The sky was angry that day, my friends. Like an old man trying to return soup at a deli.
I have a yearly tradition with my friends Brandon and Tom of making a road trip each season to different MLB parks in an attempt to make it to all of them. For 2015 we decided to forego the trip for the opportunity to partake in All-Star weekend in Cincinnati. Brandon and Tom’s dad both live in Kyle Schwarber’s hometown so I woke up the morning of July 13, 2015 in an unfamiliar Middletown guest bedroom hearing the Australian accent of Tom’s dad discussing the weather pattern for that day as he made breakfast in his kitchen. It wasn’t encouraging. Overcast, strong storms, and a slim chance that the annual Home Run Derby would take place.
Tom and I met Brandon at his house and carpooled to a Cassano’s Pizza for a quick lunch before heading to the Queen City. As we sat as the sole patrons in the restaurant, a sizable storm started to accumulate outside. The sky was as dark as I ever can recall one at midday. The wind was whipping and our hopes went from slim to almost none that we would get to see the annual batting practice.
I remember always looking forward to the Home Run Derby from year to year. I remember watching Junior Griffey, then with the Seattle Mariners, in Baltimore with the backwards cap hitting a ball off of the factory facade in right-centerfield. I remember being at a Buffalo Wild Wings with some friends and watching Josh Hamilton, then with the Texas Rangers, putting on an unbelievable show in Yankee Stadium. I was too young to recall Reggie Sanders and Ron Gant in 1995 or Paul O’Neill and Chris Sabo in 1991 so I had only seen one Cincinnati Red in the Derby in my youth with Junior, in his first season with the Reds in 2000. Until Todd Frazier made the cut in 2014, which I was giddy to watch in a hotel room with ordered in pizza on a work trip.
So, the 2015 contest already felt special to me. The Todd Frazier late surge in All-Star voting made him the starting third baseman for the National League as well as representing the Reds as one of eight participants in the storied home run contest. But this year’s contest was already going to be different. Major League Baseball had already decided to change the format of the Derby to try and add some drama and excitement and as the day and weather forecast progressed the rules were seemingly being changed by the hour in attempt to mold the contest to fit in the narrowing window of good weather of the evening.
After the afternoon storm cleared, Tom, Brandon, and I made our way down I-75 toward Cincinnati. We decided to park at Newport on the Levee because it was cheapest and we would walk across the bridge toward All-Star village and the ballpark. Coming up from the underground parking structure we made a stop into the Sports Depot in the complex in the hopes of finding some ponchos to prepare for the evening. It’s funny that we didn’t stop at a store on the way to buy one and waited until we got to Sports Depot where they would most likely be overpriced because as we wandered the store we bumped into a familiar face.
While perusing the merchandise with ponchos in hand I noticed Tom talking to someone we both knew. It was former Milwaukee Brewers infielder and current Toronto Blue Jay Travis Shaw. Travis had just been called up by the Boston Red Sox less than a week before the All-Star break but had not yet established himself as a solid Major Leaguer yet. He also happens to be from my hometown of Washington Court House, OH, about an hour North of Cincinnati on I-71, where he and his family, including his dad former Reds All-Star Jeff Shaw, lived for a majority of his youth. He graduated about a year after I did from Washington Senior High School and we were always friendly. Tom was a young teacher at the school and had Travis in some classes.
We sat and chatted for a while asking him if he’d come into town for the festivities to which he laughed and said he and his wife were just visiting the Newport Aquarium. While we talked Brandon kind of loitered around us, we introduced the two but did not mention Travis’ career. It wasn’t until we were walking across the bridge to Cincinnati that it came up that Brandon had met a Major Leaguer and had no idea.
The sky actually opened up and the sun came out. I remember it being beautiful in the early afternoon as the gates to Great American Ballpark opened and fans began to trickle in. We made our way through the mob of fans in the All-Star village just outside the park where we spotted another Major Leaguer. At the time he was a current Reds infielder and ended up being the team’s all-time leader in grit, Skip Schumaker. He was wading through the crowd in street clothes and cabby hat and we got in a brief hello before he faded into the crowd. This felt like a positive sign to me. Two MLB players in the wild and the weather was beautiful after the storm? Everything seemed to be coming up Milhouse.
As we entered the park, the weather forecast and the Home Run Derby rules still seemed to be changing rapidly and by the time Walk the Moon performed their pregame show and Ken Griffey Jr. threw out the ceremonial first pitch to his father the energy in the ballpark was already intense. There were pamphlets handed out at the gate with the new Derby rules but even they were obsolete by the time it had started so maybe it was the air of mystery, the anxiousness of being rained out, or the thrill of having a hometown fan favorite in the contest but it was a collective energy I have not felt before or since.
The rules were announced as such: The eight participants would be matched up in a bracket style competition. Each player would get a round of four minutes to hit as many home runs as they could. The pitcher could not throw the ball to the batter until the previous batted ball had landed. If a player hit two or more home runs longer than 425 feet, they were awarded an extra 30 seconds in bonus time to add to their home run total. Each hitter was also allowed a 45 second time-out in each round.
There were familiar rivals as well as past Reds killers in the field as former St. Louis Cardinal Albert Pujols now with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim advanced passed budding Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant in the first round. Todd Frazier was saddled with former Milwaukee Brewer and then current Texas Ranger, as well as two-time Home Run Derby champion, Prince Fielder. The outlook wasn’t brilliant for Frazier as Fielder tied Dodgers’ Joc Pederson for the most homers in the first round with 13. But Frazier fed off the energy of the crowd and having earned bonus time defeated Fielder by hitting the newest high point of 14.
