Cody Bellinger falls short in Home Run Derby, but relishes time with his father

The magenta-tinged sphere sailed over the flock of children in right field, rising and rising, on a trajectory to crash in the second deck of Marlins Park. On the mound, Clay Bellinger raised his arms in triumph. Inside the batter’s box, Cody Bellinger grabbed his bat by the barrel and went to meet his dad. They embraced as the final seconds of Bellinger’s first round in the Home Run Derby ticked off the clock.

The most memorable part of Bellinger’s night — which ended a round later, vanquished by Yankees rookie Aaron Judge, the eventual champion — occurred in that moment. His 15th blast of the round assured him a victory over Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon, and a chance to hug his father as they walked off the field together.

“That felt pretty cool,” Bellinger said a few minutes after his exit from the tournament. Outside the National League clubhouse, Bellinger pantomimed his walk-off swing. He could not replicate that magic against Judge. Winded from the first round, Bellinger managed 12 homers in the second. Judge bombed No. 13 with more than a minute on the clock, part of a fusillade that included a 513-foot blast and a breezy jaunt to the title.


Bellinger could only laugh at the display. He had not expected to win the contest. But he wanted to share the night with his father, a former player with the Yankees and the Angels, during his week as an All-Star.

“That was really fun,” Bellinger said. “I’m glad I did it.”

As the day began, some wondered whether the derby might overshadow Tuesday’s game. The newest collective bargaining agreement ended the 14-year experiment in which the All-Star game determined home-field advantage in the World Series. Cubs manager Joe Maddon and Indians bench coach Brad Mills — filling in for his team’s ailing manager, Terry Francona — indicated they intended to empty their rosters during the game, rather than manage solely to win.

In addition to the lowered tension of the exhibition, the derby featured a collection of the game’s brightest stars. One side of the bracket stood Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, the hulking, 6-foot-6 defending champion. On the other side was Judge, the 6-7 rookie who leads the sport with 30 homers in the first half. At a news conference before the contest, Twins All-Star Miguel Sano pointed toward Stanton, then Judge. “I see a lot of monsters,” said Sano, who was the runner-up.

The marquee matchup never materialized. Stanton fell to Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez in the first round. Judge survived a 22-homer effort from Justin Bour, Stanton’s Marlins teammate, to squeak into the second round against Bellinger.

A year earlier, Corey Seager represented the Dodgers in the derby. He hit 15 in the opening round, only to watch Mark Trumbo smash 16 in response. The defeat did not leave him embittered. Seager cherished sharing the stage with his father, Jeff, who still throws batting practice to his three ball-playing sons in the winter. “Having your dad throw to you, you can’t even explain how cool that was,” Seager said.

As the derby approached, Bellinger’s agent Scott Boras reminded his client that his production depended on his patience. Despite a propensity for strikeouts, and a desire to do damage at the plate, Bellinger still ended the first half with a respectable .342 on-base percentage. He knew when to swing and when to wait — which placed emphasis on his father’s performance on the mound.

Boras did not expect Clay to feel much pressure. A lifetime around the game prepared him.

“He’s a major leaguer,” Boras said. “Big stadiums are his home.”

Bellinger grew up following his father around ballparks. Clay played with his son after games during his three seasons with the Yankees from 1999 to 2001, and later in minor league outposts such as Columbus and Fresno. Clay tried to find time for Cody whenever he could, because Cody’s desire to hit “was constant, nonstop,” Clay said.

“We knew right away he was going to be pretty good,” Clay said.

Clay coached Cody’s team when they went to the Little League World Series in 2007. He assisted the program at Hamilton High, in the suburbs of Phoenix. In the winter, Clay still throws once or twice a week to Cody and his younger brother Cole, who was just drafted by the Padres, in the batting cage in their backyard.

On Monday night, after Blackmon went deep 14 times, Clay climbed atop the mound to warm up. He threw five pitches, aiming up and in, the perfect placement for Cody to pull the baseball into right field. His son targeted the bullpen, porch and second deck, with occasional shots into right-center field.

Bellinger swings with malevolence. At one point, he bashed one of the cameras near the batter’s box. He also laced a pair of balls toward a group of photographers.

“I almost killed them twice, huh?” Bellinger said. “Dad was throwing me in.”

Clay righted his delivery just in time. With 12 homers in the books, Bellinger trailed Blackmon as seconds disappeared. His 13th homer flew more than 440 feet, which triggered a bonus round. If a player hit at least two balls that far, they received 30 extra seconds. Bellinger pumped his fist when he realized his good fortune. Granted the additional time, Bellinger launched two more to earn a date with Judge.

Bellinger did not allow his confidence to over-flow after the early victory. He felt exhausted, and he knew Judge out-weighed him by nearly 100 pounds. Asked his strategy earlier in the day, Bellinger grinned and cocked his head to the side.

“I don’t know,” he said, before bursting into laughter. “I’m going to go out and have fun. I don’t care if I win or lose. Hopefully, I’ll hit a few. Whatever happens, happens. I’m just glad I’m here.”

Bellinger grinned through the obligations of the early-afternoon media session. For nearly an hour, the players sat at podiums as questions poured in from metaphorical left field. He accepted a hand fan as a gift from someone with a microphone. Standing nearby was a pint-sized reporter-in-training.

“Sup, bro!” Bellinger said to the boy.

“How many home runs do you think will win in the first round?” the boy asked.

“In the first round?” Bellinger said. “Well, Seager hit 18 last year, and he lost. I don’t know. Probably 20? That’s a lot of home runs, though.”

“Who do you think is going to win?”

“Hopefully, me. I don’t know. I think Stanton and Judge have a really good chance of winning.”

Sanchez took care of Stanton. It was up to Bellinger to take down Judge. The task, like Judge, was too big. After Bellinger got bounced, he grabbed his phone and wrote a pair of messages on Twitter. One was to Judge, congratulating him on the victory and deadpanning “you hit balls really far.”

The other message was to his father. Cody included a picture of them together after his last homer against Blackmon disappeared.

“Much love old man,” he wrote.

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes