Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Fielder throws his own launch party
By Jayson Stark ESPN.com
ST. LOUIS -- It's Albert Pujols' town. It was Albert Pujols' night. And this is Albert Pujols' personal All-Star extravaganza.
But it was NOT Albert Pujols' Home Run Derby.
No, instead, the 24th Derby in All-Star long ball history was hijacked by a very large tofu-eater from Milwaukee named Prince Fielder.
He launched 10,087 feet worth of home runs into the Missouri ozone, 23 of those bombs altogether. And that was more than Pujols, more than runner-up Nelson Cruz, and nearly three times as many as the eight his father, Cecil, once hit in three Derbies COMBINED.
"It's pretty cool to actually win one," Fielder said afterward. "As a kid, you never think you'll win one. You just want to be in one. So [winning the Derby is] kind of like a dream come true, I guess."
OK, true confession: This was not the most mesmerizing Derby show ever. Just for perspective's sake, we should announce right here that Fielder hit five fewer home runs in THREE rounds than Josh Hamilton hit last year in just ONE round -- and Hamilton didn't even win.
Prince Fielder said he never hit a ball 500 feet before. Well, on Monday, he knocked one 503 in the Home Run Derby.
But there's always one magic moment, one indelible swing of the bat, that leaves its imprint on every Home Run Derby. And let the record show that Prince's signature moment came on his 32nd swing of the evening, late in the second round.
He already had whomped 16 homers at that point. So he was already on his way to the finals.
But who knew the next baseball he'd hit would find itself on its way to Mars?
His personal pitcher, Brewers minor league hitting coach Sandy Guerrero, laid in a vintage BP fastball. Apparently, it was Prince's kind of pitch.
Fielder coiled, connected and almost toppled over, thanks to the sheer overpowering force of hitting a ball that looked for a moment as if it might clank off the Anheuser-Busch brewery.
It roared through the night, flew OVER the bleachers in deep right-center, found a wedge between those bleachers and the center-field upper deck, and then disappeared into the concourse behind the center-field seats.
It was estimated at 503 feet. Which is a whole lot of feet. But the man who threw the pitch that produced that shot didn't need a yardstick or a computer grid to measure it.
No, said Sandy Guerrero. He measured this one with his ears.
"It sounded like a cannon," Guerrero would say afterward. "Not as loud, but very crispy."
Hmm, did he say crispy? What, like a tortilla chip?
"No, I'm telling you," Guerrero went on, "that feeling, of seeing that ball come off the bat and hearing that sound, you just turn around and go, 'Oh, my God.' I couldn't follow the ball. But just from the sound of the ball, I knew that one was hit harder than all the others."
And how right he was. Which was saying something, too, because Fielder hit 11 home runs on this night that traveled 450 feet or farther. And there were some serious whoppers in that collection.
There was a 497-footer that landed six rows from the top of the center-field upper deck. There was a 488-footer that soared beyond the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center. There was a 480-footer that found the center-field upper deck, above the seemingly unreachable Holiday Inn sign. And there was a 466-footer that flew OVER the gigantic grassy knoll in dead center.
But when that 503-foot NASA launch left his bat, it made the rest of those shots look like pop-ups.
"That was amazing," Guerrero said. "To hit a ball like that, everything has to be exactly perfect -- the speed of the pitch, the speed of the bat. Mechanically, you've got to be perfect. I mean, he hit a ball 500 feet. We say he makes it look easy. But to stand on the field and see where that ball lands, it's amazing that he could do that."
ESPN.com's crew of writers and editors is at Busch Stadium for all of the festivities at the 80th Midsummer Classic. Click here to read all about the happenings in St. Louis.
Fielder didn't do quite THAT much gushing over that majestic hack. But he did say: "I've never hit a ball 500 feet. So that was pretty cool."
What was also pretty cool was that he took teammate Ryan Braun along for this ride -- by stealing his bat. During the first round, Fielder ditched the Rickie Weeks model he'd started out using, picked up one of Braun's bats and used it to do some ridiculous damage.
