Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
Rivalry. Of all the things that make sports great, nothing is more sacred than the unbridled competition of a great rivalry. Great individual rivalries have always elevated a sport and peaked interest in ways that nothing else could. Bird vs. Magic saved the NBA in the 80s. Ali vs. Frazier still represents the golden age of boxing. Brady vs. Manning, for better or worse, gave the NFL a wholesome storyline when the rest of the league’s storylines centered around concussions and domestic violence. We are almost twenty years removed from the last great individual baseball rivalry (Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa). We finally might have the one we need, and hopefully the one we deserve too.
Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge are great representatives for two things that should be attractive to casual and marginal baseball fans: a boom in talent and more home runs. For those that live under the proverbial rock when it comes to baseball, let’s provide a quick synopsis of what makes these rookies phenoms and potential rivals.
Aaron Judge is the biggest sensation sweeping baseball nation right now. Judge isn’t so much a right fielder as he is a behemoth who smashes baseballs with reckless abandon. Halfway through the season, the 6’7 monster leads the American League in runs, home runs, RBIs, walks, total bases, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and, by extension of the latter two, OPS. His autographed rookie card sold for almost $15,000 and he’s only halfway through his rookie season. By putting up maybe the greatest rookie season in New York Yankees’ history, it’s safe to assume that he will be the AL Rookie of the Year and may soon add Home Run Derby champ to his resume.
Cody Bellinger may not have made quite the splash that Judge did, which is at least partially do to the fact that he spotted Judge a whole month, but the Dodgers’ rookie has already vaulted to the top of the National League leaderboard with 25 home runs. (He’s currently one HR behind Joey Votto and Giancarlo Stanton in the NL home run race). He will also be one of the eight players vying for the Home Run Derby crown on Monday night and, unlike Judge, his team currently sits atop their division.
The hope for Bellinger and Judge is that they can wave the banner for what has been a great boom in talent over the last few years beginning with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, which has not caught traction as a rivalry unfortunately. Here are a few things that give Bellinger vs. Judge real rivalry potential: they play in the two biggest television markets in the country, they are both power hitters (and we all know chicks dig the long ball) and most importantly their teams are both legitimate World Series contenders.
There are a few things that give me pause before I crown this as a legitimate rivalry though. For one, even though both teams are legitimate contenders, the odds that they actually meet there still aren’t great. It’s also worth pointing out that both players need some kind of persona to propel the rivalry, which is a big reason why Trout vs. Harper isn’t a rivalry. (As much as I appreciate Mike Trout’s “Everyman” personality, it does not particularly lend itself to creating rivalries.) To date, neither Judge nor Bellinger has appeared in a national commercial or taken any opportunity to exhibit their off-the-field abilities. Hopefully, the Home Run Derby and the rest of the All-Star break will provide just such an opportunity.