Young power hitters often dream of competing in Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby and bringing a sold-out crowd to its feet to celebrate jaw-dropping, majestic displays of power. For Jacob Gatewood and Kel Johnson, two of the top sluggers in the 2014 draft class, that dream became a reality at the Junior Select Home Run Derby at Citi Field during the All-Star Game festivities.
The first-year event, which was held in between rounds of the major league Home Run Derby, introduced the national audience to tomorrow’s stars, and the rising seniors stole the show. While Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes won the big league event, the loudest applause of the night belonged to Gatewood and Johnson. They combined to hit 27 home runs on just 30 outs—though it must be noted they used metal bats.
The 17-year-old Gatewood won the event by hitting five home runs against five outs in the second round.
“It is the biggest accomplishment of my life,” Gatewood said. “I still can’t believe it. The whole day was a whirlwind.”
Gatewood competed for the American League, and Johnson, an outfielder from Palmetto, Ga., who had a Braves patch on his jersey, represented the National League. The teenagers joined the eight major league contestants in designated seats down both foul lines. Gatewood had a seat next to Robinson Cano and Johnson sat next to Bryce Harper.
With three decks packed full of raucous fans before the first round began, the players looked to the hometown host, David Wright.
“We talked to Wright before the derby and asked him if he had any advice to calm our nerves,” Johnson said. “He said ‘Well, do you have any advice to calm my nerves?’
“It made me realize that even for these major league superstars, it is still a normal reaction, so you just have to go out and show them what you can do.”
Johnson, who as an underclassman broke the East Cobb amateur program’s home run record, hit a few fly balls and line drives on his first few swings. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Johnson said he could feel the crowd support building for him. He then crushed an upperdeck shot and found his groove, finishing with nine home runs and three towering flies into the third deck in the 10-out first round.
“There is nothing like hearing the roar of the crowd, of 50,000 people, when you are hitting them into the upper deck,” Johnson said. “It was a truly amazing feeling.”
Less Take, More Rake
With a three and a half minute round, the players couldn’t pace themselves, so the 6-foot-5, 190-pound Gatewood employed an aggressive strategy.
“I took the first pitch and I told myself to let it fly on the next pitch, and I hit the next pitch out,” Gatewood said. “Then I said, ‘Now I’m ready.’ I hit four in a row on my first four swings.”
The Southern California recruit clubbed nine first-round home runs, including several upper-deck shots. Both players hit balls that were estimated well in excess of 450 feet and were among the farthest-hit balls of the event.
“I got to meet Miguel Cabrera and shake his hand after the first round, and he told me that I could really hit, which was the really cool coming from a Triple Crown winner,” Gatewood said.
That compliment couldn’t come from a more illustrious source. Cabrera has the second highest career batting average of any active player (.321) and is becoming one of the best righthanded hitters of all time.
The second round ended in rousing fashion, on Gatewood’s fifth home run. The Clovis, Calif., native received a standing ovation from the crowd, the only one of the night.
He was mobbed by his AL teammates giving him high fives and accolades, and he even got a bear hug from Big Papi, Red Sox DH David Ortiz.
Both players are attentive students of the game and soaked up their time around the big leaguers. They watched the final rounds of the major league derby from the field.
“Half the time I didn’t even look to see where the ball went,” Gatewood said. “I was just focusing on their swings. I picked up a lot.”
Gatewood met his idol, Troy Tulowitzki, another tall shortstop with tremendous power, and they have stayed in contact since.
“So many guys sat down and talked to me, Tulo, Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter,” Johnson said. “There were so many great takeaways for me about the right way to handle success and how to conduct yourself.”
ESPN and the MLB Network showed highlights of the event.
“I have watched the Home Run Derby in awe every year since I was five,” Johnson said. “To actually participate was such an amazing opportunity and I am so thankful.”
“It was by far the best day of my life,” Gatewood said. “It was surreal. When I was younger I always wanted to be one of those kids in the outfield catching but my dad told me you are never going to be one of those kids because you are going to be one of the guys hitting in the derby. He was right.”