In February 1998, a total solar eclipse occurred along The Earth’s equator, completely obscuring the sun to anyone along its path. It lasted about four minutes, a part of the Saros cycle 130 that repeats itself once every two decades. Totality is shorter and less frequent than the various partial and annular eclipses each year, but the spectacle rewards patience. Similar to how baseball fans’ patience was rewarded when the MLB Home Run Derby returned — after nearly a quarter-century— to its optimal venue, Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. As a viewer, everything aligned for a thrilling evening of bombastic entertainers who ramycackled 309 total home runs — together, the baseballs traveled a combined 26.2 miles. It was the most impressive marathon I’ve ever witnessed.
The home run extravaganza first exploited Denver’s 5,200-foot elevation in 1998, highlighted by Ken Griffey Jr. winning the slugfest. It was the first live telecast of the event and set the tone for what has become the most consistently entertaining All-Star event of any major sport. Each year, sluggers captivate audiences with their herculean hacks and tape-measure moonshots. The exhibition that is the home run never gets stale. It is time-honored, simple, original, sensational, and hypnotic all at the same time.
On Monday, participants in the 2021 MLB Home Run Derby took turns putting the sold-out crowd into terse trances, awed by the majestic flight of each baseball on an illusory path towards outer space. Each round lasted three minutes with one timeout, plus up to one minute was added if someone hit a home run 475-plus feet. That was not an issue for any of the eight competitors. The temperature was above 90 degrees at first bomb and the humidor was unplugged — a machine designed to restrict the altitude’s effect on the baseball. It was a home run hitting paradise.
The storylines surrounding each participant also made each screaming line drive and cloud-scraping fly ball more stimulating. Trey Mancini was competing a year after beating Stage 3 colon cancer. Shohei Ohtani was the rightful talk of the town and became the first pitcher to compete in a Derby. Hometown favorite Trevor Story was the Rockies lone representative. Juan Soto was the final addition to the field, despite being arguably the best hitter in baseball. Pete Alonso was an underdog even though he won the most recent Derby in 2019. Though Alonso powerfully defended his crown, there were plenty of other moments that made the night special.
In round one, Mancini kickstarted the festivities, besting Matt Olson by a single home run. Olson’s final swing nearly sent it to a tiebreaker but hooked past the right-field pole by what looked like inches. Next, Story upset Joey Gallo, punctuated by a 518-foot home run that sent his Colorado supporters into a tizzy. Soto one-upped him a few minutes later, parking a home run 520 feet into the upper deck in right-center. The skyscraping bleachers were the only thing preventing oncoming 22nd street traffic from area bombardment. After starting slowly, Ohtani strung together a late flurry, setting a Derby record with 15 homers of 475 feet or longer. His mighty swings tied Soto and then forced two sudden-death swing-offs. Soto eventually toppled Ohtani, eliminating the favorite, but not before the two faces of baseball shared a big hug at home plate. Salvador Perez quietly put together a notable round but was overshadowed by the star of the night, Pete Alonso. The Polar Bear blasted 35 long balls in his first round, three of which broke the 500-foot mark, each somehow more glorious than the last.
The sluggers slowed a little in the semifinals, their energy drained by the heat and altitude. Yet, Mancini, with A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” bumping through the stadium speakers, did enough the move past Story into the final round. In the other semifinal, Soto displayed a remarkable all-field approach; he swatted balls out to left, stung them well over 400 feet to center, and ripped ones into the upper deck in right. Unfortunately, he did not have enough puissance to overpower Alonso, who punched his ticket to the final round with two minutes left. Also noteworthy was their contrasting personalities. During Soto’s timeout, his Dominican countrymen all flocked to him with pats on the back and beaming words of encouragement. Alonso’s only company were the words of Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones, Pt. II” or Nas’s “Spicy.” He stood there during each timeout, bumping his head to the music, clearly in his own Home Run Derby dojo.
Where the semis lacked suspense, the finals delivered. Mancini swung at the fastest pace of any competitor, showcasing surprising stamina in his final round. The Coors Field fans also appeared to help his second wind, cheering the underdog to 22 home runs. That number was the same one Alonso had to beat to win in 2019. This time, Alonso looked momentarily vulnerable after only hitting 12 through the first two minutes. Then, after another timeout of solo head-bumping, Alonso locked in. After hitting one 509 feet into a hotdog vendor on the left-field concourse, Alonso rattled off dingers like he was swatting beach balls. The two-time champion launched six-straight homers to end it, with the applause building on each bomb until its collective crescendo for the title-winning tank.
Though some of the MLB star power was absent from this Derby — Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Fernando Tatis Jr., Bryce Harper, etc. — this year’s sluggers supplied over 300 home runs in just over two hours. It did not have ALL of the biggest names, but it had the perfect venue to amplify its colossal bats. In the four previous Statcast-tracked Derbies, there had been four 500-plus foot home runs. On Monday, there were 15. Also, 69 homers went 475-plus feet, more than in all regular and postseason games combined since 2015. Each round lasted only a few minutes but entranced everyone who tried to follow the cowhide shells streaking across the muggy midwestern night. Both children and adults chanted for their favored contender, rewarded by a home run hypnosis. Once the spell ended, it felt over too soon. We had just witnessed a common occurrence in its fullest form. There had to be more, our eyes barely adjusted to the suddenly relaxed sky. But it was gone. Long gone, like each battered baseball. It seized our attention and stretched our belief of what we thought a home run could be. Like a total eclipse, the 2021 Home Run Derby brought together the best of its previous events to dazzle, defy, and delight all who dared to stare directly into it.