Commercial Home Run Derby a blend of novelty, nationalism


DETROIT - It once was a silly gimmick, a made-for-TV event filling an empty day of the All-Star break.

Last night's Century 21 Home Run Derby at Comerica Park, though, was more about pride in country than muscling grooved pitches as eight participants represented not their leagues, but their nations for the first time.

It was a unifying experience. After all, nothing says international harmony like a real estate company sponsoring an exhibition that cost $75 or more to attend.

Dominican flags waved and salsa music blared in the stands. Fans of the Netherlands striped their faces red, white and blue. Chants of 'USA' rocked the park.

It was like a World Cup soccer game with fewer athletes rolling around on the ground - demonstrating the brilliance of Bud Selig to promote the sport as No. 1 in all the world.

Just kidding.

The only flags that were waving were ones handed out by MLB to the players on the field. An international flavor existed only because the announcers kept plugging it.

Even the National Anthem, stretched by Cuban-born crooner Jon Secada, was more flash than substance (former Orioles infielder Lenn Sakata seemingly would have done a better job, but Hawaii doesn't qualify as international).

The attentive crowd of 41,004 was there to see big leaguers bash the baseball. Nothing else. It was all about home runs, not homelands.

The night's biggest ovations went to eventual derby champion Bobby Abreu, who hit 24 homers in the first round, and Ivan Rodriguez, because he plays for the host Tigers, not because he's Puerto Rican.

Perhaps there'd be more flag-waving if this event were held in Los Angeles or New York, where there is a substantial Latino community. The Motor City is more Arab-based, and unfortunately there were no big leaguers from Dubai available.

But patriotic intensity is incidental. This event was a public relations reminder that baseball has more international players than any other sport. That was its intent, and it hit its mark. This has been Selig's legacy: building the game internationally. It's a sensible plan, because America's pastime has fallen behind football in the hearts of the American masses. It's fallen behind basketball in the battle for American youths. American baseball fanatics are a shrinking, but loyal fraternity.

The sport, however, remains king in Latin America and has a wonderful following in parts of Asia. So why not ride the international wave into further financial prosperity?

There's no better example of the sport's new frontier than the inaugural World Baseball Classic, which was officially announced and detailed at a news conference yesterday morning. Sixteen countries will compete in the round-robin tournament next March during spring training.

It will resemble the World Cup, with the best major leaguers fighting to determine the greatest baseball nation in the world.

It seems to reason that the Olympics could have served the same purpose. Major League Baseball could have taken a brief hiatus in the summer - like the National Hockey League did in the winter - and let the countries battle it out there with pros.

But only minor leaguers were sent to the Olympics, while the major league season was preserved.

Now MLB - and its partners - has created its own international tournament, in which it controls the revenue stream.

So Selig wasn't exactly devastated when the International Olympic Committee announced this week that baseball would be dropped from the 2012 Summer Olympics.

"I don't know if, frankly, I consider it a blow," Selig said yesterday. "I'm sorry they made the decision that they made, but ... if you watch what's going on here today, you understand this sport is being internationalized. [The Classic] will have a more profound significance in the world as time goes on."

Read between the lines: Major League Baseball doesn't need the Olympics. It has taken its ball, gone home and created its own game.

It hopes that one day it will have its own soccerlike frenzy during international competition. That fans really will paint their faces and chant and sing and wave flags.

Last evening, in one of the most American of cities, that didn't happen. It didn't have to. It was a gimmick on top of a gimmick.

It served its purpose.

The Century 21 Home Run Derby was an hours-long commercial for baseball's big international event in March.

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