Home Run Heroes: 2021 Season: Part 1
Home run heroes are a part of the Zeitgeist of baseball. When looking at baseball’s history, home runs are arguably the top memory everyone recalls first. From Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson and many in between and after. This is part one of looking back at the season just finished.
2020: The Pandemic Season
The records will show that 2020 was not played. There were no players, coaches, front office staff or fans. The umpires, ground crews, ushers or Hopspitality teams. Also, there were no reporters watching the game and reporting what they saw. For one easy reason: there was nothing to see.
The books will be absent of all of that and the reason will only be a footnote. A pandemic that has now killed more people than the 1918 Spanish Flu. When the season was finally ready to return, people celebrated that the stands could be at most 25% full. That would eventually become 100% attendance with masks going in and out of style.
But, through all of those changes and differences, baseball still remained a constant that people not only could depend on, but demanded it. So, even if attendance fell a bit because of restrictions on audience size, baseball re-captured some of the emotion and sentiment that had built up over the last year and a half.
Home Run Heroes
The game is filled with many heroes from different directions. One of the most common has to be the home run hitter. Nothing raises a cheer like the fans watching the ball sail over the fence/wall/scoreboard. Nothing raises spirits more than the ultimate hit.
The Hops have their own selection each and every year of batters that have stepped up to the plate. The Hops first home run was by Josh Parr on 6/16/13, the second game in franchise history. The last (so far) was by AJ Vukovich on the last day of this season (9/19/21).
The most home runs in one season used to be ten by Trevor Mitsui in 2015. But, playing 112 games this year, Andy Yerzy and Eduardo Diaz both surpassed it with 14. The home runs for a Hops career? 14 by Andy Yerzy. Andy matched that in 2021 alone and has now doubled it to 28.
This year is no different from any other year. Each year has its own collection of home run heroes to remember. Especially the ones you got to see.
2021 started on May 4th and ended on September 19th. In between, the difference from beginning to end slowly changed with promotions, injuries and newcomers that now seem like they have always been here.
The lineup that first day featured Corbin Carroll leading off and playing center field. With that first plate appearance, Corbin became the first Hops to swing a bat in a full season. The first Hops to take the plate after a year gone without even existing due to the pandemic. And the Hops couldn’t have picked a better player to represent the return of baseball in Hillsboro.
The home run race of the late 90’s brought the fans back after the cancelling of the 1994 World Series. In 2021, fans starving for baseball were more than ready for the game to come back. In stepped Corbin Carroll. And that first week held up to expectations. During that week, Corbin hit .435, two home runs, two triples, one double, scored nine runs, stole three bases, .552 OBP, .913 slugging percentage and 1.465 slugging percentage.
Let’s put that in perspective. If Corbin had played in all 120 games, those numbers for the season would be: 32 home runs, 32 triples, 16 doubles, 144 runs and 48 stolen bases. Obviously, the percentage stats would remain the same. But, you can’t judge an entire season by just one week. It wouldn’t be sustainable.
Still, the fan hungry for baseball ate it up. To them, Corbin was the second coming of the Mickey Mantle who didn’t trip over that sprinkler head back in 1951. So, why are we just looking at his first week instead of the whole season? Because that one week was all we got.
It happened during the doubleheader against the Eugene Emeralds on a Monday night. While slugging his second home run of the season over the right field fence, Corbin felt something tear in his shoulder. Corbin didn’t trip over that sprinkler head, he tore his shoulder up belting a home run and was out for the season.
Andy Yerzy: Returning Home Run Hero
In the last Hops Championship year, Andy slugged a walk-off home run in the final game to win the trophy. He already held the franchise record for home runs before he returned to the Hops. I remember when I first met Andy before the 2018 season started.
I talked to him and several others the day before the season began. Even back then, Andy proclaimed, “I’m a leader”. On 5/20 of this year, Andy returned to the Hops having filled that role since day 1.
In his first two games back, Andy hit two home runs. As a batter, he had grown. That first year, Andy was eager to swing a bat and send that ball flying as far as he could. Today, he is more patient. Waiting for just the right pitch. And sending the ball out of the park at a higher rate than ever before.
Home Run Heroes: Buddy Kennedy Fires on All Cylinders
Buddy Kennedy stayed with the Hops for 30 games, batted .315 and hit 5 homers or one every sixth game. But, as will all good players, Buddy was promoted on 6/21 to the Amarillo Sod Poodles where he is now hitting a home run every fourth game.
While here, Buddy reminded me of another former Hops hero: Daulton Varsho. I never got the chance to sit down with Daulton for an interview but I had several short conversations with Daulton after games for the “after game quotes”. Even in those short minutes before the deadline, Daulton was one of the most accommodating, smiling, energetic, passionate players the Hops have ever had. He was a joy to watch and talk to.
