Monday, July 13, 2009

Remembering A Great Night, One Year Ago

As the MLB gets set to hold another homerun derby competition later on tonight, I couldn't help but think back to a terrific night exactly one year ago at Yankee Stadium. That was the night Josh Hamilton put on a show for the ages. For those who don't know, Major League Baseball's All-Star Festivities were held in New York last year, and Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers stole the show in the home run derby with a record 28 homeruns in the first round.

The moment that the MLB announced that the 2008 All-Star Weekend would be held at Yankee Stadium, in a bid to honour its final season in existence, my mind became immediately transfixed on the home run derby. I've become increasing excited by the event in the past few years -- from Sosa in 2000 and Giambi in 2002, to the exploits of Bobby Abreu in 2005, Ryan Howard in 2006 and the dreaded Vlad in 2007 -- much more so than the actual all-star game, which admittedly I find a bit underwhelming. I scoured sites like for tickets, and copped a pair for roughly $500. Though I'm usually fairly frugal with my purchases, it didn't take much to realize the once-in-a-lifetime-ness of this particular event. So I plonked down the money, and afterward set out to find a friend that could be enticed into witnessing a small piece of sports history. Naturally, none of my punk friends bit, and I was reduced to trying to scalp the extra ticket outside the stadium; once that failed, I was furthered reduced to offering the ticket por gratis to the one friend nearest to the stadium I could call upon on a moment's notice. After all that running about, I finally was able to settle into my 'seat' in the left-field bleachers.

The stadium had all the usual buzz of a big game, but after a few underwhelming performances, the 50,000+ crowd became a bit antsy, somewhat bored and slightly annoyed. What were once encouraging cheers as a player's out-total mounted became Bronx jeers at announcer Michael Kay's imploring for continued support. By time the 7th competitor completed his round, you could feel the stadium shift its focus to, well, anywhere but the field. I personally tried to convince myself that, regardless of the outcome, I was still here, at my first home run derby, at the last all-star weekend that would ever take place in the current Yankee stadium. I just tried to enjoy it for the uniqueness of the event, even though the actual competition was turning out to be a bore. But just when all hope for excitement seemed lost, up to the plate strode Josh Hamilton.

I was only paying token attention when the ball left the pitcher's hand: *crack*...*whoosh*. What? Well, hello. Hamilton's first offering flew far and deep towards the back of the right-field bleachers. "Uh oh, what have we here?" was my immediate thought. I sat up in my seat, and directed full attention back towards home plate, along with most of the crowd. At this point, we were all dying for something to get excited about, and that one swing gave us hope. A couple of swings later, *crack!* another ball went screeching towards right-field, and ended up hitting the back wall of the bleachers. "Are you kidding me?" In all my years watching games at Yankee stadium, I recall very few balls that even reached the bleachers, let alone approach the back wall. "It hit the wall?!?" "Ohhhh!" went the crowd, and from that point on, he had us in the palms of his batting gloves. After a couple of in-game-length shots, interspersed with a couple of outs, Hamilton let loose with another tape measure shot. "Ohhhh!" And then another deep into the right-field bleachers. And then one a couple dozen rows up in the upper deck.

At this point, Josh was clearly the highlight of the previously-saccharin first round. Little did we know, he wasn't even warmed up. Another shot deep into right-center, another couple outs, and a shot into the short right-field porch followed. He seemed to be slowing a bit, until *whap!* wayyyy up into the upper deck. At that point, his 12th homer versus 6 outs eclipsed anything that had happened with the first seven batters. I no longer needed to convince myself that my money was well spent. I started thinking, if I were at home or in a bar watching this on TV, I'd be kicking myself for not coming. Literally, kicking.

As great as Josh had been to this point, he only got better. He launched blast after blast, and the entire crowd simply couldn't believe what we were seeing. We were all looking around, laughing, and making comments. I saw one blast heading towards the alley between the bleachers and the main seats, and started hoping it would leave the stadium altogether; an expertly-placed shot definitely would. He'd already hit the back wall; the extra-stadium jack had to be coming. Whap! Crack! Ohhhhh! Next thing you new, he was up into the 20s, and it started to seem like he could stay there all night long. We started to chant: "Ha-mil-ton! Ha-mil-ton!" right before breaking chorus to admire another deep upper-deck shot in awe.

When he finally cooled off, you couldn't believe the numbers even after seeing every blast fly out: 28 home runs. Huh? What was it, 3, 4 guys that didn't crack 4? Two that threw up a doughnut? Amazing. When the final round arrived, everyone was hoping, pulling for Hamilton to win, just so we'd get to celebrate him for making our night. The trophy wasn't meant to be, but no one seemed to care. Justin Morneau couldn't help alluding to Josh's first-round onslaught in his acceptance speech. Simply amazing.

Hamilton's first round was so much more than the numbers. He didn't just blast a couple-dozen bleacher and upper-deck shots. He didn't just break Abreu's first-round record, or perform as so many others have done in countless batting practices. He literally saved a night by his lonesome self. He turned an event that was beginning to lose its excitement, its energy, into a breathless display. 50,000 people were beginning to tune out the competition, and with one swing, he flipped a switch and drew us back in. 27 more swings later, we didn't know what to do with ourselves. They say timing is everything, and that is what made Hamilton's display so special, so energizing. Everyone came to the stadium hoping to see something fun and enjoyable, and for a while it looked like all we were going to get was boring. At the very moment all hope seemed lost, we saw something amazing and incredible. I won't forget that moment when the shot hit the right-field back wall. Amazing!

Thanks Josh. You made it money well spent.