MLB's elusive face of the game
Can one of Tuesday's All-Stars become MLB's version of LeBron James?
On Tuesday night, under the New York stars, the greatest players in baseball will assemble on one field. So it's the perfect night to ask yourself a question we've been pondering for months:
Which of these guys is now the Face of Baseball?
Or could it be someone who won't even be playing Tuesday, for whatever reason? Maybe Derek Jeter? Or Albert Pujols? Or the international phenomenon that is Ichiro Suzuki? Or the suddenly ever-present Yasiel Puig?
There are lots of compelling choices. No doubt about that. But before you answer, also ask yourself this: Will there be anyone on that field Tuesday who is, to baseball, what LeBron James is to his sport? Or what, say, Peyton Manning is to his?
And will there be anyone in this All Star Game, for that matter, who makes you feel the way you once felt about Ken Griffey Jr.? Or Cal Ripken Jr.? Or about the iconic faces of another era -- Mays and Mantle and Aaron?
These are fun questions to kick around with your pals sitting on the nearest bar stools, but that's not all they are.
These are also important questions -- questions that can go a long way toward helping us define the state of baseball in the 21st century.
Is there even such a thing as a Face of Baseball right now? If not, is that an indictment of the sport, or its marketing machinery, or the people who play it?
Or does baseball even need a Face? Is it really the game itself that we love? Is it the game that towers above all else, including even its brightest stars?
That's the message you hear from many voices inside the sport: The game comes first. But if you step away from baseball's bubble, that's NOT how those on the outside see it.
"I think baseball needs a face," says one of America's most incisive sports-marketing minds, Bill Sutton, who is the director of the Sports and Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida. "Absolutely. Now more than ever."
Is he wrong? Is he right? We've been asking this question of people inside and outside the game since we pulled into spring training. Here is the picture they've painted.
There's no LeBron on these fields of dreams
It's fitting that we raise this issue just a few weeks after the conclusion of the NBA playoffs -- or, as most of the planet knew them, The LeBron Show.
Was there any doubt, as you watched the NBA season reach its dramatic crescendo, that this is a sport that has unashamedly attached its brand to one man?
He might be one very large, talented, towering, marketing machine of a man -- but he's still just one human being. He merely happens to be capable of lugging an entire sport around on his wide-body shoulders.
Now ask yourself again: Does baseball have any star who is even remotely like LeBron -- in stature, visibility and power to drive ratings, attendance and attention levels to otherwise-unattainable heights?
And the answer is …
"No. Not even close," says another nationally esteemed sports-marketing figure, Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
What Swangard sees, as he looks at baseball from the outside, is a sport that has "a lot more Tim Duncans than it has LeBrons." And we think you know exactly what he means.
The marquee players in baseball might approximate the talent of a LeBron, the athletic gifts of a LeBron and even, to varying degrees, the accomplishments of a LeBron. But as Duncan has proved through his distinguished but notoriously low-profile career, it takes more than rings and greatness to be the Face of a sport. Any sport.
The real issue in baseball is this: Do these players have the personality, or at least the mindset, to embrace everything that goes with being a transcendent figure at that level?
Uhhh, do we even have to answer that question?
One of the people to whom we've posed this topic is Dennis Mannion, the onetime president and CEO of the Dodgers who -- as a man whose sporting journey has allowed him to hold prominent positions with teams in all four major professional team sports -- has a unique perspective.
"Would a baseball player really be agreeable to be marketed the way an NBA player would?" wonders Mannion, now the president and CEO of Palace Sports and Entertainment, which handles business operations for the NBA's Detroit Pistons. "I'll be honest. I'm astounded by the willingness of NBA players to be part of marketing campaigns and promotional campaigns, and to do the things we need to do to market our game."
What he found in his years in baseball, however, were "cultural barriers" that made the same sorts of campaigns much more challenging to pull off.
By "cultural barriers," we don't mean that half of these guys are into Jay-Z and the other half are into Kenny Chesney. We mean there's a culture in baseball that says: Baseball players don't do that.
Do what? Play the me-me-me game. That's what. Play the Mr. Media/Mr. Pitch Man/Mr. Visibility game. Play the guy who rises above his team, his uniform, his teammates, his market and says: "Follow me. I'll get this done. And you'd better watch."
It's another one of those unwritten codes of their sport: Baseball players don't do that.
"I'm a purist," says Washington's Jayson Werth, the highest-paid player in the history of his franchise, a third-generation major leaguer and a charter subscriber to the Baseball Players Don't Do That Club.
I'm a purist. My feeling is, you don't need one guy. I think The Game is the marvel, not The Player.” -- Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth
"My feeling is, you don't need one guy," Werth says. "I think The Game is the marvel, not The Player. You know, I remember, before one of the World Series we played in Philadelphia, Charlie Manuel told a story. And the moral of the story was: 'Keep your helmet on.' And that resonated with me. Keep your helmet on. There's no reason to show your face. There's no reason to be That Guy. Just go about your business, and at the end of the day you'll have everything you want. All the other stuff is extra. The truth is, I think that stuff takes away from the game, almost."
