WESTFIELD – What if…?
Since the coronavirus outbreak shut down Major League Baseball, MLB officials have pondered playing this season primarily in Arizona, possibly jam-packed with seven-inning double headers and potentially having home run derbies replace extra-inning games.
Home run derbies you say? It could be like All-Star week every day in MLB.
You might not have known it, but the Futures Collegiate Baseball League adopted a home run derby to break ties well before the Westfield Starfires’ first pitch a year ago.
“It’s something I really wasn’t aware of until I got into the league,” said FCBL commissioner Joe Paolucci, who took over the post two years ago. Paoloucci joined the league after serving as player, manager, and commissioner for the Cranberry Baseball League for 10 years.
“As a traditionalist, right off the bat it doesn’t sound like a great idea,” Paolucci said, “but players lined up on the field (along the baselines) talking trash in a fun (manner) during a home run derby has turned out to be a great player and fan experience.”
The FCBL adopted the home run derby prior to the 2017 season as a way to combat a rash of extra-inning games that were taxing players and fans alike. Currently, if a game is tied after the 10th inning, both teams participate in a home run derby.
“There were a bunch of games going way too long,” Paolucci said. “There was a 16-inning game and a 20-inning game. We play 56 games in basically 66 days. To play a 20-inning game, the players would get home at three, four in the morning and have to go back for another game the next day. It was too much.”
Former FCBL commissioner and league founder Chris Hall spearheaded the home run derby movement in the league, drawing inspiration from his son’s youth hockey league.
“It got to a point that we had so many extra-inning games we had to do something,” Hall said. “We could have went in a different direction by putting a runner at first or second base or loading the bases, but we wanted to do something against the norm or different … and hockey fans love the shootout.”
During each home run derby period, each team is given three minutes with two timeouts to hit as many homers off a respective coach or player from their own team. Anywhere between 1-3 players can participate.
A total of nine home run derbies decided the outcome of games in the FCBL last year. The first year, there were 16.
“If people know there’s a chance for a home run derby they’re going stay a little bit longer than if the game was going to drag into the 11th, 12th, or 13th innings,” Hall said.
The home run derby has already produced some memorable moments.
Just last July, Worcester’s Paul Coumoulos smacked 15 balls out of the ball park during an extra-inning home run session to propel the Bravehearts to a 7-6 win over the Brockton Rox.
“(Fans) love it,” Paolucci said. “It’s new. It’s pretty intriguing if you haven’t seen it.”
Wachusett Dirt Dawgs’ Zach Tower owns the home run derby record, having clubbed 17 homers to win a 2017 game at Pittsfield’s old minor league stadium.
The Westfield Starfires missed out on participating in nearly a half-dozen home run derby sessions in their inaugural season in 2019 much to the chagrin of their opposition. The Starfires celebrated four walk-off wins in the bottom of the ninth inning at Bullens Field, trading home run theatrics for late-game heroics.
“The Starfires pulled off some Bullens Magic with (those) walk-offs,” Westfield Starfires owner Christopher Thompson said. “Our roster is made up of many power hitters around the country and we are looking forward to giving our fans our first home run derby in Westfield.”
Although the Westfield Starfires finished their inaugural season at the bottom of the FCBL standings with a final record of 15-41, the Whip City’s young baseball club celebrated several milestones in addition to all the late-game drama.
The Westfield Starfires produced the 2019 batting champion (Thomas Joyce, .370 batting average), a top 10 home run hitter (Christian Walsh, 6 HRs, tied 7th), and a strikeout king (Jack Fox, 79 Ks, 1st).
The Starfires are scheduled to begin their 2020 season May 27.