Derby sluggers on level playing field
AT&T Park doesn't favor righties or lefties
SAN FRANCISCO -- It is fright night on Monday for Ryan Howard and the remainder of the seven sluggers who will take part in the State Farm Home Run Derby at AT&T Park.Howard, the Phillies' left-handed swinging first baseman, is the defending champion and will be aiming for a few "Splash Hits" into McCovey Cove, nestled just beyond the 25-foot high red-brick right-field wall. Is it an advantage that Howard, the reigning National League home run title winner, has won this once before? "Do I feel I have an advantage? No, not really," he said during a mid-day press conference to introduce the eight combatants. "You know, this event is just to go out and have fun. I think that everyone who's going to be out there is out there for the purpose of having fun. "As far as the advantage, I don't know what the weather is going to be like. It's a little bit colder here. The wind might be blowing in. It might be a good night to be righty. I was telling Justin [Morneau], we might have to work on that opposite-field swing tonight." The left-handers like Howard, Morneau of the Twins and Prince Fielder of the Brewers will have the Cove and that distant 421-foot right-center-field power alley to aim at. The right-handers -- Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels, Alex Rios of the Blue Jays, Magglio Ordonez of the Tigers and late addition Matt Holliday of the Rockies -- all have that more accommodating 382-foot alley and eight-foot high fence in left-center to shoot at, not to mention the giant glove hovering above the left-bleachers, precisely 501 feet away. Pujols, who has hit just two homers here against the Giants, said he doesn't anticipate the righty hitters having any more advantage over the lefties. "I think it's probably the toughest park in the National League for a right-handed hitter," he said. "I'm a guy who likes to stay inside the ball. I don't like to pull the ball too much. That 421-foot mark in that gap, it's just a long way. We're not going to shoot for that. To me, there isn't any advantage for the righties or lefties. It's a tough park to hit for both." And how about hitting that glove? "No, it's a long way. It's a long way," Pujols said. "With the wind, it's even going to be tougher. So I don't think any right-hander here is going to go out there and try hitting that glove. Just hopefully try to hit the ball out of the park, try to hit one at least." Last year at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, Howard had to come from behind in each of the three rounds to defeat third baseman David Wright of the New York Mets. In a battle of then second-year players, Ryan hit five homers in the finals after Wright led off with four, giving the Phillies the Derby winner for the second consecutive year. Bobby Abreu, now with the Yankees, set the single-round record when he opened with 24 homers on the way to a Derby-winning 41 two years ago at Detroit's Comerica Park.
Howard went on to lead Major League Baseball last season with 58 homers.Asked what it feels like -- fun or tiring -- to take part in the most highly-watched baseball show of the summer, Howard said "all of the above." "First, just the experience of being out there is different because there's no [batting cage], and for the guys who have not really been in one like this before, you just kind of feel naked," Howard said. "There's no cage and everybody's watching you and the first thing that's going through your mind is, 'Don't not hit any home runs, don't come home with a zero, because you'll never hear the end of it from everybody.' "You're laughing and you're joking around, but when you get in there into the later rounds and stuff like that, you start getting a little tired. It's a lot more physical than people think."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.