Tuesday July 12th, 2011

PHOENIX -- No event captures today's age of divided attention quite like the Home Run Derby.

In between swings of many of the game's greatest active sluggers, there was an in-stadium announcer, relentless beat-heavy music, sideline antics from All-Star teammates and league-endorsed on-field tweeting.

No wonder a few Indians coaches have jokingly dubbed this the "head-down generation" -- more than once Cleveland manager Manny Acta has used that nickname in his tweets -- in reference to the constant phone-check that is so prevalent today.

Thankfully, the purest sound in baseball, the pure timbre of ball-on-bat barrel, was a regular and grateful interruption to the incessant, headache-inducing music and commentary, as was the father-son story of Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano winning the Derby while having his father, former Astros pitcher Jose Cano, pitch to him.

"I don't want to say that I won the trophy, I want to say my dad has won the trophy," Cano said later, gesturing toward the crossed-bat silver award. He added later, "Can we split the trophy half and half?"

Cano battled Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in what quickly became a two-man contest for Derby supremacy. The two AL East sluggers jumped out early -- in the first round when no one else had more than five, Gonzalez hit nine and Cano hit eight. In the second round, when no one else exceeded four, Cano and Gonzalez each hit 12.

KEITH: Round-by-round Derby analysis

Overall, Cano hit 32 total home runs, Gonzalez 31 and no other participant more than the nine hit by the two league captains, Boston's David Ortiz and Milwaukee's Prince Fielder. There was little commonality in the BP pitchers chosen by the two men: Cano used his father, who has thrown to him his whole life and continues to do so in the offseasons; and Gonzalez picked Acta, whom had never thrown to him before.

"He asked me to throw it inside and low," Jose Cano said. "I said, that's the way I throw you the whole year, so it's going to be easy for me."

It was a Derby of exceptional duration, lasting 3 hours, 5 minutes despite the average major-league game lasting roughly 2:50 and ESPN officially allotting two hours for the program. A three-way tie at the end of the first round contributed, as the contestants entered a drawn-out swing-off, as opposed to simply setting a tiebreaker such as one's season home-run total. But so did the fact that there were three rounds of 10 outs each. The event wouldn't suffer by reducing the competition to two rounds.

But the redeeming qualities of the Derby were its exceptional length of a different sort (Cano's homers averaged 433 feet) and its exceptional access (major-league home-run leader Jose Bautista, for example, immediately took to Twitter to explain his disappointing four-homer performance, "Can't deny it, the nerves got to me a bit! lets hope for a miracle so i can advance! was a lot of fun though!").

Of course, the charitable aspect of the event, with State Farm donating $603,000 to Boys and Girls Clubs and other similar organizations, was notable, too. As AL captain and Red Sox DH David Ortiz tweeted during Cano's 12-homer second round: "We're kicking some butt as a team so we can help some kids. That's all that matters."

Major League Baseball has the most comprehensive website of any of the major U.S. pro circuits but until recently had been strict about other sites embedding its video highlights. Not only did that restriction ease, but MLB also sanctioned and even encouraged on-field tweeting during the Derby. It set up tables with computers near both the AL and NL benches.

Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, like Bautista before him, tweeted his own recognition of an underwhelming performance: "I'm still in #BEASTMODE, but i was super slow in the Homerun Derby!! Man!!! It's way harder than it looks!!" Cano tweeted a shoutout to his hometown, "San Pedro de Macoris te estoy representando" (San Pedro de Macoris I am representing you).

Other non-participants chimed in, such as when A's pitcher Gio Gonzalez confessed, "My jaw is on the floor on how far Cano is hitting the ball." He wasn't the only pitcher cheering home runs, as Mariners ace Felix Hernandez showed his AL pride by noting, "We going to win the home run derby."

(Amusingly, Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who was not in attendance, took the occasion to live-tweet The Bachelorette, urging followers to switch from the Derby to the reality program.)

But the real-time updates allowed for quick diffusion of a potentially awkward situation. When the Arizona fans booed Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks for having been chosen to participate over their hometown favorite (chants of "Just-in Up-ton" were prevalent), Upton diplomatically tweeted, "Why are we booing Ricky? He's about to bang!"

These 140-bit insights certainly prevailed over the in-house mike manned by Diamondbacks broadcaster Daron Sutton, who awkwardly suggested Ortiz picture Orioles closer Kevin Gregg on the mound -- the two recently feuded in a game -- and later seemed to critique Gonzalez's swing by noting that he lowered his back shoulder ... only for the ball to still clear the right-field fence. A few tidbits to fill the gap between pitches or between batters was helpful, but constant noise wasn't necessary.

But the Twitter stunt worked because it wasn't inescapable noise, the way the music and on-speaker commentary was. Reading Twitter was a self-selecting exercise one could do in the wait between pitches; having one's eardrums invaded in the ballpark was mandatory.

Even Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson got in the action and answered fan questions and urged on Cano, saying, "Go Robbie bring out the baseball bat like Capone mata mata."

So for the plugged-in fan, there was unprecedented behind-the-scenes access, and for every fan there were monumental home runs in the dry air of the desert, which ought to have been the primary focus of one's concentration. Cano hit two home runs estimated to travel 472 feet, the first of which clanked off the gigantic Miller Lite bottle in right-center field.

"That was my favorite one," Cano said. "I'm going to have that in my mind for the next two or three weeks."

And so will the fans watching the Derby -- if, at that moment, their head wasn't down.

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