Frazier was up against the wall again with leading All-Star vote getter and eventual American League MVP winner in 2015 Josh Donaldson. The Bringer of Rain led off the round a bit slowly but ended up hitting nine. Todd Frazier’s brother Charlie took the mound and began to get Todd into a rhythm and with the clock running to 00:00 Todd’s 10th home run landed over the fence to advance to the final.
I’ve been to four playoff games at Great American Ballpark and when the tenth Frazier home run landed, GABP was as loud as I’ve ever heard it. As the crowd roared when Joc Pederson downed old foe Albert Pujols in the following round, Frazier was preparing for a tense final round. One thing that stuck out in my mind was my friend Brandon was in the seat to my right and a woman who was slightly older than me but was a stranger to start the night sat in the seat to my right. We were seated the fifth row of section 533 on the first base side. It provided a fantastic view of every fly ball but the woman next to me squealed in anticipation with every ball off of Frazier’s bat.
I commented to Brandon that I thought that Pederson might be at a bit of a disadvantage having to go first in the final round because he had less time between his two rounds. He made me a fool by tying Frazier’s record in the contest of 14 home runs in a round. The crowd seemed to deflate ever so slightly. Frazier would have to beat his own round record to win.
Charlie Frazier again took the mound with his brother’s same number 21 on his jersey. Todd stepped into the right-handed batter’s box and the crowd gave him a nice ovation albeit with a bit of resignation in it. Within the first minute of his round, Frazier hit 4 home runs and the crowd began to stir a bit more. But as Todd lost steam in his second minute, only hitting 2 more, so too did the crowd. The odds of Frazier winning seemed as slim as the hopes of getting the Derby in had seemed as Tom, Brandon, and I had watched the storm rage in Cassano’s that afternoon.
But after his allotted time-out, Frazier and the crowd both kipped up. Much like Shawn Michaels after a flying forearm, Frazier metaphorically leapt from his back to his feet and began to tune up the band and deliver a swift kick into Joc Pederson’s jaw. He hit five home runs giving him 11 with one-minute remaining to catch up to Pederson’s 14.
My most vivid memory of the whole evening is when Frazier hit his 13th with just over 30 seconds remaining. The young lady who sat to my right had been a nervous ball of energy that entire round. As the ball left Frazier’s bat and sailed toward the seats, she let out a shriek of “Oh my God!” at a pitch I believe is only audible by select humans and most canines. But what makes it so memorable for me was that she turned to her left and clenched my right bicep with a death grip akin to going down the second drop into the tunnel on The Beast at King’s Island. Mind you, we had merely exchanged pleasantries and her occasional apology for bumping me as she cheered. But she grabbed my arm and clung for stability as the ball cut through the Cincinnati night.
After it landed, she looked mortified as she released me from her kung-fu grip apologizing profusely and clearly embarrassed. I assured her that all was well and quickly turned my attention back to the field. I have been happily married since 2013, but this was the highlight of my Home Run Derby recollection for a simple reason. She and I were both in the throngs of an unbelievable moment for our fandom. There was something so wonderful to me that a 29-year-old stranger with 34 oz. piece of maple wood could elicit such joy and emotion that a stranger clings to another total stranger almost unconsciously so that they are sharing a genuine moment of unspeakable happiness. This is the beauty of sports fandom to me. It binds us in a way that not much else can. It’s a familial bond with perfect strangers, a bond that is forged by cheering for the success of other strangers.
My wife, who’s not a sports fan, loves to quote the old Jerry Seinfeld bit about how cheering for sports is basically just cheering for laundry. “Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it. You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player but if he goes to another team, they boo him! This is the same human being in a different shirt and they hate him now!”
While I can’t argue that that is entirely false in some more than others, what made this night more special was that Cincinnati was invested in Todd Frazier. He had the awesome relationship with batboy Teddy Kramer that warmed everyone’s hearts, he always seemed to be having fun on the field, he hit a home run in a game without having a hand on his bat, and who could forget that he was a Little League World Series champion that got to meet Derek Jeter? He was an easy guy to root for in those days and the city legitimately wanted him to succeed here, not just for himself but for Cincinnati as a whole and the entirety of the Reds organization.
Back to the action. Frazier tied Pederson at 14 homers with 11 seconds to go but his attempts fell short in regulation. He had luckily banked the 30 seconds of bonus time, but he wouldn’t need much. The first pitch from Charlie was deposited into the left field seats. As soon as it left the bat there was a sound that I can never really find words to describe. It was like a jet airliner taking off, a slow build until the ball landed and then an eruption unlike anything I’d ever heard. I have to admit, the postgame celebration is a bit blurry in my mind from there. I remember leaping into the air and yelling as the ball landed but the next few minutes are a haze of just warm happiness like a hug from an old friend.
When I think about my favorite Reds memories this will always be amongst them. The first game I attended was won on a walk-off home run. I was in right field on Clinchmas. There are so many fantastic feelings and memories that this team has given me over the years. But those are all stories for different articles. I hope you’ve enjoyed my recollection of the 2015 Home Run Derby and I’d love to hear your stories as well!