The optimal conditions for an object set in flight to remain in flight are dependent on the following simple four items; air pressure, wind, humidity, temperature. At higher elevations, air pressure is lower, meaning the air is less dense, creating less friction on the flying object, and it remains in flight longer. Warm temperatures have the same effect of reducing air density. Humidity is the same again; the higher the dew point, the less dense the air is. Wind direction and speed are, well, wind direction and speed. The preferred conditions for an object set in flight to remain in flight are as follows: high elevation, a strong tailwind, humid air, hot temperatures.
The city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in July, aside from being barely over 500 feet above sea level in places along the Mississippi River, is perfectly suited to keep flying things in flight soaring. Temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees and the humidity can suffocate all who haven’t lived in the Florida or Louisiana swamps. More specifically, at the downtown address of 353 North 5th Street, home of Target Field, the Minnesota Twins, and site of the 2014 Major League Baseball Home Run Derby, weather patterns have lent themselves to a curiously dependable wind behavior: one that blows from home plate towards the METRO Blue Line Light Rail station, which sits just beyond the left field bleachers. Low air pressure. Good tailwind. Humid. Hot.
Did you know Minneapolis is the birthplace of the Home Run Derby? I didn’t, but everyone around the Twin Cities does. Turns out, the 1985 All-Star festivities at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome held a new event called “The All-Star Home Run Contest.” It pitted the National League vs. the American league instead of the individual event we know today; admission was two dollars, it did not air on television, and for as eternally expansive as Major League Baseball’s video archive is, they do not possess a single frame of footage from the event. It is remembered for a few quirky reasons: the first is that one of the kids shagging balls in the outfield, a graduated senior from Saint Cloud Apollo high school named Sean Moe, mistakenly (and instinctively) robbed the NL’s final batter, Ryne Sandberg, of a home run, keeping the NL’s lead at two. The second is that Twins player and fan favorite Tom Brunansky, who hit last, capitalized on that slim margin and belted four home runs, winning the competition for the home town American League. The event was small scale, and Derbys since have more prominently etched themselves into our memories. The very first All-Star week Home Run Derby has since been forgotten, but it is remembered by the state of Minnesota, its home.
In 2014, the All-Star game returned to Minnesota after a nearly 30 year absence, which was wonderful news to Twins fans suffering through an extended playoff drought and an excellent chance to show off the jewel that is Target Field to the greater baseball audience, with its yellowed limestone walls, downtown skyline just beyond right field and the shaking neon hands of Minnie and Paul. While Target isn’t known as a home run bandbox like, say, Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark or Coors, there was still incredible news flooding in in the form of the names signing up to launch baseballs into the night: the Blue Jays’ “Joey Bats,” Jose Bautista. Twins hero whose career had resurrected in Colorado, Justin Morneau. Cuban defectors and human highlight reels Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes (the defending champion). And the best news? After years of futile pleas for his participation, the real life Paul Bunyan and a man who broke a Major League scoreboard with a laser beam homer, Miami’s
Mike Giancarlo Stanton was in the field. Nine of the 10 participants were righties, and wouldn’t be subjected to Target’s cavernous right field and raised walls. Fireworks were guaranteed.
What I’m trying to say is the stars seemed aligned for something indelibly wonderful to happen. A field full of absolute mashers in a Derby returning to its prodigal home in a stadium that would cater to right-handed lumberjacks spending their evening mercilessly expelling baseballs from Target Field towards Saint Paul, Stillwater, Wisconsin. And I would be there, fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing the Derby in person.
It was those aligned stars that made reality’s horrible sucker punch land that much harder. The temperature at the time of the contest’s first home run was 54 degrees. Fifty four. It would prove to be, quite literally, the coldest day in the history of this state in July, and baseballs do not fly in the cold. The wind was doing its part by blowing at a stiff 19 miles per hour, however, slight problem; it was blowing straight in towards home plate, and baseballs do not fly into the wind. And the humidity? Oh, it was pretty humid. Humid enough to rain for five hours, and baseballs do not fly, nor do they do much of anything, in the rain.
It was that same sucker punch that made what transpired even more astonishing.
