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Derby sluggers target glove

St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols said he'll try to smack a home run off the glove at AT&T Park in San Francisco.Associated Press
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols said he'll try to smack a home run off the glove at AT&T Park in San Francisco.Associated Press (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Andrew Baggarly San Jose Mercury News

The splash home run counter will spin faster than a slot machine. The kayak and dinghy club will fight for bobbing baseballs like sharks to chum.

But the real intrigue in Monday’s All-Star Home Run Derby will be on the opposite end of McCovey Cove – as dry, and as high, as you can get.

“I’m just interested if anyone can hit the glove in left-center field,” said former All-Star Tony Gwynn, who will contribute to the telecast. “I’ll bet some balls will fly pretty close to it.”

Other than being the world’s largest knickknack, the giant steel and fiberglass glove at AT&T Park serves one purpose: To dare the game’s biggest mashers to clank one off its faux hide. A sign at its base marks it at 501 feet from home plate.

“I think it’s a little farther than that,” said St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, who agreed Sunday to be among the derby’s eight participants.

You might recall the Giants placed a $1 million bounty on hitting the glove shortly after the park opened in 2000. If a player reached it on the fly, a randomly selected fan would receive the windfall.

When the park made its debut, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were still playing in the National League and launching tape-measure shots. And, on a note that many would consider related, the league had not begun steroid testing.

After two years, the Giants canceled the $40,000 annual insurance premium and dropped the promotion. They realized how ridiculous it was.

“Nobody ever got close,” Giants executive vice president Larry Baer said. “There wasn’t any point continuing it.”

The Giants’ Andres Galarraga came the closest in 2001 when he crushed a drive that landed in the last row of the bleachers in Section 138. The moon shot off Houston’s Roy Oswalt has taken on mythical status and is considered the longest homer to left field in the eight-year history of the waterfront ballpark.

“But there’s the walkway behind the bleachers, and nobody has hit one that far – even in batting practice,” Baer said. “The glove is behind that, and don’t forget that it’s elevated, too. It just became pretty obvious nobody was going to hit it.”

In recent years, the glove became a target not for hitters, but for female revelers in the left-field bleachers. Some women have walked underneath the glove and thrown their, shall we say, more delicate garments into its inner structure.

Even though the glove might have more in common with Tom Jones than Chipper or Andruw, it figures to become a major topic of conversation among the home run jet set on Monday.

“Somebody will do it,” said Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder, who has 29 home runs this season, the most among the eight competitors.

Fielder and defending champ Ryan Howard might be the two biggest mashers in the competition, but they’re both left-handed. They figure to keep the fishing nets full, but the glove is out of their reach.

Pujols said he has hit a few pretty far up the bleachers in batting practice, but he wasn’t sure if reaching the glove was physically possible.

“I’ll go for it,” Pujols said. “That’s part of the fun. That’s why you’re in it.”

Fielder, Pujols and Howard are on the N.L. team in the three-round event. Florida’s Miguel Cabrera pulled out of the competition because of a jammed left shoulder, and his replacement is yet to be announced. The A.L. squad consists of Detroit’s Magglio Ordonez, Minnesota’s Justin Morneau, the Angels’ Vladimir Guerrero and Toronto’s Alex Rios.

Howard is the only participant who isn’t an All-Star, but the league needed the defending champ to spice up the competition – especially after Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez turned down invitations. Rodriguez leads the majors with 30 home runs.

Howard wears the crown, but Pujols could be the man to beat. He hit 26 home runs overall in his only derby appearance in 2003, more than any other participant, but lost in the finals to Garret Anderson.

Guerrero has competed in the derby once before. Rios, Morneau, Ordonez and Fielder are first-time participants.

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