News & Politics

With the Home Run Derby Coming to DC, We Tried To Knock One Out of Nats Park

How did our intrepid reporter do? Well...

Nats hitting coach Kevin Long gives a novice some tips. Photograph by Evy Mages

In mid-July, some of the best sluggers in baseball will gather at Nationals Park for the annual Home Run Derby, part of the festivities surrounding Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. While most contestants make it look easy to smack 400-foot blasts over the wall, I’m here to tell you: It is not.

How do I know? Because one recent afternoon, I went to the park to give it a try. And due to the fact that—might as well be honest here—I suck, Kevin Long, the Nationals’ hitting coach, agreed to give me a quick lesson. Could I overcome my ineptitude for one swing and clear the outfield wall?

Long usually spends his time tweaking the mechanics of Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, but for me he kept it simple. First, he said, I needed to get into an athletic stance—feet square, knees slightly bent and springy. (Apparently, my dad’s old advice to “pretend you’re peeing on home plate” does not fly in the major leagues.)

After lifting the bat off my back shoulder, Long adjusted my grip. “From there, it’s really about how tight you can get your back hip and have it rotate,” he said. (Bryce Harper evidently has some of the best hip torque in baseball. “They say he’s kind of a genetic freak,” Long told me.)

But the real key to a powerful swing is syncing your hands with the lower half of your body in exactly the right way at the moment of impact. “Whether they’re Derek Jeter or Bryce Harper or Alex Rodriguez [all of whom Long has coached], they all get to that point,” he said. Finally, one last bit of wisdom: Swing hard. “Okay, I can do this,” I thought. I took a few practice hacks, first weak and then stronger. Once Long heard the bat make a whistling sound when I swung, he decided I was ready to hit a pitch.

I wasn’t.

My first four tries, the baseball sliced over the dugout: a distinctly unimpressive foul. “The ball actually left the ballpark!” Long said. “Is that a home run?” I would have found this joke funnier if I hadn’t already decided I was hopeless.

Around this point, it dawned on me that I was actually standing over home plate in a major-league ballpark, surrounded by 41,000 seats, showing my stuff to a man who casually exchanges texts with some of baseball’s biggest stars. My palms started to get slippery.

But then, after a few more whiffs, I finally connected. The bat made that satisfying ponk!, and I watched the ball soar up and up and up until it fell in a clean arc back toward earth. Finally it landed . . . just beyond the infield. What had felt like an out-of-the-parker turned out to be a routine pop fly. “Let’s go with 120 feet,” Long (generously) estimated. “We got another 215 feet to go.”

A dozen or so pitches later—some frantic lunges at the ball, a few more fouls, a close call with a line drive and an under-attentive bystander—it was time to go. I left knowing I’d never feel the sweet bliss of knocking a baseball out of Nats Park. But Long thought I did okay. “I heard some good whacks there,” he said.

This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Jackson Knapp
Assistant Editor