But afterward, Braun didn't sound like a man who was real worried that Fielder was in any danger of wrecking either (A) that bat or (B) his swing with this eruption.
"No, his swing is MADE for this thing," Braun said. "He was hitting line-drive home runs, too. They were just going 500 feet."
Ah, but there was one place none of Fielder's homers DID go. And that, disappointingly, was to the most famous landmark in all of St. Louis -- the fabled Gateway Arch.
Because Busch Stadium was cleverly constructed to highlight the downtown skyline, you can even see that Arch, looming off in the distance beyond the center-field fence. We'll admit that our binoculars weren't focusing real precisely Monday night. But we almost could have sworn the Arch had a sign on it that said, "HIT ME. WE DARE YOU." Or something like that.
So before this Derby began, we asked several of the greatest mashers in baseball what the chances were of somebody -- anybody -- scrunching a Home Run Derby homer off that Arch.
But for some reason -- possibly because it happens to be 2,391 feet from home plate (the Cardinals figured that out for us, thanks to the miracle of Google Earth) -- these men didn't sound real upbeat about their chances of pulling off an official Arch Shot.
"Nah," said Fielder, one of the first men we asked. "I don't think so. I don't see it. At least I know I'M not going to hit it."
"I could hit it," said the Tigers' Brandon Inge, "with a golf club.
"You know what?" Braun said moments later. "Albert might come close."
"He said that?" Pujols gulped, when we relayed the big news. "I don't know, man."
He looked around the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency St. Louis, the site of the pregame media blitz, and stroked his chin. It then seemed to occur to him that the hotel was located across the street from The Arch.
"Well," Pujols laughed, "maybe if I can hit it from HERE."
But nope. That idea wasn't going to fly with those traditionalist baseball officials, who insist on holding all their Derbies in a stadium. So we headed off to run this thought past one last entrant -- Phillies monster man Ryan Howard, a St. Louis native who knows this terrain well.
After all, we figured, just three Derbies ago in Pittsburgh, Howard dunked six home runs into the Allegheny River. So how could that Arch be beyond his reach?
Albert Pujols had the home crowd behind him at Busch Stadium.
At first, Howard seemed mildly intrigued.
"Are we talking about on the fly or on the bounce?" he asked.
We courteously offered him either option. But he decided, finally, that no, it couldn't be done. He's been up IN that Arch, he revealed. But he wasn't about to predict he could hit the Arch.
All right, we conceded. So what was the most famous St. Louis landmark he HAD hit?
"Had to be the Red Lobster," Howard replied. "I think I was like 12 or 13, and I was playing at the Ballwin Athletic Association. I hit a ball down the line one day and, I don't know, they said it was probably like 420 [feet] or so. It bounced and it hit the Red Lobster that was located behind there. And that's my claim to fame."
But now, we suggested, he must be ready for a new challenge. Couldn't hitting the Arch top hitting a stinking Red Lobster?
"You know what? I don't think so," Howard said. "Because I was 12. So I think that Red Lobster will always have a place in my heart."
And as it turned out, it's a good thing, too, because Howard never came close to making a run at the Arch. He did hit 15 homers, which got him into the second round. But none of them even hit a Red Lobster. And it would take much more, on this night, to top Prince Fielder.
The same, meanwhile, went for Pujols, who at least provided the home folks with a couple of his trademark chills and thrills.
First, after finding himself one out from an embarrassing first-round elimination, he pounded two straight homers to wiggle his way into a swing-off. Then he wowed his fan club again by cranking 868 feet worth of homers on consecutive hacks to win the swing-off and move into the second round.
But that's where Albert's party ended. And he headed off into the night, apologizing to his loyal public for "not putting on a better show."
Ah, but Albert Pujols' time will come. When game time rolls around Tuesday night, this will be Pujols' personal amphitheater once again. And that, said Prince Fielder, is cool with him.
"This is Albert's town," said the man who borrowed that town for a couple of hours Monday. "So if he needs to play the whole game, I would have no problem with that."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.