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Selling the sizzle: Home Run Derby X and growing the game

MLB has a new barnstorming tour, and there’s actually a kernel of fun in it.

2010 State Farm Home Run Derby
Nick Swisher at a much older Home Run Derby
Photo by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

If you hang around long enough, or honestly just read enough, everything comes around again. Barnstorming was a huge part of baseball in the early days of the game, and in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the legends of Negro League stars like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige began coming into their own on offseason tours of the South.

The professionalization of baseball, as players started earning enough to make the six-month season their only primary work for the year, led to the decline of barnstorming. But, as we say, everything comes around again, with MLB introducing a new form of the classic barnstorm yesterday with Home Run Derby X.

Here are the basics: four teams — the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and Dodgers — will have four players each competing in three cities in a bracket-style tournament. Teams get points for hitting home runs, with extra points for hitting “targeted” areas of the outfield seats, and their opponents get points for making catches in the outfield. The field is smaller than a conventional MLB diamond to allow for the fact that, well, current MLB players aren’t part of this. Each team has a “legend” (aka a former MLB player who is still in shape enough to mash), a current women’s softball or baseball player, a regional prospect, and an influencer.

I want to give MLB real props for this. Home Run Derby X is a compressed form of the game, and could be a really good way to pull in casual fans or those who think that baseball is too slow. The fact that the tournament is held in London, Mexico City, and Seoul gives the game an international flavor that’s helpful too. Baseball needs more gateways and fewer gatekeepers, and there are aspects of this concept that I genuinely think will help.

The introduction of female players is also a good idea. One of the reasons why baseball lags in the culture is because of how bad it’s been, historically, at embracing women, queer people, and pretty much anyone who doesn’t look like Rob Manfred. To grow the game, you have to change who’s welcome in it, and this is a solid first step.

If there’s a pitfall to this plan, its the focus on influencers.

There is this conflict in digital creation, where “influencers” often get their start organically — producing makeup tutorials or film reviews in their bedroom — to find a niche audience, and as their viewership grows, their content professionalizes. What an individual gains from that professionalization, the audience loses, since the content becomes more staged, more ad-based, and we often see the downside of an influencer the more they’re exposed. Hype House, the increase in eating disorders and body dysmorphia among users, everything James Charles has done since like, 2018... there are real flaws in relying on manufactured #content rather than organically creating something new and interesting.

How that filters out is going to be the key to whether something like Home Run Derby X succeeds or not. If the focus is on the skill on the field — good plays in the outfield, hitters being able to target and hit the designated spots while at bat — there’s stuff here that could really work. I’d like to see it expand to actual current MLB players, just because I’m more interested in seeing Giancarlo Stanton compete than Nick Swisher (the Yankees’ representative), but you can see a path to an event like this being successful.

Instead, if the focus is on being as viral as possible, and the filter of the entire competition is an Instagram live stream... I think you lose the things that make this event interesting. The core competency of Home Run Derby X isn’t the existence of the influencer on the team, it’s that the game is just different enough to attract new eyes, and just familiar enough that existing fans should be interested too.

Home Run Derby X is baseball’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s a fun, low-stakes way to engage a new fanbase. But if you actually go and watch the Globetrotters, yes, they pants the referee, and yes, they steal food from fans in the front row, but they’re also legitimately talented basketball players. It’s a show, but the focus of the show is still the core basketball skills. That’s the key for this rebirth of barnstorming. It’s a show, not a sport, but those core baseball skills need to be at the heart of it, or it’s not going to work.