How does a player win the Home Run Derby? Follow these 10 rules.
1. Avoid the grand canyons.
Comerica Park is one of the most famous pitchers' parks -- or infamous, depending on your perspective -- in the big leagues, with no place for cheap home runs. Three hundred forty-six feet down the left-field line, 402 to left-center field, 422 to straightaway center. It's a little more reasonable for left-handed hitters -- 379 to right-center field, 330 down the right-field line.
It's not going to be easy for anybody to punch opposite-field homers, so you'd better focus on swinging at pitches on the inner half of the strike zone and yanking them down the lines. It's way too risky to try to go the other way -- although with these guys, those distances are very reachable. You look middle in, open those hips and let 'er fly.
You know one idea that would juice up this competition? Give points for hitting the ball in different parts of the park. You get one point, for instance, for pulling a home run, two points for going opposite field, and three points for going dead center. Four points for going upper deck. Say a guy is down five points, with two outs left; does he go for an upper deck shot, and then try to win it all with a blast to straight away center? I bet it would add something.
2. Choose the right weapon.
You've got to have the right bat -- and a corked one would be good. But since you can't do that, you go for the lightest one that feels comfortable, because you're going to have to supply all the power. Most of the guys throwing BP don't have much velocity; if they're throwing 85 mph, they probably should still be in the big leagues. You've got to have a smaller bat to generate more bat speed and drive the ball.
3. Bring your own batting practice caddy.
You're totally at the mercy of the guy throwing batting practice, so bring along your own guy -- someone who's consistent, who's not going to be rattled by the situation. The hitter's on an island, sure, taking batting practice in front of 50,000 people, but the same is true for the BP pitcher. Normally, they throw BP in empty stadiums at 5 p.m., and suddenly they're out there in the middle of the diamond, all alone, surrounded by a packed house and on national television.
Mick Billmeyer of the Phillies was the guy who threw to Jim Thome last year, and when I talked to him after that, he mentioned how nervous he was. You've got to have a guy who can handle it.
I would take Larry Bowa. He's the best, because he'll throw it exactly where you want it. You want it thigh-high, inner half, he'd put it right there -- like it was on a tee. He's the best pitcher I ever saw, because he was just so accurate.
4. Patience. Patience. Patience.
You see some guys go up there hacking at the first pitch, but remember how Barry Bonds does it -- and I don't think he's taking pitches only because they're not strikes. The more pitches he takes, the more rest he gets. If you're up there swinging as hard as you can, it wears you out; Barry always makes sure he gets a breather.
You can't let the crowd dictate when you should swing. We've seen Barry take five or six pitches, and the fans start getting a little restless. That doesn't bother Barry, and that's why he so good at these home run contests.
I'd make up my mind to take the first pitch. As I said, the BP pitcher probably is going to be a little anxious himself, have a little extra adrenalin, and the first ball he throws might have an extra 5 mph on it. There's no point in being overaggressive and then winding up jamming yourself because the BP pitcher is juiced up. Be patient; take the first pitch.
5. Plan your BP routine.
All the All-Stars take batting practice a couple of hours before the Derby, and you don't want to leave all your big hacks in the cage then. Just take a regular BP, but don't go too hard. First round, you spray the ball. Second round, do your usual thing. Third round, you start getting in home run mode, but don't go crazy.
It's hard, because the place is packed, and you know all the fans want you to go deep in batting practice. The hardest thing to do at the All-Star Game is to stay within yourself. And being in the same hitting group with a bunch of other All-Stars doesn't make it any easier. Say you're in the same group as Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada, and those guys are slamming the ball all over Detroit; it'd be tough to just do your thing instead of getting caught up in that, but you've got to do it.
6. Take your turn early.
I'd prefer to hit first in the home run derby, rather than last. That way, if you get shut out, everybody forgets a few minutes later when the Abreus and Carlos Lees start mashing the ball all over the place. And if you get hot in the first round, you put a lot of pressure on the guys who follow you. If you go first, there's no pressure.
Bonds didn't mind going last because he has always known what he can do. If he's down seven homers, he knows he'll hit eight. Barry can do that, but not many can. He's that good.
7. Find a happy zone.
You're probably going to have an anxious moment or two, because you're out there all by yourself. Like a guy shooting free throws at the end of a basketball game; everybody else is watching you.
You've got to try to tell yourself that it's just you and the batting practice pitcher, and you're going to enjoy it. If you take a bad swing, then step out and take a break -- adjust your gloves, fake the ol' I-need-a-towel thing just to buy some time.
They say that if you're on a roll hitting free throws, you should stay at the line and keep pumping them in. Same thing with the Home Run Derby: If you're going good, if you've got the rhythm, then stay at it. But if you miss a free throw, you step away from the line -- and along the same lines, once you take a bad swing, take a break. They can't rush you.
8. Do a little Derby preparation.
In the week before the All-Star Game, you're not going to go out and take a bunch of extra BP to get ready for some home run hitting contest. But it would probably help to take a few extra swings looking to go deep -- nothing too radically different. Maybe you make up your mind that with your last 10 swings, you're looking to go deep. That'll probably help.
9. Find the inner Larry Bird in you, if you can.
I'm not the type who could put on a game face for a Home Run Derby, but some people can. There is a story of how Larry Bird walked into the locker room before a three-point shooting contest and supposedly said something like, "Hey, which of you guys are going to finish second?"
I could see Barry Bonds doing that, just walking into the clubhouse and saying, with all the presence that he has, "Why are you guys even here?" He would be smiling and say it in a joking tone, but you'd know he absolutely believed it.
10. Keep the BP pitcher at a distance.
You don't want those guys too close; I like them far back, to give you more time to see the ball. It's funny, but with those guys who throw BP, they usually will start the year throwing from the dirt in front of the mound, and by the end of the year -- as their arms wear down -- it seems like they're so close that you might hit their fingertips as you finish your swing.
I'm picking Carlos Lee to win the thing. That's his game, that's the reason why he's in Detroit: He hits the long ball. He's a guy with an open stance, and he's got the kind of swing where he can hook the ball to left -- and in this park, in this Home Run Derby, that's what you're going to need.
John Kruk played 10 years in the major leagues and earned his way onto three All-Star teams.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is available in paperback and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.