Harrisburg's Chris Rahl finally admitted he had a little strategy heading into Tuesday's Eastern League All-Star Home Run Derby, which more closely resembled a pinball game played out over a baseball field than a traditional slugfest.
"It was great, I saw some YouTube videos of how they'd set up the field and I thought it'd be a lot of fun," Rahl said. "Obviously, it was. I was just taking my normal approach and it worked out for me."
Rahl held on to win the unique event, totaling 340 points thanks to a home run that hit a crane (yes, a crane) beyond the outfield wall at FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading, Pa. The crane was one of dozens of targets positioned around the ballpark that, when hit by batted balls, earned bonus points. Rahl's crane shot gave him 100 extra points, just enough to hold off Richmond's Daniel Mayora, who hit 10 homers and finished with 334 points.
"One of those things coming into it, I just wanted to take batting practice like I normally do, just spray it around," Rahl said. "I knew that crane was out there, that it was something I needed to hit to get to the top."
To understand the Eastern League format, one had to forget everything he or she assumed about a home run derby -- this year's event, hosted by the Double-A Reading Phillies, featured 31 batters attempting to hit targets with a goal of winning $1,000 for one of five United Way charities. Each batter had two minutes to hit as many balls as possible, so while the event lasted a few hours, each contestant was under pressure to produce quickly.
The home run aspect of the derby was less important than hitting targets around the stadium, some of which were moving, like a driving range golf ball-collecting cart and R-Phils interns clad in American flag spandex body suits bouncing on trampolines. Hitting some targets were worth more than homers.
To put that into perspective, a party for some 600 fans was held on the infield dirt (behind protective fencing) while a guitarist played live music behind another screen on the infield.
"This is something you think about in your wildest dreams," Rahl said. "You dream it up, you never think you'd be a part of something like this, so I'm having a lot of fun."
Rahl, like many of the participants, said the fans walking around the infield were a little distracting.
"Not just the guitarist, but all these people, you're trying not to hurt," Rahl said of the partygoers.
Players earned 25 points for each homer, although they got 200 points for hitting a ball into the crane's basket; hitting the crane itself was worth 100 points. A woman in a dunk tank took a spill at one point when a ball glanced off a yellow target, and several balls clanked off the ball collecting cart.
Reading's iconic Crazy Hot Dog Vendor, who rides a stuffed ostrich named Rodrigo around the ballpark, got in the box to take some swings.
"It's been a while since I took some hacks. I've been working with our batting coach, but I don't think it paid off," the popular vendor/mascot said. "I felt like I had my eyes closed out there. I felt like I was on my ostrich. I was just happy for the fans. I was aiming for my parents, they were sitting behind home plate. I don't know if I got them, though."
The sold-out event and was held in partnership with various United Way partners. New Hampshire's Mike McDade wowed the crowd with several long homers and was one of the players whose jerseys will be auctioned for charity.
Batters took aim at a variety of targets around the field amidst fans. (Carl Kline/MiLB.com)
R-Phillies manager Dusty Wathan pitched to his outfielder, Leandro Castro, who finished with 269 points and briefly led the competition. Castro ended his round dramatically when he quickly waved at Wathan and called for one more pitch, which he hit out to left, dropping his bat as it sailed over the fence.
"He enjoys the spotlight," Wathan said. "This is the perfect event for him to show off. It helps that I've thrown BP to him quit a bit. He got hot there, it was pretty special. There's more pressure on the pitcher here because it's on the clock. We had to throw it over the plate, so the guys only got so many pitches."
Wathan, whose team is 47-42 at the break, was in awe of the event.
"I can't say enough about [Reading general manager] Scott Hunsicker and the Reading Phillies, it was a tremendous opportunity for myself and this night is pretty special," he said. "Tomorrow night will be equally fun. This is a really special place, a totally different environment than you'll see anywhere else. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised if you haven't been out here before."
Wathan said winning the All-Star Game, which returns to Reading for the first time since 1974, will be an added bonus to the week's events.
"I think it always nice to win. It's an exhibition, but anytime you come out to compete -- these guys are competitive, they want to win the game. You never want to lose anything, so it would mean a lot, especially for the home fans."
Phillies pitching coach Bob Milacki was impressed with Akron outfielder Thomas Neal.
"He's a very strong gentleman," said Milacki, a former Major League pitcher. "He can hit some balls a long way."
Bowie's Buck Britton hit the dunk tank and earned 20 extra points. Other batters, including guest slugger and former big league pitcher Ricky Bottalico, had the golf ball collector in sight.
R-Phillies groundskeeper Dan Douglas was tasked with driving the cart -- a familiar target at driving ranges -- around the outfield. Batters who hit the vehicle earned extra points, but Lehigh Valley's Mike Spidale (who also appeared in 13 games for Reading this year) was the only one besides Bottalico who managed to do it.
"It's a blast, I'm thinking about retiring and become a professional golf ball picker-upper," Douglas said.
Trenton's Brett Marshall was one of two pitchers who batted in the Derby after injured players were unable to participate. He finished with 66 points.
Bottalico, who also served as a television commentator, competed while wearing a microphone.
"I got no shot," he said, stepping to the plate before squaring to bunt. He managed to hit the golf ball cart on the bounce twice and finished with 128 points.
Of course, Reading fans were pulling for their hometown players.
"Anytime you take the field, you wanna win," said Phillies first baseman Darin Ruf, who scored 220 points. "We understand it's an exhibition game, but I mean, to go out tomorrow and put on a show for the fans, it'll be great."
As for Rahl, the pregame study of the Derby layout paid off.
"It was nice to just to enjoy ourselves and have a good time," said the Nationals prospect, a 2005 fifth-round pick who's batting .299 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs this season.
"It's all good fun. All this stuff is for charity and good organizations, so even if I didn't win I was having a great time. It was awesome."