Trust us. Werth speaks for hundreds of players when he says: "It's a team sport. Oh, it's very individual. I get that. It's very mano a mano. But at the end of the day, chemistry plays. You see the teams that are successful; I think the way to go about it is to have everybody on the same page.
"I get that there are superstars in this game," Werth goes on. "I've played with them. … But I'm OK with, 'Keep your helmet on.'"
We can debate the pros and cons of that stance some other time -- like, oh, about five minutes from now. But first, allow us to present the case to you that players presented to us.
It's impossible, they say, for any baseball player to be LeBron. Not because the laws of the clubhouse don't allow it. Because the nature of the sport itself won't allow it.
"In the last minute of a basketball game," Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter says, "LeBron's going to control everything. He's the point guard. The ball is going to be in his hands. No matter if he dishes it off or shoots it, it's going to be in his hands at crunch time. And everybody's watching to see it, because they know in the fourth quarter, LeBron is going to have that ball. You're going to know who he is. And that's every night.
"But that doesn't happen in baseball," Hunter says. "In baseball, somebody's going to be a hero who you probably never heard of before. So it's hard. That's why I can't say a face of baseball is going to be one guy. It's going to be many guys."
He's right, of course. For evidence, we merely had to zone in on the 14 games played on the Fourth of July.
The Rays won on a dramatic walk-off single in extra innings, but it wasn't Evan Longoria who rose to that moment; it was (of course) Yunel Escobar. … The Angels pulled off an epic back-from-the-dead comeback against the Cardinals, but it wasn't Trout or Pujols who walked off; it was Erick Aybar (naturally). … The Mets hit TWO game-tying homers in extra innings, but David Wright didn't thump either of them; Anthony Recker and Kirk Nieuwenhuis did those honors. (Who else?)
And this, friends, sums up baseball. Your most beloved baseball hero will probably show up at home plate only four times a night, with no guarantees there will be a runner on base or spine-tingling, late-inning drama hanging in the night in any of them.
For all of baseball's many beauties, Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto says, "It's not Christmas Day -- LeBron against Kobe, Bird against Magic. It's not that type of game. It's a four-game series. It might be Mike Trout against Miguel Cabrera, but they might be the quietest guys on the field for those four games."
Well, knowing what we know about Trout and Cabrera, we doubt that seriously. But it's funny he should mention that, because Trout and Miggy fit right into the other half of this discussion, which is titled …
Why can't baseball "create" a face?
One year, two months and three weeks ago, two players, who were quickly described as baseball's very special version of Bird and Magic, arrived in the big leagues on the same day. Remember?
They were Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. And their mission was clear: They were going to do for baseball what Larry Bird and Magic Johnson once did for the NBA.
They were going to be two must-see attractions who would elevate their sport and everyone who plays it for, oh, the next two decades. Got it? Now go get 'em, boys.
Well, Trout and Harper have clearly fulfilled their end of the bargain -- on the field. They both won rookie of the year awards, made two straight All-Star teams before either of them turned 22 and fed us never-ending, did-you-see-THAT moments for the video reels.
But have they truly turned into the Faces of Baseball? Have they morphed into Bird and Magic? LeBron and Kobe? Peyton and Brady? Mays and Mantle?
Is there any evidence that this is a different game, a different world, a different industry -- in the minds or hearts or souls of America -- because Trout and Harper are now a part of it?
The answer: not in any dramatic or tangible way we can think of, other than the fact that their fan bases sure do enjoy watching them play.
"You know what? It takes time," Mannion says. "Careers are not made in a year. Even with [Michael] Jordan, it took a couple of years."
Except in the case of the real Bird and Magic, that is. The NBA hit the Powerball on the first ticket it bought with those two.
Magic drove the Lakers to a title, even won a Finals MVP award, in his first season in the league. Magic, Bird or both played in the NBA Finals in EVERY ONE of their first 10 seasons in the NBA. And that stuff never happens. Ever. Not in real life.
Meanwhile, back on the diamond, Trout's team in Anaheim missed the postseason last season and, star-studded as it might be, is in serious danger of missing out again this season. Harper's team in D.C. got ousted in the NL Division Series and, despite being picked to win it all by every media genius on Earth, has never had That Look at any point this season.
So actual life hasn't been very helpful in propelling these two guys onto the national stage the way Bernard Malamud or Allan H. "Bud" Selig would have loved to script their fairy tales.
Has baseball ever really launched the sort of eyeball-grabbing Trout-Harper How Can You Miss THIS? parade that seemed ready to bust out any minute last summer? Well, we've been waiting along the parade route for months. Haven't spotted it yet.
"My suggestion to them would be: You have to be as aggressive as you can be," Swangard says. "But it starts with the athletes and works backward. If they're willing and able, Major League Baseball should do everything in its power to hitch its wagon to these two guys. We live in a hero-driven society, and baseball would be incredibly well-served by having two young heroes in the making like that."
Is there any fan alive who would argue with that premise? But don't zip through that quote too hastily. Before we kick off the "Trout/Harper We Have Seen the Future Hype-a-thon," better rewind that audio file to this line: It starts with the athletes and works backward.
