Durham's Johnson Wins AAA Home Run Derby

Even though there was just one winner in the Triple-A All-Star Home Run Derby Monday night, all eight participants had a great time. So did the over 10,000 fans on hand for the sold out event.

There's no denying that Andy Tracy came into the AAA Home Run Derby as the hometown favorite. The left-handed hitting Tracy has become an absolute darling of the fans in the Lehigh Valley during his three seasons with the IronPigs and he has earned that reputation with his talent and tons of hard work. Tracy hit last in the first round of the derby and needed just two home runs to advance to round two and delivered four long balls to finish with the second highest home run total in the round, allowing him to hit third among the four second round entrants, just ahead of Durham's Dan Johnson, who hit eight first round home runs.

Hometown favorite, Lehigh Valley's Andy Tracy finished second to Durham's Dan Johnson in the Triple-A Home Run Derby Monday night.
Photo: Philly Baseball News

By the time Tracy came to hit in round two, he needed four home runs to guarantee himself a spot in the finals and he did just that to get himself into a match-up with Johnson for the derby crown.

With Coca-Cola Park providing left-handed hitters with somewhat of a launching pad to right field, it figured that the finals would feature two left-handed hitting players and the veteran status of both Johnson and Tracy also helped their odds coming into the derby. It looked like Tracy would run away with things when he got himself locked in during the final round and the ball started to jump off of his bat. When all was said and done, he had hit an impressive ten home runs, but he knew that might not stand up against the power-hitting Johnson, especially since Tracy himself had given Johnson something of a good luck charm prior to the derby.

"He [Johnson] had my dirty shirt on underneath," explained Tracy. Sure enough, Johnson removed his All-Star Game BP jersey to reveal one of Tracy's IronPigs batting practice jerseys underneath. "So actually, an IronPig won."

Both players complimented each other on their performance and both explained just how demanding an event like that can be. In fact, Johnson's hands were actually bleeding at spots from taking so many swings through both batting practice and the actual derby. Age may have played a bit of a role for both players - who are both over 30 - as Tracy admitted things went downhill fast just before his tie-breaking round in the finals. "I felt great, until I sat down and everything just tightened up," laughed Tracy. "That's a lot of swings."

"I though it was over [after Tracy hit ten home runs in the final round], because I knew how tired I was," said Johnson.

Johnson and Tracy were both hitting against IronPigs manager Dave Huppert, who did the majority of pitching in the derby. Johnson and Tracy both applauded Huppert on his pitching performance and Johnson suggested that after an outing like that, Huppert might wind up on the DL with turf toe.

As for the rest of the field, Toledo's Jeff Frazier and Omaha's Alex Gordon had also advanced to the second round, with Gordon hitting three first-round home runs and Frazier hitting two. Frazier (five total home runs) and Gordon (seven total home runs) were both eliminated in the second round, but agreed that the experience was a lot of fun. "This was great. It's amazing how into this the fans have been through the rain and every thing," said Gordon. "It was a lot of fun. I only wish I could have hung around longer."

The Bob Eucker award of the night would have to go to Albuquerque's Jay Gibbons, who was shutout in the first round, even being beaten by the two high school players who were part of the event. "Well, that was embarrassing," admitted Gibbons after his immediate exit. "I wish I had an excuse that would work, but I don't." J.P. Arencibia of the Las Vegas 51s, hit just one home run in the first round and was also eliminated quickly. Arencibia came in as the leading home run hitter in all of baseball with 25 round-trippers on the season and was one of the favorites, but was hurt by the longer route to the fence that right-handed hitters face at Coca-Cola Park. "I really thought I would hit more than that. Honestly, I hit more out in BP, but of course, not many people were around to see those."

While all of the players in the competition were competitive, there was also a jovial attitude among the combatants, who swapped stories and tips during batting practice for the event. The players also took time to include the two high school players who were in the competition. Westyn Baylor from Bangor (PA) high school and D.J. King from Nazareth (PA) high school took spots in the competition by competing in derbies among their peers leading up to the event. Both Baylor and King hit one home run in the first round and were eliminated, but the players applauded the effort of the young players.

"I wouldn't have known what to do if I had been in one of these as a high school kid," admitted Johnson. "I'd probably fall over. I sure as heck wouldn't be able to hit a baseball."

One thing that the high schoolers - who were permitted to use aluminum bats if they chose to - were able to provide the Triple-A players with was an opportunity to swing an aluminum bat again during batting practice. "Unbelievable," said Johnson of his time in BP with the metal in his hands. "It's amazing how far those bats can hit 'em. Make sure you hit 'em really high so it gets over the crowd, because a line drive would hurt somebody." In fact, one of the players around the cage may have been the voice of reason when he noted that balls were literally going out of the park and putting cars coming into the park into danger.

The field set-up at Coca-Cola Park offered fans a unique line-of-fire seating area from a screened-in "cage" between first and second. An entertainment stage between second and third kept fans entertained between rounds of the home run derby.
(Photo: Philly Baseball News)

As for the IronPigs franchise, they made the most out of the event and took advantage of every angle to provide fans with unique vantage points of the spectacle. Since only one dugout was being used by the players in the derby, the other dugout - the visitor's side - became a viewing area for fans. And the most unique view came from inside a large screened-in "cage" built between first and second base. From that vantage point, fans were directly, but safely, in the line of fire and had their share of incoming line drives from the combatants. Between second and third base, a stage was erected where a magician and steel drum band entertained fans between rounds of the derby and it was all capped off by a tremendous fireworks display following the event. The rain that delayed the event for some 90 minutes returned shortly after the hitting got underway, but few fans even seemed to notice and the rain provided a somewhat relieving effect from the high temperatures that were around all day long. Unfortunately, rain may wipeout the players' workout day on Tuesday and there is even a threat of rain for the game itself on Wednesday night.

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