Blast From the Past
When that feeling hits me -- when my mind is so far gone that I can't name a single show airing on UPN and my eyes have that glazed-over look that Ally Walker wears to a tee on Profiler -- I turn off the TV, hurl the remote out the window, use a crude system of levers and pulleys to get myself up off the couch and lose myself for a few hours engaging in my favorite hobby.
No. Not porno. What is wrong with you people?
I'm talking about historical baseball research. Flipping through back issues of "The National Pastime" and reading up on the 1919 Black Sox and pulling stats out of Total Baseball to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Tony Perez belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Then I watch porno.
The point is, poring over books of arcane baseball history is, by its nature, a solitary pursuit, little appreciated by the masses. Go to a party and mention that you're into rock climbing or white water rafting or cycling, and you'll find yourself surrounded by mobs of people, hanging on every word of your tales of adventure. Now try gaining the same attention and respect by pontificating about the divergent careers of Rube Waddell, Rube Foster and Rube Marquard, and see how fast you can clear out the room.
It doesn't help that spending time brushing up on the history of baseball is considered as frivolous as, say, spending time putting together a silly little Web site on TV. Knowing the ins and outs of long-forgotten teams like the St. Louis Browns, the Seattle Pilots and the Indianapolis ABCs just doesn't have the same cachet of being well-versed in the Civil War or the Harding administration or the works of Proust.
But no matter. Because TV -- the other great love in my life besides baseball -- understands my plight. And it's doing its part to satisfy my baseball jones by rebroadcasting one of the great game shows from television's golden age: Home Run Derby.
All the credit for this wonderful service to mankind goes to ESPNClassic, that devourer of free-time and strainer of relationships. Up until this point, the network's sole raison d'être seemed to be luring men away from their chores and loved ones by re-airing long-since-completed athletic contests -- everything from the Canada Cup finals to This Week in the NFL films from 1971. But by bringing Home Run Derby out of mothballs, ESPNClassic more than makes up for its past evil -- it gives hardcore baseball fans a reason to endure the lonely months of winter, at least until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.
For the uninitiated, Home Run Derby brings together two top baseball sluggers and poses a simple challenge: Which one of you can smack more dingers out of our dinky bandbox of a park? Both batters take turns facing a broken- down batting practice pitcher who practically lobs the ball to the plate underhand. Anything that doesn't clear the outfield fence -- even if it's a screaming double up the left field alley -- is an out. Whoever's hit the most home runs by the end of the show gets $2,000. The loser goes home with $1,000. Hit three home runs in a row, and that's an extra 500 clams.
Home Run Derby was filmed in 1959 and 1960, back in the days when $2,000 was a pretty decent bit of scratch, even for a pro ballplayer. It also happens to be the era when baseball was at the height of its post-World War II renaissance, before expansion came along to dilute the league with light-hitting shortstops, one-dimensional outfielders who couldn't hit the curve and other one-time journeymen. As a result, many of the contestants on Home Run Derby were players well on their way to Cooperstown -- Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks. Not a Buddy Biancalana or Francisco Cabrera in the bunch.
That's part of the appeal, for me at any rate. Home Run Derby affords baseball fans the rare opportunity to see some of the game's greats... and not during a slow-pitch softball game at Old Timer's Day, either, but in the prime of their careers. You can read about the compact power of Aaron's swing or how far Killebrew and Mantle could launch home runs. But to see it -- that makes you appreciate their accomplishments as ballplayers even more.
Home Run Derby has its other charms as well. When not at bat, the players chat with the play-by-play announcer -- an earnest, excitable fellow by the name of Mark Scott. The interviews rarely rise above the gee-whiz-mom-and- apple-pie-variety (Scott: "Boy, Mickey, Kenny Boyer sure hit that ball a long ways." Mantle: "He certainly did, Mark."), but that lends Home Run Derby a certain innocence.
Which may be the main reason for the show's appeal, nearly 40 years after it was first filmed. Watch Home Run Derby for the things you won't see -- athletes referring to themselves in the third person or complaining about a lack of respect or screaming at the earnest Mark Scott to "get that @#&!! microphone out of my face." When Mantle or Aaron or Duke Snider hits one out of the park on Home Run Derby, they don't thump their chests or break into a celebratory dance. They step back in the batter's box, ready on hitting the next pitch over the wall.
And watch Home Run Derby for one thing that you will see, something all too often lacking from today's sports world -- grown men with smiles on their faces, as they earn a living by playing a child's game.
Got a comment? Mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.