DURHAM — It’s a prodigious feat in America’s pastime. Fans love to catch them, and pitchers hate to give them up. Those who excel become members of exclusive clubs, and the deed even has its own derby.
The home run is one of the biggest plays in baseball. There’s something about seeing the ball sail beyond the reach of an outfielder and off into the stands that creates instant excitement.
And while batters often focus on their next at-bat or their defensive responsibilities instead of dwelling on that last hit, even they can acknowledge how special a home run is when the game is over.
Triple-A All-Star Mikie Mahtook, 24, of the Durham Bulls, still remembers his favorite home run. The bases were loaded, and he was down to two strikes with one out.
“I hit a grand slam,” Mahtook recalled. “It was major league spring training, so it was my first big league camp this year. But that was pretty cool.
“I was just telling myself, ‘Put the ball in play and try to get this guy in from third.’ And I got the ball up in the air enough for it go out.”
Mahtook hit two homers in consecutive at-bats in his first college start at LSU. He even hit a couple of home runs off fellow Louisiana native Taijuan Walker, a 2010 first-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners.
Despite hitting eight home runs this season, Mahtook says he hasn’t yet made contact with the Snorting Bull, the signature of Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the star of Monday’s Home Run Derby.
Three of the top hitters from the International League and three from the Pacific Coast League will step up to the plate with two goals in mind: to win the Home Run Derby, and to hit the Snorting Bull.
Dan Johnson, 34, of the Buffalo Bisons, was slated for the derby – having won in 2010 as a member of the Durham Bulls – before his recent call-up to the Toronto Blue Jays nixed him from participating in All-Star events.
Matt Hague, 28, was added to the derby roster on Sunday to replace Johnson. In 2011, Hague led the International League in hits and was a midseason and postseason International League All-Star.
International League home run king Mike Hessman, 36, of the Toledo Mud Hens, is hoping the fourth time is a charm. Hessman, who blasted his 259th home run on June 30 to become the IL’s all-time leader (and leads the minor leagues with 404), is seeking his first win after three tries at the derby.
Jesus Aguilar, 24, of the Columbus Clippers, may have beginner’s luck on his side. Aguilar has blasted 12 home runs so far in his Class AAA debut season.
Mike Jacobs, 33, of the Reno Aces, is the most experienced of the PCL sluggers. Jacobs has 100 homers on his major-league resume with the Mets, Marlins, Royals and Diamondbacks.
Allan Dykstra, 27, of the Las Vegas 51s, may have momentum on his side after a successful season in Class AA, where he was MVP of the Eastern League and the 2013 Mets Co-Minor League Player of the Year.
Francisco Pena, 24, of the Omaha Storm Chasers, is having a career year. The son of Yankees bench coach Tony Pena has already hit 18 homers this season, more than either of the other two PCL hitters in the derby.
Participants will receive eight outs in the first of the three-round derby. After the pool is cut to four, the remaining hitters will receive an additional eight outs until two hitters remain.
That’s when local coachClay Council, 77, will step to the mound. Council is most remembered for the round of batting practice he threw to Raleigh native Josh Hamilton in the 2008 Major League Baseball home run derby that saw Hamilton hit a first-round record 28 homers at Yankee Stadium.
Batters will receive five outs in the final round before the Home Run Derby champion is crowned.
But a batter may not be the only winner. The first time the Snorting Bull in left field is hit, every fan in attendance will win a free steak taco from Moe’s Southwest Grill. Each subsequent hit of the bull will result in a $100 gift card to Angus Barn steakhouse for another fan. And if the bull is hit 15 times throughout the derby, one fan will win $15,000.
Durham Bulls left fielder Justin Christian hit the bull twice this season and confirmed the promise on the sign.
“I got a $100 gift card,” Christian said. “So, yeah, it’s true: You hit the bull, you get the steak.”
The home-run hitting and steak-chasing begins at 6:35 p.m.
Nick Martin contributed to this article.