Cubs teammates Javier Baez, left, and Kyle Schwarber celebrate during the Home Run Derby.

Brad Mills/USA Today Sports

Baffoe: That Home Run Derby Was Really Fun

MLB has found a formula that leads to organic excitement.

Tim Baffoe
July 17, 2018 - 9:37 am

(670 The Score) In a year in which the louder discussions about baseball have been dropping attendance and rising strikeouts, MLB got a win Monday night. That Home Run Derby was really fun.

Baseball needs more fun to combat the continued aging raging against the dying of the light of a nostalgic game in which inflicting physical pain on an opponent was deemed honorable and less smiling was allowed than in 19th-century portraits. A home run contest is geared toward those who understand that this stuff isn’t supposed to be so damn serious, but even that had grown stale until tweaks were made starting in 2015. This timed format with unlimited swings is way better than the old way of a set number of outs, a rare change to something in MLB that made something actually more fun. The potential buzzer-beater aspect of the current version adds so much intensity and drama to the event.

Still, the Home Derby isn’t something I normally clear my schedule for. It’s always just there on the first night of the All-Star Break and probably on my television because it’s the only major sports-flavored substitute on for a Monday in the annual sports dieting week. But it took a couple of Cubs being involved to get me to really care about it. It was fascinating expecting what Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber could accomplish in this event.

Baez embodies all that should be about baseball today. He's slick, dynamic and enjoying himself regardless of what purple-faces in the other dugout or at keyboards think in scolding terms. The game -- and All-Star week especially -- needs as much of the Baez type as it can get.

Schwarber is Chicago’s large adult son. Even a slimmer beefy boy is a favorite around the baseball landscape because of his bumblebee-defying-physics qualities of athleticism, which mostly includes the ability to mash taters hard and far. Both Cubs are fun and bring that fun to the plate with them every at-bat, be it Baez’s uncoiling torque at most pitches nose to toes or Schwarber looking like the pee-wee player who may have presented a fudged a birth certificate at registration.  

"You saw a pretty big power swing by Javy and that's a little taste of what you guys will be getting for the Derby," Schwarber said about his and Baez’s home runs that led to a win over the Padres on Saturday. "It's going to be fun."

Indeed it was. Baez’s first round of swings were impressive but anticlimactic, as Max Muncy bested his 16 homers fairly easily. It was Schwarber, who looks like he could join the softball home run contest circuit when he’s done with baseball, who would last.

During Schwarber’s first round, ESPN has Baez mic’d up, and his excitement and awe over his teammate was great to experience. "C’mon, hit the scoreboard!" Baez called like a little leaguer during one flight, and he was later unwittingly asked to explain to the broadcasters the term "HAM" that he kept saying, even though it’s likely an acronym involving an expletive. Baez even went analytical, breaking down the finer points of Schwarber’s swing, and it was interesting to listen to one member of MLB’s best offense dissect another. Baez and fellow Cubs All-Star Willson Contreras acting as Schwarber’s motivators during his breaks in the action -- three young, joyful stars of the game -- was a treat to watch.

But Schwarber carried drama with him into each of three rounds. There were actual loud noises from one writer’s couch as Alex Bregman’s final first-round attempt to tie Schwarber hit the outfield wall. Rhys Hoskins’ 20 homers in the next round’s matchup seemed quite a daunting task for Schwarber to complete, and the Cub appeared doomed as he called timeout with 1:32 left with 12 homers hit in the round and without yet getting bonus time. Schwarber would get bonus time on his 14th homer of the round, and he needed it all as he hit the decisive homer to win the round as time expired. Again, that added effect of having to march 80 yards in a two-minute drill makes for much better nail-biting TV than "he needs eight home runs and has five outs left."

Oh, and bat flips. Beautiful, life-affirming bat flips.

The finals were a matchup of two Cubs that so many Chicagoans had hoped for, Schwarber and future signee Bryce Harper. Schwarber was clearly fatigued at that point in the tournament, and Harper, in what might have been his last major pedestal moment as a Washington National, would have to top 18 dingers.

Harper couldn’t find a groove for the first half of his final round, and as he was taking some pitches, it started to really look like Schwarber had it in the bag. But then Harper unloaded an aerial arsenal late as his initial time expired to tie Schwarber, the stadium going appropriately berserk for the Nationals outfielder.

Schwarber became a sympathetic figure by the end of the evening. He watched wide-eyed and helpless from a comfy seat but torturous situation as he chewed a towel while his opponent whittled away at the husky young man’s lead until both the towel and lead had been consumed in full.

Harper’s bonus time was fait accompli, and it was really cool to see a guy often painted as "too cool" genuinely ecstatic and jacked up to win the Derby in front of the Washington crowd. In his postgame on-field interview, a breathless Harper congratulated the hometown fans and spoke in terms of someone perhaps not quite ready to sign elsewhere when the season ends. 

Harper’s a polarizing figure, but he was genuinely invested in this, and it the whole event became less an exhibition than some pro ballplayers trying to best each other like a bunch of kids launching balls on a blacktop.

"That's the kid you see out there tonight," an emotional Harper told collected media afterward. "I was fortunate to share that and show that to the fans. That wasn't only for me and my family and everybody like that, but this is for the cook, the guy who that works the front and the people that work upstairs.

"I mean, this is (for) the whole city of D.C. I was very fortunate to be able to bring this back to them and do it here."

Any Chicago rooting interest aside, Monday night’s contest couldn’t have gone any better. Particularly for those who like a lot of organic fun mixed in with their baseball.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.​​​​​​​