In one sense, Albert Pujols managed to please nobody in his stint at the Home Run Derby. He didn't win it, and he also intentionally messed with his swing in order to hit more home runs. But I enjoyed it—he lost in an interesting way, and heroics undertaken in the course of making it to the second round are still heroics, with the requisite sighs of relief and standing ovations.
The Home Run Derby, for what it's worth, is entirely different in person. Watching the flight of the ball without the inevitable camera issues gives you a real understanding of the scope of these home runs, which even in our brave post-McGwire/Sosa era are enormous. I get bored, like everybody else, with the third hour of derby coverage on TV, but there's something bracing about being there. The Home Run Derby is nothing but showing off, basically, and the closer you get to these show-offs the easier it is to just sit there and be unironically impressed.
I was close enough that Pujols's shift from his usual swing to the drastic uppercut that dragged him into the second round, mid-Derby, hit me like a slap to the face. It is awesome, in the causing-awe sense, to think that Albert Pujols—who currently leads the league in home runs—can take a swing that is more powerful than the one he uses in-game. When he lifted his front leg, leaned back, and immediately sent one into the back of the stands in center the crowd was too busy forming exaggerated double-takes and sighs to clap. It was like that moment in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya and Westley both reveal they've been fighting left-handed.
Tonight: The National League goes for their first victory, if I'm hearing a very confident John Kruk predict an AL win correctly, in a hundred thousand years.
Really, what's there to say about the All-Star Game? It's an exhibition, and its tie to reality is more arbitrary than an it-was-all-a-dream ending, but it's just viscerally exciting to see a lineup begin H. Ramirez, Utley, Pujols. The game itself isn't what I appreciate about the All-Star Game, though; it's the role it plays in the mythology of stardom.
When I was a kid I was a basketball fan first, and, just before the internet would have made it a matter of a few minutes' Googling, I dove into the history nearly as much as I did the regular season. Michael Jordan was the best, but he was also my personal connection to the lineage of icons that had come before him, who I read about in stingily paragraphed books for kids—the faceless stars of the Original Celtics through Mikan and Chamberlain and Larry-and-Magic all led to this one guy who I could see humiliate Bryon Russell with my own two eyes. Somewhere, at this very moment, some similarly obsessive-compulsive eight-year-old is reciting this same list with Shaq and LeBron tacked to the end.
And part of that came from All-Star Weekend, still the best of the major sports' exhibitions. I wore out all the VHS tapes the NBA would sell me, but my favorites recounted the dunk contests, in which my heroes were made into Regular People Just Like You. I'll never forget it: the solemn-voiced announcer would intone about Spud Webb or Dominique Wilkins, and in the meantime the other all-stars would push each other around with the athlete's all-purpose good-natured-shrug and film the dunks with their own enormous camcorders. It's ridiculous, but as an elementary schooler, collecting these guys' replica jerseys, that was my favorite part.
So it was good to see that happening today; Ryan Franklin sat at the end of the bench, accosting his daughters with his beard; Hated Ryan Braun (I'm sorry, guys, but I just can't hate anybody who looks that much like Buster Keaton) met Fielder at the dugout and hung out with his kid...
I worry a lot that today's all-stars, with expansion and steroids and the broadening of our collective attentions, won't have the same central position in childhood sports fandom that they did when I forced the issue with NBA Superstars Vol. One. But I've read enough Bill James to know that's one of those old-ballplayers-never-die complaints every generation forces on the next one. As long as new baseball fans get the All-Star Game, as long as it's still exciting to see all these regional heroes come together in a big crossover episode and act simultaneously like regular people and superhuman sports-playing machines and machings, it'll be worth it.