Hammerin’ Hank Shines in Derby Delight
By IAN WILSON
It was a long-ball competition that truly knocked it out of the park.
The 2023 edition of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) Home Run Derby, which was part of the circuit’s All-Star Game festivities, featured a competitive field of participants, a special scene between father and son, and that key ingredient of plenty of dingers.
The evening in Okotoks offered up the inverse formula that proved so successful at the 2022 WCBL All-Star event. Last year, the derby was a bit of a dud while the game itself was a classic and dramatic affair. This time around, the derby proved more compelling than the game, which the West Division won 10-4 over the East.
In 2022, half of the contestants failed to homer in the first round of the derby. A total of 22 round trippers left the yard, followed by another 11 in the final round, which was won by Nolan Machibroda of the Weyburn Beavers. Machibroda was responsible for a total of 15 homers during the event.
A wind blowing in towards home plate didn’t help matters at the spacious Seaman Stadium, which measures 330 feet to the left field line, 400 feet to centre and 325 feet to the right foul pole.
It was a friendlier breeze that greeted the 2023 power hitters. All the contestants managed to clear the fences, with Weyburn infielder Ryan Dauphinee’s three dingers being the lowest total from the first round. An impressive 64 homers were racked up by the opening slate of eight hitters.
Ethan Murdoch of the Swift Current 57’s emerged from the East Division field with eight bombs, while the pool in the West was much more homer happy. Hank Dodson – a catcher with the Sylvan Lake Gulls – muscled out 13 baseballs to gain an edge over Eric Rataczak of the Brooks Bombers, who had a dozen dingers, and hometown favourite Nash Crowell, of the Okotoks Dawgs, who registered 10 long balls.
Dodson managed to punch out another eight home runs in the final round. Murdoch chased the total as best as he could, but came up one shy with seven homers in his three minutes of hacking time.
When the dust settled from the batter’s box, the 2023 batters produced 79 long balls compared to the 33 that left the yard last year. Hammerin’ Hank Dodson prevailed with 21 dingers, while Murdoch’s two rounds gave him 15 in the derby, matching Machibroda’s overall 2022 output.
FATHER THROWS BEST
Even more impressive than the number of homers recorded in the slugfest, was the display put on by Dodson and his father, Drew, who tossed pitches to his son during both rounds of the derby.
Before the competition, Drew and Hank discussed their expectations on the Twitter feed of the Sylvan Lake Gulls.
“We’ve only been working on this since you were four years old … backyard whiffle balls to high school baseball fields, so I think we’re money,” said the elder Dodson, who traveled from his home in Greensboro, North Carolina for the chance to toss pitches in the derby.
Added Hank: “I agree, I think we’re dialed.”
Hank put the over/under on his home run total at 5.5 for the first round, while Drew expressed a more optimistic number of 10.
The duo watched the East Division batters do battle before Hank led off the proceedings for the West. That’s when the two connected for 13 bombs and ignited the Okotoks crowd.
“It was special. It was a good moment had with my father and it was pretty surreal to even be able to have the opportunity to show off my swing and show off how far I can hit the ball sometimes,” said the junior Dodson after the All-Star Game.
Despite the 12 homers from Rataczak and the 10 from Crowell, Dodson’s outburst was too much.
After launching eight more dingers in the final round, father and son could only watch in front of the West dugout as Murdoch swatted baseballs out of Seaman Stadium. The Swift Current product pushed for the tie in the final seconds of the round, but ended up stuck on seven.
Players from the West Division roster swarmed Dodson in celebration and Hank and Drew shared a hug and a smile. Special guest Matt Stairs, who was no stranger to hitting home runs at the Major League Baseball (MLB) level, then presented Dodson with a silver commemorative bat as a memento to mark the occasion.
“My whole baseball journey is really because of him. He introduced me to the sport, he’s coached me my whole life. He’s the reason I’m here and have a chance to play in the All-Star Game and be in the Home Run Derby,” said Hank of his father, adding he was nervous heading into the competition that he might not hit any homers at all.
Dodson, who hit four round trippers in his 24 games of the regular season with the Gulls, didn’t have long to celebrate his accomplishment. He was the starting catcher for the West Division and ended up scoring the first run of the game in the second inning.
The All-Star Game, meanwhile, featured some home run heroics from some unexpected sources. Trailing 4-1 in the bottom of the fifth, Lethbridge Bulls infielder Kalem Haney cut the lead with a two-run blast and outfielder Jeremiah Sanchez of the Brooks Bombers belted a tie-breaking two-run shot later that inning that gave the West a lead they would not relinquish. The five-run middle frame swung the game in the West’s favour as they finished with a 10-4 victory over their Eastern foes. Entering the exhibition contest, Haney had no homers on the season, while Sanchez had just two in 30 games.
Haney was named the WCBL All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) for his hard-hitting effort.
“I never really thought I could get this and it wasn’t really in my head but it’s pretty cool to get it,” said Haney of the honour.
“I might never get to do this again and I had a lot of fun … it means a lot. I don’t think anything could ever match this.”
Safe to say that all involved had a blast, even before the night was capped off with a fireworks display.