In the sport that's supposed to be elegant and meditative and cerebral and poetic and balletic, the best thing about it might be that a large human can use a blunt object to hit a white rock as far as possible. There is nothing more obscene, more impressive in the sporting world than Giancarlo Stanton hitting baseballs as hard as he possibly can. We already knew this, but we needed to be reminded.
On Monday, we were reminded.
We needed to be reminded because we’ve only recently accepted Stanton back into our hearts. He was hurt, he was gone, he was broken, and baseball fans have the memory of a goldfish when it comes to this stuff. Over the last month, we’ve watched him hit absurd moonshots again, maybe in a game, on a highlight show, or on our phones, but we weren’t poked in the brain with a Stanton-sized stick and forced to acknowledge him like that.
Here, you watch:
Sorry, you might want to turn the volume down and use this as the audio instead:
Stanton swung the bat 120 times and hit 61 home runs. He hit 18 of the 19 longest home runs in the Home Run Derby, a competition that was supposed to showcase seven other players who were chosen for their ability to hit baseballs far. I know we’ve gawked at these things before, from Mark McGwire to Josh Hamilton, but this was different.
Giancarlo Stanton in the Home Run Derby is the infomercial that baseball desperately needs. It’s a perfect combination that baseball would have had to invent if it didn’t already exist.
* * *
In May, 2015, I watched Stanton take batting practice for four straight days. I watched him from 10 feet away, behind home plate. I watched him from the left-field bleachers, 400 feet away. He almost murdered little children with his longest home run, and everyone clapped and giggled. That last part is not hyperbole.
Something to know about the people who show up for batting practice is that they all know each other. They’re the ones who show up two hours before every three-hour game. If you add in the time it takes to get to the ballpark, they’re working a full-time job. Not all of them are ballhawks, but most of them are, with mitts and a need to risk injury for something they could have bought for $12 on the way.
Before Stanton took his first turn, one of the regulars kept yelling "HEADACHE!" at every ball that flew into the bleachers. Every single batting practice home run. "HEADACHE!" It's a warning that's distinctly less effective than "duck!" or "heads up!", but at least he was consistent about it. He turned to the person next to him:
"It's never the first home run ball that hurts people. It's the home run ball that comes down when the section is still buzzing from the first one."
It’s a batting practice truism, sage advice. All throughout batting practice, you can watch people buzz and titter at the home run that just landed behind them, only to have their backs turn as another baseball comes shrieking toward them.
When Stanton came up, you could tell it was him from 400 feet away. Dude’s big. There was a hum in the bleachers. He stood at the plate, waggling his bat, an obelisk of a man, waiting for the first batting-practice pitch of the day, waiting to deconstruct a baseball, atom by atom. Everyone shut up.
He bunted at the first pitch.
The ball rolled off his bat and dribbled up the third-base line. The regulars groaned. It was Stanton's ritual sacrifice, an offer to the old baseball gods. The first manager to ask him to bunt in a game will be fired out of a trebuchet into the next sport, but there he was, spending a batting practice pitch on it, just in case. Just in case.
Everyone laughed at Stanton’s batting practice bunt, but they all got quiet when he got ready again. He took a big swing, and ... line drive to right field. Line drive to right field. Line drive to right field. Son of a, dang it, he was working on his opposite-field approach. He ducked out, and the next guy started up. Nobody cared, even as he actually sent a few balls into the bleachers. A "HEADACHE!" accompanied every one.
Stanton came back in a minute or two, and that’s when it happened. It sailed on a parabola over the left-field bleachers, onto a causeway, landing in a tiny little replica of AT&T Park, where kids play whiffle ball. That’s where they put the playground because baseballs are not supposed to go there. The children were never supposed to be in jeopardy. There was no reason for anyone think they were ever going to be in jeopardy. When they designed the play area, someone had to have asked if they were worried about home runs landing in it, and everyone probably laughed.
Someone scurried away with the ball before I got there, but I’m pretty sure it was misshapen in a way that correlated perfectly with the golden ratio.
The headache guy stopped yelling his catch phrase. More balls flew over our heads, and we watched all of them, our heads turning like penguins following the flight of the first airplane they've ever seen, but for the next 10 minutes, headache guy repeated the words "I have never seen anyone hit a ball that far," in that exact order, about three dozen times. More homers flew into the stands, and somehow Stanton's low line drives were almost as impressive, reaching the fence without getting eight feet off the ground. Everyone was still jabbering about the one.
The show ended, and the Marlins gathered their baseballs, their buckets, their screens, and ambled off to wait for the game.
The headache herald never said "HEADACHE!" after that first home run. He had a new catch phrase, and he kept saying it over and over, telling it to anyone who would listen.
"I have never seen anyone hit a ball that far."
* * *
During that night’s game, Stanton was at the plate for exactly five minutes and 12 seconds over four plate appearances. They went like this:
- Six-pitch strikeout
- Soft grounder to short
- Three-pitch strikeout
- Soft grounder to short
* * *
You’ve been hired by Major League Baseball. You’re the new marketing czar. Congratulations!
