Gronkowski takes celebrity home run derby; NFL high on star power in event
Cue the celebrity home run derby, held Monday night alongside the professional version at Coca-Cola Field.
Five of the eight batters in the celebrity competition had some sort of connection to the National Football League, with Hall of Famer Jim Kelly also acting as captain for ”Team Hunter’s Hope.”
Two active NFL players – Bills running back Fred Jackson and New England Patriots tight end and Buffalo native Rob Gronkowski – competed along with former Bills great and Hall-of-Famer Joe DeLamielleure, former Bills general manager Bill Polian, and Bills CEO Russ Brandon.
The contest was rounded out by Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta and Hollywood screenwriter and Buffalo native Nick Bakay.
“It was a little nerve-wracking going out there,” Gronkowski admitted after winning the competition with eight homers in the second round after hitting five in the first. “My heart was beating fast, it kind of felt like playing a football game.”
Gronkowski edged out Brandon, a former baseball standout at Rochester’s St. John Fisher College, who connected for seven second-round homers over a shortened fence about a third of the way into the outfield. The other participants who advanced to the second round, Kaleta and Jackson, struggled and hit two and one, respectively.
“My kids were putting a lot of pressure on me,” Brandon said. “They were on me pretty good after the first round (after hitting just one homer). I had to make sure that I represented the (Bills) organization and beat Fred. I wasn’t worried about Kaleta.”
“I’m always trying to win,” Gronkowski said. “I would be disappointed if I didn’t.”
Gronkowski, a local son who has become a sort of enemy because of his ties to the hated Patriots, was met with a mixture of reaction from the crowd of 17,244.
“I was wondering what I was going to get,” Gronkowski said. “(I got) a couple of cheers and a couple of boos. I heard the boos, but I think the cheers were louder. It’s all part of it and it was fun.”
The 6’6”, 265-pound tight end was the only celebrity participant to hit more than one homer in the first round, connecting for five. One of those cleared the professional fence in left field.
Brandon, Kaleta, and Jackson were the only other participants to connect in the first round.
Despite the dearth of home runs in the first round, highlights included DeLamielleure leading off and quipping after coming up empty: “I’d rather play Joe Greene 10 times,” and Ruff, known for often changing his forward lines while coaching in the NHL, changing bats after missing on his first two swings.
He then proved that it’s the batter, not the equipment, that was the problem: he didn’t hit the ball much further on his remaining three swings.
Bakay proudly showed his local roots, wearing the uniform “716” to represent the Buffalo area code.
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