By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) We have begun to reach that time in the Chicago baseball summer that we usually dread but kinda sorta assumed was inevitable.
Now is the acceptance point that the Cubs and White Sox won’t be postseason-ers (this is probably harder to swallow if you’re a fan of the latter). We’re relegated to soothing ourselves with appreciating individual performances both as an opiate for an immediate pride salvage and in hopes that they carry over to subsequent seasons when “the plan all comes together.”
Probably the most joy both sides of town have been able to bask in amid an otherwise cloudy present is their respective first basemen. Jose Abreu is a baseball terminator of the highest order. Everything that was advertised about him coming out of Cuba before he swung his first Sox bat was wrong — in that it appears to have come well short of preparing us and opposing pitchers for the hellfire he has wrought.
In a different scenario, Anthony Rizzo wasn’t unfamiliar entering 2014, at least not name-wise. Suspicion surrounding him was whether he would progress toward the elite prospect status he had when the Cubs acquired him for Andrew Cashner prior to the 2012 season. Would Rizzo bounce back from a really icky 2013 that had so many fans worrying he was just another in a long line of Cubs almosts and not quites? Well, yeah, he has if being second among MLB first basemen in wRC+ is any indication.
With 40 home runs between the two before July, both of their names have now emerged in one of the game’s most important annual conversations — who should participate in the Home Run Derby? I’ll admit a bit of hypocrisy here. The Derby is usually a nonstarter for me, as is most All-Star stuff in this and any sport. Highly trained professionals taking batting practice is meh, exhibitions are no longer necessary and special, and all that haterade.
I watch it because it’s the only sports thing on TV and because I enjoy lying to myself that I could hit a homer with a lobbed pitch. But if there’s a Chicago connection, I admit I’m a bit more interested and would definitely be more inclined to watch, for even my hard heart softens for the “Hey, that guy doing the sports tricks plays for a team in the city I live in.”
And the baseball gods just wouldn’t have it any other way if two sluggers representing the most tribal (and inane) of municipal rivalries had very polar opinions on Derby participation. One is all for it, and one … not so much. Because Chicago baseball talk just has to be that way, right?
“Home Run Derby is not something I’m too crazy about,” Abreu has said. “It’s a good thing, but I’m not really interested or looking forward to. I really wouldn’t want to do it. I did it in Cuba several times, and I wasn’t much into it.”
Jeez, man, you sound like Tim Baffoe after his walk-off Little League homer for the Kennedy Park Cardinals bested the Marlins. Abreu isn’t too big for a sideshow, though. His distaste for derbies is a (psycho)logical one.
“I change my whole mental approach when I go there,” he said regarding his swing. “It messes with my mind. I never go to the plate trying to hit home runs. It’s something that I’m blessed with, and it happens, but I never go trying to hit home runs, so I feel like when I have gone to these things, it has been not beneficial to me afterward.”
Understandable. The Derby has a reputation for screwing guys up for the second half of the season, and there even is some science that backs up the swing-killer theory. Any rational fan would presumably prefer 20-something homers in real games after the All-Star break than an otherwise forgettable night of slow pitch. But Paul Konerko and surely a lot of fans want it to happen. Ay, there’s the rub.
And then there’s the smiley, aw-shucks guy who looks like a photoshopped 10-year-old in pinstripes.
“I would love to do it,” Rizzo said of a potential Derby honor. “That would be something that would be really cool for my family, myself, everyone who grew up with me and helped me along the way. As a kid, you dream of certain things. One of them is winning the World Series, Game 7, bottom of the ninth. Another one is you’re always having Home Run Derbies. So I think it would be pretty neat.”
Neat. Then Rizzo drained a Capri Sun in one breath and signed 892 autographs. What about the swing effects, though?
“I would be able to get back into it,” Rizzo said. “My BP is pretty simple. It’s not like I’m trying to hit home runs in batting practice. I could, but I don’t want to. I think it would be fun, to be honest with you, but I’ve never done it, so I have no idea.”
So there is the torn fan and player selfishness. In an otherwise non-hardware season, is it nobler in the mind to find “Look at this special toy we got” more satisfying than three months of hitting that will sometimes contribute to insignificant wins? How does the player weigh not disappointing the hometown fans and suffer the slings and arrows of the inevitable column saying he “owes it to them” against potentially frustrating viewers between July and September while they’re looking for any positive in what should be some serious Chicago baseball doldrums?
The Home Run Derby isn’t something I get too jacked up for. But if one or — gasp — two Chicago players are in it, then I’ll probably be all “Ditka sahsidge Chicager I still call it Sears Tower.” And then immediately after he has shuffled away from his immortal uncoil, it’ll probably give me pause to think, “Uh oh. What did I just cheer for?”
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.