LOS ANGELES – Sometimes, it’s OK to eat dessert before dinner.
And so it was Monday night at Dodger Stadium, as a scalding 88-degree day gave way to a breezy, idyllic evening in baseball’s most beautiful cathedral and the game’s annual saccharine-fest, the largely made-for-TV Home Run Derby, gave way to a glorious celebration of young superstars and elders alike.
Oh, Tuesday night is the main attraction: The 92nd All-Star Game will feature Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ greatest lefty since Sandy Koufax, basking in both a lifetime achievement start but also a nod to his enduring greatness at 34. Seventy or so of the game’s greatest players will show out on network television. That’s where the money is.
Yet the Derby remains the event increasingly commanding fans’ attention, enjoying an eight-year revival since Major League Baseball switched from an increasingly stultifying round-by-round format to a “bracket challenge” and a countdown clock in 2015.
Monday, a little bit of magic broke out.
It culminated with the great Juan Soto, who through no fault of his own became the story of this All-Star Game, tossing his bat toward the Dodger blue sky after the darkest few days of his otherwise charmed professional life gave way to a Home Run Derby title.
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And perhaps more important, after dispatching 42-year-old Albert Pujols in the semifinals and 21-year-old Julio Rodriguez in the semifinals, the reigning king of the Dominican Republic.
The scoresheet says Soto beat Pujols, his fellow native of Santo Domingo, 16-15 in the semifinals before a stirring rally to top Rodriguez, the pride of Loma de Cabrera on the island’s western end, 19-18 in a final that resembled the closing round of a heavyweight match.
Of greater significance is the startling focus Soto displayed after his home club, the Washington Nationals, placed him on the trade block after revealing the details of a 15-year, $440 million contract offer that Soto rejected last month.
The revelation came just days before hundreds of baseball media descended on the All-Star Game and found Soto the lowest-hanging fruit, the game’s greatest hitter suddenly a walking trade rumor.
A somber interrogation commenced. It signaled the frenzy that could develop the next two weeks before MLB’s Aug. 2 trade deadline or, worse yet, the two-year death march toward free agency should the Nationals hold onto him yet not reach agreement.
Given baseball’s issues in recent months and years – slow-moving sport, 99-day lockout, general malaise – what happened next was almost a perfect elixir: The retiring Pujols, author of 685 home runs, stunning No. 1 seed Kyle Schwarber after his countrymen and colleagues pumped him up during a mid-round break. The nascent Rodriguez elbowing aside two-time Derby champ Pete Alonso, claiming his rightful place in the spotlight.
And Soto, showing the kid just two years his junior but years away from the professional peaks and pitfalls Soto has already finished, that he still reigns supreme – in the major leagues and the Dominican.
“It means a lot,” Soto said of a championship showcasing two of the game’s greatest players still too young to rent a car. “It shows you the generation we have coming up soon and that they have a lot of talent and ready to play baseball.
“In the Dominican, I know all the people are ready proud and praying for all three of us. Three Dominicans in the finals, it shows you it was a win for the D.R.”
OK, so Pujols only made the semifinals, but he’ll be perhaps most remembered from this Derby.
He called Dodger Stadium home for just five months in 2021 after an ignominious release down the freeway in Anaheim, but his Tío persona made him hugely popular in the clubhouse and throughout Chavez Ravine. In his final year, he was named an honorary All-Star and gamely volunteered for the Derby. It seemed like a mercy killing when paired against No. 1 seed Kyle Schwarber, especially after Pujols’ stint began with a Willie Mays-on-the-Mets warning-track power display.
During a timeout, players from both squads suddenly streamed toward him, waving towels and hyping him up and, as Soto put it, “giving him some power. We know his skills are going down a bit, but when you cheer for him and give him that positive energy, it can change.”
And he slayed the Schwarbeast, forcing overtime by eking out 13 home runs and then slamming seven homers in the extra period to prevail, 20-19.
Soto joked (we think?) to Mets All-Star Starling Marte that he should intentionally lose to Pujols in the semis, then went ahead and dispatched him.
“It was a special moment for him, and for ourselves, to see the legend go like that,” Soto says of Pujols. “I respect him a lot. He knows how much I’m proud of him and how much talent he brings to all the other generations and advices he gives to us.”
Suddenly, Rodriguez awaited. The two young men, Rodriguez said, used to play “Call of Duty” frequently (it’s a video game, for those north of the 18-34 demographic). Both are devoted to their families, with at least 15 of Soto’s relatives crammed into his victory press conference, including his irrepressible father, Juan Jose Soto, who was wrapped in a bear hug by Nationals manager Davey Martinez as Soto awaited the bonus round.
Soto trailed 18-10 when he called timeout with 32 seconds left in regulation, then pumped five home runs before the horn. With a full minute to erase the 18-15 deficit, he dispatched Rodriguez with four bombs that left about 20 seconds to spare.
Marte showered him with Gatorade. Juan Jose Soto gallivanted on the Dodger Stadium turf. The Dominican flag, it seemed, was everywhere.
The Puerto Rican pop star Bad Bunny presented Soto with the trophy. The Derby had delivered again.
And this time, the game’s most trivial pursuit resonated further, one legend feted appropriately, another quietly thrilled that after recent events showed how impermanent his professional life is about to become, he tucked away another title that can’t be traded away.
“I will be,” Soto says, “a Home Run Derby champ forever.”