The beauty of Home Run Derby is that it does not require much in the way of equipment. A bat, some balls, a plate, a pen and paper to track home runs, and an open space is all you need to play.
The first piece of equipment used in today's Home Run Derby was a home plate fashioned out of an old Nike showbox. While playing as a youngster, my Dad and I needed a home plate. Cutting up the shoebox from my new Nikes seemed like a good idea. I cut a flat plate out of it and tried coloring it black with a permanent marker, but it ran out before I was finished. I threw my hands up and wrapped the whole thing in clear tape to make it waterproof. Then I colored the other side with red permanent marker. We still use the same home plate today (when it's not windy).
The first bats used for Home Run Derby were plain, black whiffleball bats. We didn't use tape on them at first but soon discovered that a few layers of tape on the barrel would strengthen the bat and make it easier to hit home runs. They taped bats in special ways and experimented with different materials.This strategic bat-taping would be a topic of conversation and debate for many years.
Over the years, we experimented with different kinds of bats, from ugly yellow ones to ridiculously overtaped ones. On one sunny afternoon, one of Mitch's heavily-taped bats simply melted on the sidewalk. We tried wood bats, Little League bats, and full-sized metal bats, but none were as effective as our taped plastic bats. Our most recent discovery, the longer and harder Easton ProStixx bat, has proven to be the best one yet.
The first balls we used for Home Run Derby were the half-holed whiffleballs that came with our plastic bats. After a few swings with our taped bats, these balls would deform and crack. We tried to save some of the dying balls by covering them with tape, but eventually, even those would be destroyed. We tried all kinds of balls, from larger balls with round holes to balls with a nearly solid surface, but all of them were inadequate for Home Run Derby. We began an active search for the perfect Home Run Derby ball.
While roaming the aisles of Academy, Rob came upon "smooth polyballs" made by ATEC. Completely smooth, hollow, and resilient, they looked promising. They were more expensive than the others, but Rob thought that these might be the first balls which could withstand our mighty bats. His theory proved correct. The solid ball kept its shape when we hit it. ATEC ball was quickly adopted as the official ball of Home Run Derby. After losing them down storm drains and in the backyards of neighbors, the new problem was replacing our perfect balls. They proved elusive, and we had to order them directly from the company if we wanted to keep playing. Sadly, these balls are no longer manufactured by ATEC (as of December 2005).
A couple of years later, Rob found a similar ball made by P&L Sports (now available from either Omni Sports Technologies or Axiom Sports). These balls were identical in size but made from a different kind (or different thickness) of plastic. When we hit them, they quickly and violently split into pieces. P&L Sports later produced a version of smooth polyball identical to our the ATEC balls. But one day, P&L Sporth changed their formula.
The smooth polyballs that P&L Sports manufactures were now "heavier for durability." Harder and heavier than the old balls (1.2 ounces vs. 0.9 ounces), the new balls were immune to the retarding effects of air resistance and ball spin. Any decently hit ball was probably a home run. While the farthest home runs with the old balls traveled about 140 feet, home runs with the new balls traveled 180 feet and more. The new balls were "juiced," and home run numbers went through the roof. Increased home run totals mean that rounds were interrupted for shagging purposes and took much longer to complete.
The latest development in the game is the discovery of Blitzballs. Despite the hexagonal pattern on their surface, they have proven to have the same weight (0.9 ounces), feel, and carry as our original smooth polyballs. Having restored a sense of balance to the game and now with a new player rating system in place, the game of Home Run Derby has matured and is now being passed down to a new generation of players.
To play Home Run Derby, you need a set of impact-resistant balls and a durable instrument with which to thrash them. The typical 28-inch, black, plastic specimen found in any toy store seems to work best.
Limitations on bat length and size help make the game more of a challenge. Longer bats generate excessive bat speed (Law of Angular Momentum) while thick bats increase the hitting surface. By enforcing the limitations stated in the Rules, Home Run Derby is more fun for everybody.
Strategic taping of the barrel seems to improve bat performance by adding weight, hardening the hitting surface, and creating a texture which "grips" the ball on contact and produces favorable backspin. Experiment with different types of tape. Athletic tape is cheap and works well. Keep your bat dry, though. Water tends to negate the gripping effect of the tape.
Real baseball bats allow for realism and strength conditioning but are relatively heavy, reducing bat speed dramatically. Broomsticks allow for extremely high bat speed but have a tiny hitting surface and are very difficult to hit with. Neither are effective for Home Run Derby.
The key to Home Run Derby is knowing what kind of hitter you are. Do you use the rotation system, the weight-shift system, or a combination of the two? For more information on these systems, take a look at How to Hit a Baseball.
Bat speed is the secret to hitting home runs. Keep in mind swinging quick is not the same as swinging hard.
You may have to adjust your hitting style to accommodate the park. To take advantage of a shorter fence, look for pitches that you can more easily hit in that direction and/or adjust your swing to hit the ball in that direction. Surgeon General's Warning: Home Run Derby may mess up your baseball swing.
Adjusting the angle of your swing also makes it easier to hit home runs. Those who have natural uppercuts will find that it's easier to hit balls high and over the fence. Those who have level swings will hit the ball hard but will struggle to consistently hit home runs.
Pitching also affects your ability to hit the ball. Whether you like high, arcing pitches or flat, straighter ones, be patient and wait for one you're comfortable with. It is the pitcher's responsibility to give you pitches to hit. If you're not happy, bitch.
Fisting and capping the ball greatly affect trajectory. A ball that is fisted (hitting the bat closer to the grip) will occasionally go out, but a ball that is capped (hitting the bat on the very end) usually produces unproductive topspin.
Weather conditions also affect the ball's motion. Warmer days with lighter, less-dense air allow for better carry. Cold air tends to harden the ball so that it doesn't rebound as much off the bad, and it also seems to slow the flight of the ball in the air. Rain has a tendency to weigh-down the ball and make it fly irregularly.
If you think we're losers, email Rob.