Your first job is to sell a sport that allows its most amazing stars to disappear for days, weeks, or even a full month. Stanton went 0-for-4 that night against a fading Tim Lincecum, one of the smaller pieces that was left over when Stanton was carved out of a mountain. That’s what happens in baseball. Hitters go 0-for-4, and they do it often, even if it looks like a mismatch on paper. Several times this season, Stanton will roll into a city and leave without a home run. No one should be surprised.
Imagine that in another sport. Imagine Steph Curry passing through town, taking one shot every 45 minutes for three hours, missing them all, and leaving for the night. It's not a zero-sum game, but that’s is baseball's competition, and the odds are overwhelming that if you carve out three hours for Curry, he's going to do something Curry-ish before the night is over, even if he has a dreadful night.
In baseball, a player can just ... kind of ... you know ... disappear. We saw it with Stanton for two entire months this season. In May, he hit .173 with four homers. In June, he hit .231 with three homers. He struck out 63 times combined over the two months.
If you’re reading this, you know that baseball will eventually reward you. It’s a progressive jackpot, something that builds with compound interest. All of the hours of nothingness are part of the design, part of the appeal. Baseball is filled with nothing, then there’s tension built on top of the nothing, and it’s all released in a split-second.
It’s a sport that requires patience, in other words. You’re used to it. The other 40,000 people in the stands are used to it. But you have to know that asking someone to be patient these days is almost offensive. They’ll stare at you like you shoved a hangnail in their face and asked them if it looks infected. Patience isn’t for an era where almost everyone carries a glowing rectangle in their pocket that can show them almost every movie that’s ever been released. This isn’t a time that lends itself to "Hold on ... wait for it ... wait for it ... wait for it ...."
And your job is to sell a sport where a man can hit a ball 500 feet in practice and disappear for the five minutes he appears in the game.
Good luck with that.
* * *
This is how you do it, then. You have to hook anyone who is curious. You have to reveal the reward first. You can’t dangle the carrot, you have to let everyone gorge on carrots, dozens of carrots, all the carrots anyone would ever want. Shove them up your nose if you want, we don’t care.
It’s possible that you’ll go to a ballpark, wait around for hours and hours, and be rewarded with one of those. You’ll get to see one in the wild. If you want to go early and catch a few in batting practice, that’s also recommended, but I promise, there’s nothing quite like watching a long home run in the context of a quiet, genteel baseball contest that’s secretly filled with stored energy and uncontrolled explosions.
And when you get a player like Giancarlo Stanton in a silly exhibition like the Home Run Derby, you understand. Even if you didn’t have the patience to sit through a three-hour game before, it’s possible that watching Stanton do that up there will change your mind. Because it could happen in the game, you know. And the rewards that come with that, the endorphins that fall out of the overhead compartment, are absolutely worth it.
You can hear how special Stanton is during the Home Run Derby. It’s different when he hits the ball. It isn’t something that can be described with simple onomatopoeia.
It's not just thwack, though. It's not just a simple sound, bat on ball, that he shares with every other player. It's a sound that unexpectedly exists on multiple planes, simultaneously. It's the Tuvan throat singing of thwacks, improbably hitting two notes at the same time.
Okay, fine, it's just thwack, but it's a lot harder than the other thwacks. Like, holy crap, listen to that thwack. It's violent at first, but it’s almost soothing after 50 of them. And it’s going to happen in a game, when everyone is simultaneously expecting it and aware that it probably isn’t going to happen.
The Home Run Derby is a pointless abstraction, a joke, a pleasant enough waste of time, nothing more than a pile of fake baseball. Until you get someone like Stanton in there. Then it becomes the most important advertisement for baseball all season. Until the Derby, the conversation goes something like this:
Who’s one of the biggest stars in the sport?
What does he do?
Hits baseball farther than anyone else.
Can I see it?
Uh, hold on a second. He’ll do it at some point over the next four or five games. Probably.
It’s hard to visualize until the Derby, until that Derby, when the silly abstraction became a mathematical proof that baseball is actually pretty cool.
Baseball’s a hard sport to sell. There’s a lot of negative space between the colors, and even though you know that the contrast is the point of the whole mess, it’s harder to convince the uninitiated that they just need to be patient.
If they watch Stanton hit 490-foot blast after 490-foot blast, though, they’ll get it. It’s one of the purest events in sports, watching someone hit a baseball that far. Once a year, everyone gets a chance to watch it over and over and over again. It can be a little much. But then you get to Stanton, and you have a new catch phrase:
I have never seen anyone hit a ball that far. He’s amazing. This game is amazing. I have never seen anyone hit a ball that far. This is all so amazing. Over and over again, start from the top. I have never seen anyone hit a ball that far. He’s amazing. This game is amazing. I have never seen anyone hit a ball that far. This is all so ...