Up to a certain point, it's easy to see how fantastically famous people made it to where they are. There's some unique and relatively valuable talent involved -- because these are famous people, it's more likely to be something like "big curveball" or "appearing comfortable on camera" than, like, a special skill for kidney transplants or cartography -- and there is further luck that follows on the initial good fortune of having been born with that talent. And then there is invariably a great deal of work. This all makes sense.
It's our right as non-famous people to grouse at how different all that work is from ours, and how those hours spent getting better at rapping or identifying blitzes seem more fun than our hours doing the things we have to do for our paychecks. But it's worth remembering that, sometime before they became inevitable, inexorable and vexingly permanent -- and long before they were announced as the two dominant noise-sources at this year's Home Run Derby -- Pitbull and Chris Berman earned what they got.
It's not that Pitbull was ever all that interesting a performer -- he's sort of always looked like an unusually confident cell-phone salesman who is wearing a white suit for some reason; his raps have always been fast and furiously unmemorable bilingual riffs upon his singular artistic message, which is, "Let's do sex, women." By the same token, Chris Berman's willingness to find a Moody Blues reference for any NFL name he has occasion to say is less impressive for the fact that it has been the same freaking Moody Blues reference for two decades, now. Still, each worked hard to become the weird, prominent things they are. Neither really does much to earn his present ubiquity, but that's what makes their presence at the Home Run Derby so perfect.
To be fair, there's not really a way around the Home Run Derby being overlong and dull. This is because it's repetitive by nature. The long, slack goofiness of it also reflects an institutional choice: much of the non-sports programming that ESPN televises is almost implausibly protracted -- First Take is now on for 13 hours each day, for instance, with 22 minutes of each hour consisting of either Skip Bayless' leatherette sighs or Stephen A. Smith's harumphing preambles. But the Home Run Derby is a bloated, inert and mostly terrible thing because it couldn't really be otherwise: baseball things without baseball context are mostly dull as hell. Home runs in games are great; home runs in batting practice are less great, because who could ever care; home runs hit in batting practice while Chris Berman yowls the titles of Dave Clark Five songs are even less great. (It's worth noting that the Home Run Derby will also be broadcast on ESPN Radio, and worth thinking about what the hell that might actually sound like.)
So: there's only so much that can be done with a long, charmless thing that no one really wants. No amount of Pitbull's I Really Like All Kinds Of Girls raps or Berman bellowing "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" whenever the spirit moves him can make it anything but that. If anything, having Pitbull lip-sync and fist-pump -- with that odd, half-anguished fist-pump look of his -- his way through a few songs before the Home Run Derby and Berman shout throughout serves only to highlight the strange commonalities between all three. That we keep getting the Home Run Derby in defiance of any demand for it is what makes affixing Pitbull and Chris Berman to it so perfect.
Here, all together, are three loud things that don't quite seem to have constituencies of any kind, but which grow and grow by the year and do not appear ever to be going away, or changing, or improving. Putting them all in the same broadcast is not so much an effort to update or save or rejuvenate the Home Run Derby as it is an exercise in multiply reifying it -- have the rapper who is the most like the Home Run Derby perform beforehand, and then have a broadcaster who is mostly the human personification of the Home Run Derby yell about it while the actual Home Run Derby qua Home Run Derby drags out the dingers for four or so hours.
Mostly, though, the whole bloated Homer Run Derby deal -- from the lead-in shows to the multiple on-field reporters, the whole doofy-rote zone-flooding on this little-loved non-event -- is a thing that no one quite asked for and which we nevertheless continue to get. In that sense, it's like Pitbull's Bud Light commercials or Berman just straight-up making the Violence Sounds seven-year-olds make while narrating NFL highlights. It's there because it has always been there, loud and strange and apparently permanent and happening in a sort of consequence-less gravity-free zone in which it has always been happening, the same airless, unreal liminal space in which Adam Sandler movies take place and home shopping programming unfolds, all those little clocks counting down to zero and then starting up again.
That Berman's response to his permanence is to bloat and puff and get still louder -- he's ripened into a vast, orange and somewhat predatory-seeming smugness -- is not to his credit. He seems unshakably convinced that he deserves this, and wears that belief with goofy, grandiose lordliness. That Pitbull seems to have dealt with it in a lighter and more amused way is, on the other hand, the best thing about him. There's not much to be said on behalf of Pitbull's music -- There are a lot of choruses? Synthesized horns are always good for a laugh? -- but Pitbull himself has a sort of plummy dorkiness that's weirdly appealing. His video for "Don't Stop The Party" is ridiculous, but it has more smiling in it than any hip-hop video I've ever seen. Pitbull dances around doofily in white pants and a polo shirt. He cuts a bunch of giddy "yo there are a lot of strippers in my house!" looks to camera. The video ends with him doing a can-opener -- or whatever they call the Cannonball With One Leg Out move where you grew up -- off a boat. At some level, he seems to understand the ridiculousness of his own omnipresence, and handles it with appropriate delight.
This inability to take his prominence seriously is where Pitbull parts ways with Berman and the circa-now Home Run Derby. Because he lives in pure silliness, Pitbull is actually better than the Home Run Derby, is what I'm saying. So that settles that long-running debate.
The old Home Run Derby shows that aired in 1960 were kind of great, but mostly because of their un-greatness. This was not really good television, regardless of how much you might enjoy the warmish inertia of watching Harmon Killebrew mumble and blast dingers in an empty ballpark. The episodes are paced like Ingmar Bergman movies and every word that's said is spectacularly meaningless and stilted, even by the standards of the era. The dramatic stakes are invisibly small and the same thing happens over and over, endlessly. This is what actual baseball games look like to people who don't like baseball.
ESPN used to air these episodes back in the 1980s, but of course could not do that now. They're too slow, for one thing. Mostly, though, the whole thing is way too quiet. No one's arguing, or even really pretending to care all that much about what's happening. It's just a bunch of baseball players trying to hit homers on camera because someone asked them to. It's not good, exactly, but it's nothing like Chris Berman and like Pitbull only in being goofy and boring and benign. In that way, it's an improvement over the Home Run Derby that Pitbull and Berman are supposed to enhance. It's smaller and quieter, and at least has the modesty to end.