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Putting the arcade back into the Home Run Derby

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The Home Run Derby isn’t broken, but it should lean into its cartoonish roots like Triple Play 2001 did.

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“There go the family heirlooms.”

I can hear it as clear as day – the voice of either Buck Martinez or Jim Hughson piping up with a disappointed tone, triggered by a particularly well-placed home run I hit with Tony Batista in Triple Play Baseball 2001 in one of the game’s multiple unique Home Run Derby environments.

This one was a family’s living room.

It wasn’t the last time I cared about a Home Run Derby, but it was the event’s peak in my memory. That terribly reviewed video game was in part to thank for my fervor. It wouldn’t be a bad place to find ideas for the real event’s improvement.

My copy of Triple Play itself has long been lost to time as has the franchise on the whole. After an unremarkable run in the late 90s and early 00s, EA Sports rebranded their baseball franchise as MVP Baseball, a franchise which retains a cult following thanks to its exemplary design and undeserved early death at the hands of 2K Sports’ exclusive licensing agreement with MLB. Triple Play had the unfortunate trappings of many video games from the late-90s: it wanted to embrace technological advancements and work its way into the simulation world, but was still hedging its bets backwards towards an arcade-style product. The result was a glitchy, grainy product that is borderline offensive to the eyes in 2018, but the game’s arcade roots nurtured its greatest feature: the Home Run Derby.

The game’s options were simplistic at best: pick a few players to hit with, select your stadium, and attempt to mash as many dingers as possible. Those stadium options included each team’s ballpark, but far more importantly there were 3-4 “special” stadiums exclusively available in this mode. There was a Ren Faire-style stadium with knights, ramparts, catapults, and more threatening just beyond the fences. There was a generic stadium, tricked out with massive targets beyond the walls promising BONUS POINTS for a well-placed dinger. And, of course, there was the living room.

Gregg Clifton

If a tenth of the care that went into this stadium’s functionality had translated to the rest of the game, the MVP Baseball brand refresh might have never been necessary. A hit in nearly any direction was liable to elicit an environmental reaction, be it a shattered bit of china on the mantle or a disgruntled family parakeet whose nap was disturbed by a long foul ball from miniature Ken Griffey Jr. No single arcade element has ever gripped me as firmly since, and until the technology from Downsizing Honey I Shrunk The Kids manifests it seems unlikely to be a solution to the oft-professed doldrums of today’s Home Run Derby.

It’s true that homers are more common than ever. Their proliferation likely has an adverse impact on the Derby’s appeal, as has MLB’s crackdown on PED usage. There are more home runs than ever on the whole, but the power of the dinger has become the weapon of the people, not just the mighty few. While tonight’s oddly NL-heavy festivities are full of talented power hitters, the lack of storyline – kayfabe-aided or otherwise – makes it tough to imagine this evening’s festivities making an unforgettable mark.

Some might argue this mirrors baseball on the whole, and while it’s true the sport could do better to market itself, that “crisis” is as old as the sport itself. Baseball doesn’t need more bells and whistles, but the Home Run Derby does. Baseball is a novel, with rising action and lulls and a slow build to a climax that plays out over a full summer. The Home Run Derby is a Vine of a student dunking their report card on a plastic basketball hoop over their unsuspecting teacher’s head.

Look out Manfred, he’s coming for you
Youtube / TNTMan93

While the living room and the themed castle stadium are probably out of the budget, to say nothing of the discount Chuck Norris with a club looming in left-center field, some more feasible inspirations for fun remain.

Giant targets placed throughout the stands that yield bonus points? A good start.

Trampolines for a few responsible children of a rival team’s fandom stationed near the outfield walls? Let me sign that security waiver.

Metal bats for the final minute of each round? Of course!

Massive balloons tied up throughout the upper level filled with promotional items (or, honestly, cash) that provide a bonus if popped for both the hitter and lucky nearby fans? Come and get it, sponsors.

Even something as simple as a multiplier of value for every 25 feet beyond the fence or deck above the first level reached would be a small addition to add value beyond bonus time to the titanic blasts we’ll see gifs of tomorrow.

It is likely that Freddie Freeman and Alex Bregman are good people who are likable interpersonally. They’re the type of player you’d love on your baseball team. Even with the inclusion of Bryce Harper and Javy Báez, however, the field of eight for tonight’s Derby doesn’t scream character. More accurately, it doesn’t scream caricature. MLB’s Home Run Derby doesn’t embody the arcade, and if the characters aren’t going to be larger than life, the setting should be.

Let’s smash some family heirlooms.