's just like batting practice and, shoot, he's been taking that for almost a month now. How can you get hurt in batting practice?
Except, it's not batting practice. Sure, the pitches look like batting practice, but major leaguers don't stand at the plate and try to hit every pitch into the seats in batting practice. They work on specific things, hitting up the middle, driving the ball to the opposite field, hit-and-run. It's not just power swing after power swing, like it is in the Home Run Derby.
Even Hamilton admitted he got tired in 2008, when he hit an amazing 28 balls into the seats in the first round of competition. That's why he eventually lost out to Minnesota's Justin Morneau in the final round.
Hamilton understands that hitters do alter their swings for the Derby and that pulling a rib muscle, already fatigued from full-force swing after swing, would be very easy to do.
"Why mess up a good thing?" Hamilton said in explaining his reasons for skipping this year's Derby. "I've got nothing to prove. It's fun. I would like to do it, but you've got to think about the whole season and the club."
Selfishly, Hamilton might yearn for the glory and attention that the Home Run Derby can bring. After all, he's still never actually won the thing. But he has two far more important things to consider: first, his team and its postseason hopes; and second, the fact he's in the last year of his contract and spending the next two or three months rehabbing from a needless injury won't exactly help his negotiating position.
"No, it didn't hurt in 2008, but it takes one swing [to injure himself]," Hamilton noted. "You've got to be smart about it. I understand that I play major league baseball, but I work for the Texas Rangers. I understand that they need me healthy, and I want to be healthy."
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Ultimately, that's the decision every player invited to the Home Run Derby or even the All-Star Game must face. Is competing in the Derby worth the risk, however slight it might be, of incurring an injury that could knock his team out of a chance at winning the World Series?
It's a gamble MLB obviously is willing to take. So, apparently, are Kemp and the Dodgers.
The Home Run Derby is always a spectacle and fun to watch, and I certainly hope Kemp and all the competitors put on a great show and remain injury-free.
But the bottom line is, who eventually wins doesn't matter. The only thing that counts is what happens when the second half of the season resumes Thursday. Between now and then, it's all just a meaningless sideshow.
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