So now, Buddy has gone away to a better place. But, the Hops have another home run hero on the way from the Visalia Rawhide.
Home Run Hero: Eduardo Diaz
Promoted from the Visalia Rawhide like Andy earlier in the season, Eduardo Diaz had a different inauspicious start. In that game, Eduardo went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. Playing center field, he committed two fielding errors. Call it nerves or just getting used to a new environment, Eduardo was not happy with the first impression he was making. However, the report on Eduardo was that he had plenty of power.
The very next game, Eduardo hit his first home run (two run job) as a Hop and scored twice. One of his homers later on would prove unforgettable. His shot sailed over the Blue Monster in straightaway center. The Blue Monster is a 20-foot tall wall towering over the chain link fences. It had been only the second time I had seen that accomplished since I watched my first Hops game in 2013.
Eduardo had arrived and teamed with Andy as the Hops’ version of the bash brothers. For the next four months, the two would be in a home run race, easily breaking the franchise record for home runs in a season. As fate would have it, both of these players would also get their promotion to Amarillo. When the two had left (eight days apart), they ended up tied with neither one besting the other.
Home Run Heroes: The Next Bash Brothers
The Hops did not need to bring anyone else in. They already had the next version of the bash brothers on roster. Both Blaze Alexander and Tristin English were the next current leaders. They would end up tied at ten homers a piece. Curiously, that would have tied the old Hops’ season home run record if Diaz and Yerzy had not already broken it with 14.
In one game, Tristin English hit two home runs in back to back innings. That second home run combined with one from Blaze Alexander to be back to back home runs in the same inning. And, Blaze’s lone home run that night became only the third home run I ever saw clear the Blue Monster.
The fact that Blaze has power is not in doubt. In fact, he may have hit the longest tape measure shot in Hops’ history. In that game, his shot cleared the fence, sailed over the family berm (grassy area) and ended up in a softball field across from the parking area.
In early August, AJ Vukovich arrived and fit right in with the day to day lineup. Though he was not here long enough to make a great impact on the season, he made one while he was here. One of the youngest players on this year’s team, AJ played like a veteran several years older. It is no surprise that he is one of the Diamondbacks top prospects.
But, we mention him today for his home runs. In his short time, he knocked three homers out of the park. It will be a small sample. There is much more to come.
The Grand Slam
Of course, the home run of all home runs is the grand slam. It had been a while since the Hops’ had one by a Hops player. 2019 was the year. In it’s short history, there has only been one Hops’ grand slam on Ron Tonkin Field. That was back in 2016. Until 2021 when the Hops had two. In early June, Buddy Kennedy slammed one out of the park. In late July, Eduardo Diaz knocked one out to tie 2016 as the year with two Hops’ grand slams.
Diaz not only tied the record, he did it in the first inning with no one out chasing the starting pitcher before he could even register an out.
Home Run Hero: Nick Dalesandro
My favorite home run of the year, however, has to be by Nick Dalesandro. Not because it was the longest or had the highest bat speed. But, because of the sheer exuberance of emotion I saw when Nick crossed the plate.
It turned out to be Nick’s second homer of his career. Nick stepped up to the plate with Reece Hampton on first. A stolen base later, Nick sent the ball to right center where CF Brandon White lost the ball over the lights of the stadium. Bouncing harmlessly on the ground, it continued on past the converging outfielders to the fence. Reece, who is fast on the bases, scored from second before the ball could come back to the infield.
Having a two base lead, imagine his and everyone’s surprise when he turned and saw that Dalesandro had already passed third and was halfway home with the throw coming in to home plate. No one knew better than Nick that it would be close. If possible, Nick went into a higher gear and a few steps away from the plate realized he was going to make it. An inside the park home run. With arms raised high in the air and clenching fists, Nick’s feet touched home plate but it was the look on his face that stuck in my mind.
Rarely have I seen that much happiness and pride exhibited in one face. His teammates felt it too. Greeting him at or near home, Nick had half the team to go through on the way to the dugout. Arms still raised, high-fiving with a sense of accomplishing the near impossible. Am I overstating it? Not if you go by the emotion on Nick’s face when he realized he had done it.
These are just a few of the home run heroes for the Hops in 2021. Spencer Brickhouse came in with nine. Dominic Canzone added seven. Jorge Barrosa and Reece Hampton contributed four each. Axel Andueza, Ricky Martinez, Ronny Simon and Cam Coursey knocked two apiece over the fence. And Alexander Hernandez with Tra Holmes both sent a home run into the record books.
It was so nice having baseball back after a year off.