Celeb Derby a Buffalo reunion of sorts

Gronkowski showcases strength in dominating performance

By Kevin Prise / Buffalo Bisons | July 9, 2012 6:40 PM ET

The good-spirited nature of the Bisons 2012 Celebrity Home Run Derby could be seen before the first pitch was even thrown.

There was Bills great Jim Kelly, yakking it up with current Bills stalwart Fred Jackson, and even hated rival (yet Buffalo native) Rob Gronkowski. Then there were Jackson's kids, posing for pictures with their daddy and smiling - reveling in the ballpark atmosphere.

The only near-animosity on the night took place when Gronkowski was announced. The pro-Buffalo crowd displayed a mixed bag of emotions for the Patriots star tight end, with boos clearly heard among the wave of cheers.

But when Gronkowski crushed a well-hit ball into left field - clearing the fence in the left field corner with just a few feet to spare - the mixed feelings were forgotten. The crowd roared in approval, choosing to forget the time when Gronkowski spiked the ball in the Buffalo end zone on a cold winter's day.

All in the spirit of the event.

The Celebrity Home Run Derby Monday night served as the perfect opportunity for the Buffalo faithful to reconnect with some of their old heroes, as well as current local icons. Buffalo's role as host city for this year's 25th annual Triple-A All-Star Week made baseball the perfect backdrop for the event, and our local legends stepped up to the plate to thrill the Coca-Cola Field crowd.

"It was a lot of fun," Gronkowski said. "Had a blast. So many people out here, it was an unbelievable turnout."

And for Jackson, the opportunity went even beyond that. It fulfilled a childhood dream of sorts.

"As a little kid, even not playing baseball, it's something you've always wanted to do," Jackson said. "Be a part of a Home Run Derby. That's something I can definitely check off my bucket list."

They came in all forms - from senior members of the Buffalo landscape such as former Bills GM Bill Polian and NFL Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure, to young guns like Gronkowski and Sabres enforcer Patrick Kaleta. Going into the event, it was well-speculated that the younger folks would come out on top in the competition - rightfully so, as it would turn out.

But that didn't keep the veterans from giving it their all. Polian was seen swinging two bats in preparation, mustering up the strength necessary to do battle with the younger guys. When he stepped up to the plate - each batter had five outs to work with, while trying to get as many homers as possible - Polian performed admirably. The architect of four consecutive Bills Super Bowl teams, Polian made sound contact on a few balls, watching as they sailed in the air before falling just short of the wall.

No matter, though. The crowd made its approval known, and Polian was all smiles as he trotted off the diamond.

The results of the competition may be secondary to the overall message, but they are worth mentioning. A makeshift fence was set for the celebrities - about halfway between home plate and the outfield wall - and each ball hit over the 'celebrity fence' was worth one point, with true homers worth five. The celebrities were divided up into two teams - Hunter's Hope and Unyts - with each team's leading scorer after Round 1 moving on to the final. In the event of a tie, all tied would advance.

Before Gronkowski, three celebs were able to knock a ball over the fence - Jackson, Kaleta, and Bills CEO Russ Brandon. For Jackson, the sole homer was all he needed to make the night a success.

"I'm not a baseball player," Jackson said. "I should've practiced more. I just wanted to get one, so I can say that I did hit one."

A career .367 hitter at St. John Fisher in his collegiate days, Brandon was regarded as a dark horse in the event - and he started strong, making nice contact on a liner to center that cleared the fence.

A solid start for Brandon, despite some external pressure from a likely source - his kids.

"I have an 11-year old and a 10-year old who both play ball," Brandon said. "They were on me pretty good, and I felt a little pressure on that. A lot of their teammates were here."

But nobody could stand up to the Patriots tight end, who asserted his dominance with nine points in Round 1 - four 'celeb' homers to get warmed up, and finally the blast to left field that made the crowd briefly abandon its Bills allegiances.

In the final round - totals for the competition were cumulative - Brandon made his kids proud with a spirited charge, blasting 7 consecutive 'celeb' homers when he was down to his last out - including one that was initially ruled short of the fence, and then reversed. Down just 9-8, with a chance to tie Gronkowski, the Bills CEO came up just short - failing to clear the fence, and taking his 5th out.

With the title now clinched, Gronkowski took the batter's box and promptly added 8 more points - for a total of 17 on the evening. Nine points clear of his next-closest competitor (Brandon), Gronkowski cruised to the crown - channeling the same energy that he feels when he suits up for the Pats.

"It was definitely a little nerve-wracking going out there," Gronkowski said. "My heart was beating fast, it kind of felt like playing a football game."

And on his 5th out of the final round, the big man decided to have some fun. After popping the ball high in the air - just down the first base line - Gronkowski lumbered down the baseline with the ball in his sights. But in an uncharacteristic display from the normally sure-handed tight end, he couldn't handle the ball cleanly, and it fell to the grass.

"Oh, man," Gronkowski said, when reminded of the mishap afterwards. "I kind of wish I didn't go for that now, I'm probably never going to hear the end of it. I hope nobody got that on film."

No matter, though. Gronkowski left the field to a now-completely supportive crowd, and he went down the line for congratulations - getting props from Jackson, then Polian, and finally Brandon.

Gronkowski may have won the battle, but nobody lost - especially if you're judging by the on-field actions of the competitors. There was Kelly, holding court on the sideline, playing catch with Wednesday's All-Star Game managers - Marty Brown and Mike Sarbaugh. The Bills icon might as well have been back on the sideline at Ralph Wilson Stadium, especially when Jackson and his son joined in on the ball-tossing festivities.

Making the night even better? The knowledge that this special event took place in Buffalo, in front of a near-packed audience at Coca-Cola Field. For all the adversity the city may face - struggling economy, suspect weather, frustrating sports teams - residents embrace their hometown for what it does have: an intangible bond among all who call Buffalo home.

And the bond shines through loud and clear on a night like Monday.

"I'm proud to be from Buffalo, obviously," Gronkowski said. "I love coming back and seeing everyone. It's a great town, and I just had a blast coming here."

The celebs may not have set MLB scouts on notice with their performances. Then again, they didn't need to. By lending support to this midsummer spectacle, they made sure the event would resonate with fans as much as possible. Judging by the crowd's constant enthusiastic acknowledgements of their efforts, they did more than enough.

And of course, they all have found plenty of success in their chosen careers - just not on the baseball diamond.

You can take it from Jackson, smiling in his on-field interview after Round 1.

"Football is easier than this."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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