When you watch a baseball game live, you have no idea what will happen next. The most consequential thing that could happen is a home run. When a home run is hit, then, it is exciting.
There are 2,430 regular season games plus about three dozen more in the playoffs, and even the most dedicated fan would struggle to see more than a couple hundred of them live. Consequently, we process a baseball season largely through highlights on our local news or on SportsCenter, or in GIFs and MLB.com clips posted to Twitter or Facebook.
In this realm, home runs are bad highlights.
A few days ago, spit-balling reasons Aaron Judge might not become the Face Of Baseball, I offered this: The thing he does better than anybody alive makes for bad highlights. In contrast, the thing that the previous Face Of Baseball, Derek Jeter, did better than anybody else was make good highlights. Now, that was spit-balling, and I don't think I believe it. But home runs are bad highlights. That part I believe.
Here is a perfect highlight:
If somebody shows you that highlight for the first time, you have no idea as the play develops what's going to happen. You might intuit, because it's a highlight, that an out will be made, but you can't foresee how, and the deeper the play goes the less likely an out looks. Mark Buehrle's kick is the first cool surprise; the second is his perilous cut in front of the baserunner; and at this point in the highlight you might even believe that you've seen what I wanted you to see. Only then does the truly unbelievable part happen, completed by the first baseman's unexpectedly highlightable catch, and punctuated by the umpire's call on the close play. You have to rewatch it to figure out what actually happened, and rewatch it again to figure out how. There are plays you can watch 10 times and still not really understand the sequence or the physics of, that you can watch 20 times without becoming bored.
There is no suspense to a home run highlight. If I show you a home run highlight for the first time, you will know as soon as the ball is hit what the highlight contains. The only suspense is whether the ball will go super far or go just a little bit farther still. You know the ending from the highlight's title.
A great highlight is like a magic trick, in which the magician pledges to do something impossible, does it in a way that surprises you, and manages not to fully give away the secret. How did Nolan Arenado make this throw? How did Kenny Lofton make this catch? How did David Wright use his bare hand?
How did Aaron Judge hit a ball so far? Well, the answer's pretty simple. He's stronger than everybody else and he hit the ball squarely. It's not that that's not incredibly impressive. It's just impressive in the way that a great clean-and-jerk or a record long jump is impressive. He was capable of an act of extreme strength and this is it. It's less like a magician doing a trick and more like a guy who can bang a gong loudly. Like, incredibly loudly, but still, that's the act.
Here is another perfect highlight, of Todd Hundley hitting a baseball over the fence:
This highlight is an entire three-act screenplay in 10 seconds: A normal man with an unusually large glove is living his normal life in center field when an instigating event (long fly ball) suddenly forces him into action. He must overcome obstacles along the way: Time (he must race to the wall before it's too late), and then space (he must plant his foot into the wall to make himself tall enough to reach), and then difficulty (he must catch the ball landing at great speed). His very large glove, casually introduced in Act 1, becomes crucial to his overcoming these obstacles. Then, just when you think it's over and the hero is safe, his glove fails him, and he faces a sudden unexpected obstacle that he must deal with on his own. He uses his bare hand to somehow save the ball as it rolls (or falls, or almost rolls, or almost falls) out of his glove. Brett Butler celebrates and returns home victorious, the hero's journey complete.
A home run, meanwhile, is such a short act of heroism that it can be described by a single "crack" of a bat. The batter does not adapt or adjust or face new obstacles along the way. He just lays into one.
Here is a perfect highlight:
— Angela Case (@angelamcase) July 18, 2017
Nearly all great sports highlights -- an incredible dunk, a clutch 3-pointer, a completed Hail Mary, a 98-yard kickoff return, a sensational tennis rally, a perfect uneven bars routine, the Freeze chasing down that dude, Ali dodging a flurry of punches, Messi weaving from midfield to the goal, Jose Fernandez catching that line drive -- have something in common: The act is contained in a single camera shot. The play happens entirely in front of you, sometimes in a flash and sometimes in a 20-second tracking shot, but always uncut.
But a home run has a cut. The batter hits the ball, we register that the ball has been struck well, and then the camera cuts to a different part of the field where we see the ball descend. I remember watching basketball played in sitcoms when I was growing up. There'd always be the camera shots where the actor goes up for a jumper, then the camera cuts to the ball landing in the net. Did the actor's shot actually go in? No. Did that Judge homer actually go that far? Yes, but something about that cut takes you out of the play. It breaches our trust, somehow, and cheapens the ball's flight, somehow, and makes the home run's velocity less awesome and terrifying than it actually is. A long home run is so, so much better to see in person. In person, it's one long and honest tracking shot.