Minnesotans remember and treasure everything about their jewel of a state, like that Bob Dylan hails from here despite him barely acknowledging that fact whatsoever; perhaps when the rest of the country writes you off as the inhospitable hellhole Antarctica of the lower 48, a certain “me versus the world” group mentality takes hold. And Minnesotans, and I’m talking real Minnesotans (so not me, not yet anyway), are used to making the best of the worst, of curveballs or bad poker beats; when it stays under the freezing point for three consecutive months, uninterrupted, you develop a knack for that. Like I said, I am not yet one of those people, and I had been passionately angry about the weather for 48 hours before I walked through the Target Field gates for what is now known as Gatorade All-Star Workout Day. It’s a fancy-ish sounding way to say the All Stars are on the field, taking some hacks in the cages, the pitchers are long tossing, everyone is screwing around and having a good time (it’s very strange to see these mythic figures, lionized by Sportscenter or the Topps Company into immortality, out stealing each others hats or cracking jokes or chasing their kids around the field while the youngsters spill melted Icee syrup onto their fathers’ baseball pants). I was trying very hard to have a similar good time, but was full of impotent and pointless bitterness at the weather and a petulant “why today, how could this happen” attitude. I was fortunate enough to be close to the first base line for warm-ups, maybe four rows away from the American League in red, which was helping tremendously. The sun was out and the grass was emerald and former Tampa Bay Ray hero Scott Kazmir was warming up with newly former Tampa Bay Ray hero David Price. Yu Darvish and Koji Uehara were doing the same. Some unlucky soul was tasked with catching Max Scherzer as he unloaded .50 caliber rifle shots from his right arm. The Captain himself, Derek Jeter, in his last All-Star game as he retires, trotted out to great applause and handshakes in every direction. My camera worked overtime (photos down at the bottom, if you’re interested), but then the rain came and chased everyone off the field. It was brief, but enough to curtail most of the AL players’ warm ups. The NL then took their turn, and I fished through a sea of navy for the players representing my Atlanta Braves, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran. Freddie Freeman made it easy on me by shagging balls at first. When Freddie headed in to take some hacks, he got in one swing before the rain came again, a downpour this time, and Workout Day was over before it even started. At 7:16 pm, while the P.A. was bellowing “We hope to start momentarily,” the grounds crew slowly and soggily tarped home plate, again. As fans fled to dry safe havens, Luke Bryan’s ‘Rain is a Good Thing’ played out from the speakers, and the Jumbotron pacified the increasingly distraught crowd with highlights of the Twins 1991 World Series victory (the Twins beat my Braves that year, so between the pained anguish on Tom Glavine’s face and the Luke Bryan music, the evening was not going well). It was very cold and it was wet and I was angry and frustrated and lamenting what had become of an opportunity I’d dreamed of for decades. Hiding from the downpour, I was lonely enough (regrettably, couldn’t find any one else to go with me) to text a buddy in the left field stands asking if he thought God hated baseball, or Minnesota, or maybe both. He said he wondered the same thing.
The rain did not stop, but once ESPN finally saw it fit to get the sodden show on the road, Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier and hometown Twins hero Brian Dozier were the first offered up to the elements, both mustering a paltry two homers in the rain and swirling winds. I got angrier that they’d been robbed but the Minnesota faithful were enjoying themselves, cheering for Dozier happily. They were making the best of it, like they always do, even though the two hitters’ fly ball outs landed in pools in the infield and a vendor actually passed by me yelling “HOT CHOCOLATE, HEYAH!” Then something funny happened during Frazier’s turn at the plate, which a friend pointed out the timing to me the next day: after hours of rain delays and cold misery, right when Frazier finally launched the night’s first home into the left-center field bullpens, an enormous and vivid rainbow erupted over the city skyline. The fans happily acknowledged it as the P.A. announced its presence to the stands and for the first time that night, something fun had happened. It was as if the game itself and the tradition of the Derby were just as fed up with the soggy conditions as we were, and now they were going to fight back, Frazier’s home run a defiant paintbrush rebelliously recoloring the pressing gloom. It would seem that whether or not God was interested in the night’s proceedings, those mysterious baseball gods were indeed in Minneapolis, and so was newly adopted son Todd Frazier, just making the best of things.
Adam Jones and Troy Tulowitzki got the event going in earnest, sending balls flying across the stadium. Morneau conquered that long right field wall a few times, one of which managed to get wrapped up in the seal of Hennepin County atop the stadium flagpoles. Joey Bats put on the night’s first great show, launching ten home runs in his first round that landed almost entirely in the second deck. Defending champ Yoenis Cespedes could not get in a groove, and narrowly avoided early elimination before heating up in the second round and absolutely catching fire in the third. Watching him in person was the biggest surprise of the night, because Yoenis Cespedes is a freaky robot. He is not unlike one of those golf ball testing robots; his swing happens in the blink of an eye like a rubber band snapping and the torque generated on his bat by how fast he spins around is terrifying. It’s amazingly powerful and, more impressively, consistent, regardless of where the pitches were thrown. He is built for this competition (and it wasn’t surprising he went on to win it again; he may not lose for many years). No one had defended their Derby crown since Junior Griffey in the ’90s, but that won’t be what those in attendance that night will remember.
