The Team Dream

Although I love it now, I hated baseball when I was a kid. There were so many potential humiliations – dropped fly balls, strike-outs, right field. It was the loneliest of team sports. It didn’t help that I played Little League with kids from a different school, kids who seemed bigger and more aggressive than my friends, strangers.

The concept of the team is, of course, an ideal. It is a place for cooperation, communication, compromise, and community. On a team we can accomplish more than we can alone, and we can do so for the sake of the group, not just the self. But I’ve always hated teams, and team-building exercises, and teaming up on people, and team spirit. I never liked group work in school. Teams can represent tyranny: the tyranny of the majority, the tyranny of the popular over the good, the tyranny of mediocrity. And they present, as they did when I was young, plenty of opportunity for embarrassment. Remember when your gym teacher picked two captains, strapping young men, perhaps idiots, and had them pick the teams. You stood there hoping, fearing. Would you be picked last?

Illustration by Emily Thompson

Major League Baseball, in its infinite wisdom, decided in 2011 that this is how the contestants of the Home Run Derby should be picked. Baseball brass (or the almighty Bud Selig) selects one captain from each league. That captain picks his team. Never mind that the Derby is essentially an individual competition, and after the grade-school selection process, the teams don’t mean shit. And never mind that the Home Run Derby is a stupid, boring competition, a relic from the steroid era. In it players try to hit a softly tossed ball – they get to choose their own pitcher – out of the park. Then they try to do it again. And again. And again. For hours.

This year Selig chose Robinson Canó and David Wright as the two Derby captains, peculiar picks since they are 10th and 48th respectively in home runs so far this year. Wright hasn’t participated since 2006 when, after the Derby, he went into a minor home run funk. (Some believe the Derby can mess up your swing.) Both captains, though, are popular players, decent sluggers, and All Stars, and they are both based in New York where this year’s All Star game took place. (Wright was the only Mets position player to be selected for the game at Citi Field.) It seems that Selig may have learned a lesson from last year’s Derby in Kansas City. Canó was the AL captain then too (He’s like the coolest guy in 5th grade). But Canó did not pick Royals slugger Billy Butler for the contest. Ever since, he is roundly booed when he steps within 100 miles of KC.

Selig should have learned a better lesson from this kerfuffle. Here’s an idea: Why don’t the eight best home-run hitters compete? We have a statistic for this. We don’t even need sabermetrics: It’s called HR.

This year Canó picked Chris Davis, a sensible choice since he leads the majors with 37 home runs and is a break-out All Star from the long-suffering Baltimore Orioles. Then he chose Prince Fielder. While Fielder has only 16 home runs this year, he was the defending Derby champ (He’s won it twice). Plus, he has a good potbelly, and who doesn’t like to say, “Prince Fielder”? Last Canó chose Yoenis Céspedes, also fun to say. He is a young Cuban player with only 15 home runs and some pretty poor hitting statistics. He’s certainly not an All Star (I wasn’t aware that you could compete in the Derby without making the All Star team, but apparently it’s happened before). Céspedes, though, is evidently some kind of batting practice genius who regularly pastes the ball when it doesn’t count. “I see his BP every day,” said teammate Brandon Moss, “and his regular BP is a home run derby.” He hits the ball “50 rows deep.” I guess that qualified him for the Derby.

Wright picked Carlos Gonzalez, the NL home run leader (He pulled out, making the way for the Pirates’ Pedro Alvarez). Then he chose Bryce Harper, who has only 13 home runs. Wright explained this odd pick with a brilliantly original justification: “It’s ultimately for the fans.” Apparently Harper won some non-binding fan vote, although I can’t seem to find the results of this so-called “vote” anywhere. (Who was “our” AL choice? Why didn’t he get in?). Lastly Wright chose Michael Cuddyer who isn’t known as a slugger. But he and Cap’n Wright are buddies from the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area. “I grew up with Michael,” Wright said, “I had to represent Virginia and the 757.” Too bad, Domonic Brown, you’re from Zephyrhills, Florida.

As stupid as it is, I kind of like the Home Run Derby. It’s a simple contest of skill, stripped of the complications of situational hitting or real pitching. It’s nice to see the very best perform a specialized feat of strength and coordination. And there is something hypnotic, if boring, about the repetitive act, the flight of the ball, the time it takes to loop out into the sky and rocket into the crowd. I especially like the old Home Run Derby TV show, which ran in 1960 and was a precursor to today’s Derby. Then players like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle faced off in one-on-one contests. While each man batted, alone with his thoughts, the opponent was forced to sit in the booth with the announcer, mostly just smiling blankly and looking dumb, but sometimes engaging in mild, meaningless banter. Mantle looks particularly glassy-eyed. Here’s a sample from his face-off with Harmon Killebrew (fast-forward to the 4:35 mark):

Interviewer: Man, he didn’t take long to whack that one.
Mantle: Probably won’t take long to whack another one either.

Thanks, Mick.

That Derby was from another era. Back then players didn’t make much money. There were no free agents. Hank Aaron made $45,000 that year playing for the Braves, but he made an additional $13,500 on the Derby show so it was really worth something. Nowadays we pay a lot for the Derby and the multi-millionaire winners get a truck. (During the broadcast, Mike Piazza ogled the truck and said, “Back in our day, what did we win? A pair of boxers?”)

As I said, I hate teams. It might be tempting for my lazy mind to apply this logic to the political realm and drift toward the Tea Partiers and their radical individuals (free agents, as it were). But there is nothing I hate more than applying sports metaphors to politics. The whole beauty of sports is its contained set of goals and its clear rules. The world is nothing like baseball, and even less like Home Run Derby. This year’s champion was the non-All-Star Céspedes. In actual baseball, he is tied for 32nd in home runs and is hitting .225. He has 80 strikeouts in 79 games. In the Derby he didn’t strike out once.

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