‘It’s an honor to be out here’: AFL Home Run Derby participants soak in opportunity to emulate MLB

Eight representatives from six Arizona Fall League teams participated in the Home Run Derby Saturday night. Seattle Mariners prospect Robert Perez Jr. took home the trophy over Baltimore Orioles prospect Heston Kjerstad. (Photo courtesy of the Arizona Fall League/MLB)

MESA – Texas Rangers star Josh Hamilton laced up his cleats and took the field at old Yankee Stadium, delivering what might’ve been one of the greatest performances in MLB Home Run Derby history on July 14, 2008.

On Saturday, the Arizona Fall League hosted its own version of the slugger showcase with eight participants representing all six Fall League teams with Baltimore Orioles prospect Heston Kjerstad, 23, and Boston Red Sox prospect Stephen Scott, 25, reminiscing the incredible night Hamilton made history.

“Everyone remembers that one,” Kjerstad said of the 2008 MLB showcase. “What (Hamilton) accomplished, hitting 28 home runs in one round and that was the old format, I mean it was wicked.”

Having watched Hamilton’s performance growing up, Scott hoped that one day he would be able to participate in the MLB Home Run Derby. While that dream has yet to become a reality, Scott was thrilled to represent the Scottsdale Scorpions in the AFL derby.

“It’s an honor to be out here. That is how I have been trying to treat it from the get-go, and it’s great to be out here with all of these great players and to be considered one of them from the Red Sox,” Scott said before the Home Run Derby.

But in the end, it was Seattle Mariners prospect Robert Perez Jr. who took home the hardware and was crowned champion.For Perez Jr., 22, one quality ensured his success.

His rhythm.

Perez’s rhythm propelled him to the top of the competition where he came out victorious, edging Kjerstad 11-10 in the final round. He could not have done it without the help of his pitcher, Junior Betances, a hitting coach for the Peoria Javelinas. Perez was fond of the speed and delivery that Betances provided all throughout the Fall League during pregame batting practice and asked him to be his pitcher for the derby.

While the players focused on winning the Home Run Derby title, they never lost sight of moments they shared with each other.

Related story

“I think every single player here is going to be in the big leagues soon,” Perez Jr. said. “Hanging out with the other guys is fun. It is a great group.”

On a night when the players are recognized on the Fall League’s biggest stage, the format of the AFL derby differed from the MLB, where eight participants go head-to-head in a versus style format. In the AFL Derby, however, participants competed in two rounds, with each player being given two minutes and 30 seconds with one 30-second timeout. In the second round, all players were given one minute and 30 seconds with one 30-second timeout to use at the batter’s discretion. The top two cumulative totals advanced to the finals for a last minute and 30 second round.

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andy Pages, considered by some to be among the best prospects in baseball at 21, believed going into the event with the different format from the previous derby he partook in, would be more difficult.

The stakes were high for Pages, who expressed before the Derby that he needed to find his consistency earlier rather than later.

“I have experienced a home run derby in the minor leagues,” Pages said prior to the derby. “It is a very different format now, and it is a little bit more intense.”

While hitting a string of home runs over the span of that time might seem to be a relatively easy task, endurance also plays a large factor in the participants’ ability to drive the ball over the wall.

“The main thing is staying loose and staying easy and having a little endurance,” Kjerstad said. “Two and a half minutes with taking full effort swings, you can get a little bit tired, so you have the timeout, so you just have to keep swinging.”

Added derby runner-up Kjerstad, it was a childhood dream fulfilled.

“Being in a home run derby, this is what we all do in the backyard growing up,” he said.

Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Keenan O’Rourke expects to graduate in May of 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. O’Rourke has covered ASU baseball for Blaze Radio.