What they will remember is that Giancarlo Stanton is a massive human being. He is 6′ 6″ and it shows. When sportswriters use the cliché that some hitter is so big that the baseball bat looks like a toothpick in his hands, this guy makes it true. It does look like that. It’s silly to behold him waggle it over his shoulder as he waits for a pitch. He is country strong and his bat speed is otherworldly. He is likely the main attraction that 90% of the fans in attendance that night had come to see, and my god, he did not disappoint. His first swing was a home run that barely cleared the left field fence, but it was lofted so high into the atmosphere the crowd reacted as if it was going to scrape one of the hundreds of jets descending overhead towards MSP. He made a couple outs before launching another one, the first of the night (and the first I had ever seen) land in the third and topmost deck at the stadium. The crowd cheered and the NL All-Stars looking on danced and laughed at the show being put on. He somehow seemed to improve on each shot, with another bomb that was absolutely belted flying to straightaway center on a flat trajectory. No one hits home runs to straightaway center at Target, and if they do, the balls land on the grass berm just over the wall. This ball cleared the berm and cleared the towering batters eye before landing in a thin strip of seats just below the neon Minnie and Paul fixture. Absolutely no one has ever hit a ball there, and yet it was somehow upstaged a minute later.
With one out remaining, Giancarlo Stanton almost left Target Field. Click that link. Watch that video. It’s un. believable. Watching the Derby in person, you quickly develop a decent register of what is and what is not going to be a home run without Chris Berman’s call to alert you to greatness. It’s something like optical benchmarks, and you see what angle the ball leaves the bat and how quickly it passes little checkpoints on that trajectory, so the second the ball came off his bat, everyone knew something really batshit crazy had happened. The crowd, employing those same trained eyes, gasped really loudly. Normally, it’s pretty easy to track a baseball in flight as long as you see it leave the bat, but the gray murk overhead made that difficult and the ball disappeared (the first .gif in that link illustrates this perfectly). So we all looked up and ahead to see what patch of fans was going to stand up to catch the ball, betraying where it was going to land, if it ever did. The people who ultimately stood up were fans in that impossible third deck, and they were four rows shy of the Minneapolis night sky. A man in a blue rain jacket caught the ball once it returned to Earth (ESPN projected the distance of the shot at 510 feet, a Mickey Mantle-esque type blast), and on a normal July night in the City of Lakes, I cannot imagine where it would have landed. Stanton had to step out of the batters box while the crowd cheered and tried to make sense of what they just saw, while his NL teammates laughed with wide eyes and held their heads in disbelief (see the hilarious NL MVP Andrew McCutchen’s reaction in the second .gif in that link). Watching the replay, which I must have done forty times by now, you can see the ball erupt into the night sky faster than a launched missile, then disappear, and then, almost knowingly and defiantly, land just shy of a dozen flags lining the stadium lip, all blowing straight in towards home plate to irrefutably guarantee that, tonight, such a home run would be impossible. In the cold. And through the rain. I suppose you can learn a lot from a baseball about flying in spite of the elements.
The evening did have a lot of lows for its wonderful highs; the cold and rainy weather never eased up and the hyper-talented Puig didn’t hit a single home run, even managing a check swing out at one point. After Stanton put on his fireworks display, he got a bye to the third round, which sadly backfired when he had to wait almost two hours to hit again and he got cold and out of his rhythm. He hit no home runs in that third round, losing to rainbow-maker Todd Frazier, who hit one measly home run. Joey Bats suffered the same fate of waiting too long between at bats and was easily defeated by Cespedes. The final round was an anticlimactic second coronation for Cespedes as he only heated up further, trouncing the overmatched Frazier. I am quite sure most of America discussed how boring it was the next day at the water cooler. They’re not wrong, I’m sure it sucked to watch at home. And I woke up the next morning still furious about the weather, about my lost opportunity for what could have been, but time heals all wounds, including petty ones like this. The experience was amazing, and Minnesotans are used to making the best of the worst, even newly minted ones. Besides, now I can say I was there for the coldest Home Run Derby ever staged, even if it wasn’t the most memorable ever staged. Time will tell where Cespedes and Stanton’s performances will be remembered among the all-time standout Derby moments, but I doubt they will be very high. People will remember watching Sammy Sosa hit baseballs out the open windows of Miller Park in 2002 much more vividly. They’ll have fonder memories of Mark McGwire nearly hitting the Massachusetts Turnpike in ’99, and absolutely nothing that happened this week will rank within a mile of the redemption of Josh Hamilton at Yankee Stadium in 2008, but that’s ok. It may have been lackluster but I went. I was there to see it all. And this year’s Derby may be quickly forgotten, but it will be remembered fondly by the state of Minnesota, its home.