There's a video on YouTube called Best Plays In MLB History. The title is a bit hyperbolic -- a lot of these plays are just OK -- but it's 15 minutes of dazzling defense, and 3.7 million people have watched it since it was posted last year.
There's also a video on YouTube called Longest Home Runs In MLB History. The title is more accurate -- distance is an objective measure, and these home runs really travel. It was posted four years ago and has just 300,000 views. I know that more goes into online traffic than pure merit, but this discrepancy makes sense to me. Every great defensive play is great in its own way; home runs are all alike.
This is also a perfect highlight:
also, when Jim Thome hit a home run that made Delmon Young react like so: pic.twitter.com/JlRqcvo49Z
— Joe DeMartino (@thetoycannon) July 18, 2017
That's a home run. This week I asked on Twitter for everybody's favorite baseball highlight. Before I quit counting I had 211 votes, and 75 of them were for various home runs. Clearly, there are great home run highlights.
Most of these votes were for home runs that were memorable only in context. More than half were postseason homers, and a healthy share were walk-offs in either the postseason or the regular season. I can't decide what to do with these. On the one hand, they're memorable highlights, even career-defining highlights, and home runs are the best thing a batter can do. On the other, the joy that these voters feel toward these home runs is mostly detached from the actual video of the thing. It's more about the line on the play log: "David Freese: Home Run (Fly ball)." The significant point was that the home run happened, not why it happened or how it happened or what it looked like.
There are other home run highlights that got votes. There were suggestions for good-story homers (Bartolo Colon homering after decades of disinterested athleting) and for freak-show homers (Todd Frazier homering with no hands on the bat) and for home runs that shouldn't have happened (Alex Cora homering on the 18th pitch of an at-bat). There were very few votes, however, for home runs just because they went far. Out of those 211 votes, 29 were for home run robberies, while only 13 could be described as votes specifically for home run distance or impressiveness:
Barry Bonds in the 2002 World Series (three times)
Manny Ramirez upper deck in Toronto
Unspecified Yoenis Cespedes bomb
Bo Jackson in the 1989 All-Star Game
A Wily Mo Pena line drive homer that "very nearly decapitated a fan"
That Jim Thome home run you just sort of saw
Those are all fun to watch. The one of Bonds is fun even though the video quality makes it impossible to see the ball at all. It's entirely the suggestion that a ball went super far that carries the highlight, rather than actually seeing the ball go far. It's the power of persuasion, and the power of memory. Just as in the highlight of the Thome home run a few paragraphs up, you never see the home run. You see the reaction to the home run. The power is all in the idea.
Among the home runs that were suggested as all-time highlights, as many were reaction highlights as they were home run highlights. Somebody suggested Jered Weaver staring down Carlos Guillen after a home run. Somebody suggested the David Ortiz home run that was celebrated by the bullpen cop. Somebody suggested the Jake Arrieta home run because it sent Anthony Rizzo into hysterics, and multiple people mentioned Joe Carter's leaping, fist-pumping home run trot in the 1993 World Series. Multiple people suggested Buster Posey's 2012 grand slam off Mat Latos, memorable mostly for the synchronized disgust of Latos and his catcher. And, of course, multiple people suggested Jose Bautista's home run in the 2015 playoffs, which is more a bat flip highlight -- or even a psychological warfare highlight -- than just a home run highlight.
After replaying that Bonds homer from the 2002 World Series a couple times, the broadcast shows a different angle, from the first-base camera well: Bonds swings, connects, stands to watch it for a minute, then trots to first. He leaves the frame and the cameraman seamlessly zooms in on Tim Salmon in the Angels dugout, who looks almost disoriented, and says -- you can read his lips -- "That's the longest home run I've ever seen in my life." That's the shot. That's the one that tells a story.
Home runs are made for this sort of reaction highlight. The fans, teammates, opponents and the hitter himself are all live in the moment, so for them the play has suspense. They see the full, uncut journey of the ball, and they can appreciate the distance (and the sound, and the atmospheric change) in a way that the viewer can't. And their reactions often have a multiplying effect, making the home run seem even bigger than it was. The best part is these reactions are, like all good highlights, unique. Every great reaction is great in its own way.
My basic problem with home run highlights was that they couldn't really convey how awesome the thing was. If you focus on the ball, and where it lands, and you try to put it into some perspective using your little brain and your tiny screen and your imperfect knowledge of the flight path and physics, that's probably true. But I was wrong. Delmon Young's face says it all. Salmon's face says it all. Bautista's face says it all. Judge is going to make a lot of faces do a lot of crazy things. I take it all back.