If you ask the question, "Were these two athletes ever totally 'willing and able' to allow their sport to start feeding them to the star-making machinery?" that answer was no. Not in a LeBron-ish way, at any rate.
That might seem mildly surprising in Harper's case, since he was already being groomed for the hero gig at, like, 15 years old. But once he hit the big leagues, his team couldn't wait to wrap him in as hype-proof a cocoon as possible.
And after being constantly lectured on the importance of toning it down -- and keeping his helmet on -- he's done his best just to be one of the boys, much to the delight of the veterans in his clubhouse and the veteran baseball men who employ him.
Asked why Harper wouldn't fit the profile of the perfect player for this sport to attach its future to, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo replied, as diplomatically as possible: "I think he could be that guy. But I also think a lot of other people in the game could be that guy."
Right. Like Mike Trout, for instance.
Trout's GM, Dipoto, is the first to say that the pride of Millville, N.J., has a "refreshing personality" and that, when you combine that persona with his on-field charisma, he's "the complete package" for any Face of Baseball campaign. But …
Consider how tricky it is for his own franchise to market him, when he's surrounded by the likes of Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Mark Trumbo, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and others in one of this sport's most recognizable, high-profile cast of characters.
"Even on our own team," Dipoto says. "we have so many identifiable players. … And the thing about Mike is, he fits in. He doesn't have to be the guy who stands out."
Soooooo … get the picture? Even if this sport wanted to ride the Trout-Harper wave -- and why wouldn't it? -- the dynamics within their own teams, and the keep-your-helmet-on culture that pervades every clubhouse, make that tougher than you'd think.
So why not train that Face of Baseball microscope on someone else while Harper and Trout grow into the role? Hey, excellent idea. How about the Triple Crown winner, for instance?
But guess what? While Miguel Cabrera would make a spectacular Face of Baseball in a million ways, he also presents many of the same issues. And more.
He, too, is surrounded in his own clubhouse by some of the biggest names in his sport, who might wonder why he's suddenly been ballyhooed as The Star and not them. And he, too, "is really not looking for a lot of press exposure," says his general manager, Dave Dombrowski.
"He just doesn't look to be that guy," Dombrowski says of Cabrera. "If you start talking too much about himself, he turns the conversation to other people."
And then, Dombrowski admits, there is the language barrier, which, unfortunately, is impossible to ignore. Cabrera, who grew up in Venezuela, communicates just fine within the barriers of his own universe -- "but he's not going to give you a five-minute speech [in English] and feel comfortable," Dombrowski says.
For all those reasons, then, the stars don't quite line up for Cabrera to be The Guy. And so, if not him … well, there's always Derek Jeter. Now isn't there?
"If there's one person you can sell to football fans … to basketball fans … even to soccer fans, it's Derek Jeter," Hunter says. "If there's one person in baseball where you can say his name and everybody knows it, just like they know LeBron, it's Derek. You can say it to anybody. Say it to actors. They know. My grandmother hates baseball, but even she says, 'I know Derek Jeter.' I don't know anybody who doesn't know that guy. So he's just the right guy to be The Face."
By that standard, Jeter truly IS The Face. But even he presents two thorny little problems: A) Until last week, he had played zero games in the big leagues all season. And B) he's 39 years old. So if this IS his time, his buzzer is about to go off any minute now.
Which brings us right back to where we started. Wouldn't the time to find that next Face of Baseball be now? As in right now? Like in the next 30 seconds?
If there's one person in baseball where you can say his name and everybody knows it, just like they know LeBron, it's Derek. You can say it to anybody My grandmother hates baseball, but even she says, 'I know Derek Jeter.'” -- Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter
That's what the great marketing minds on the outside would do if they were running baseball. But inside the sport, this remains one of the most difficult topics for the powers that be on all sides to come to grips with.
For the record, we did raise all of these issues with high-ranking officials of the players' union and Major League Baseball. Both groups were more comfortable addressing the most difficult of those issues in a setting in which they wouldn't be quoted. Which tells you a lot about how big a challenge they have on their hands here.
We understand why, naturally. We know it won't be easy grappling with the obstacles. We're well aware that, for decades now, this just hasn't been how baseball rolls.
But does that mean "The Way It's Always Been" has to be "The Way It Will Always Be"? Why, exactly?
"What seems to be heresy within baseball seems, to many of us, to be the best thing they could do," Swangard says. "Twenty years ago, you could still say the boys of summer owned summer until football came along in the fall. That's not the case anymore."
In the world we live in, stars can be built faster than at any point in our lifetimes. Remember that.
Because of tablets and mobile devices that are never out of our reach, "You can drive an audience now in ways you never could before," Sutton says. "And it makes no sense not to be doing that.
"If I'm a kid in Iowa and the buzz is building about Mike Trout, I can get online right now and see what the commotion is all about," Sutton says. "It's all about building storylines. It's about saying: 'Mike Trout -- appearing on a tablet near you at 8 p.m. Eastern time.' Or 'Bryce Harper. Playing tonight. Here's his last home run.' If you build the story, people will follow it."
But inside the walls of MLB, people continue to question whether it's really that simple.
Players grumble that MLB doesn't promote its athletes the way other sports do. But the sports business community would be the first to tell you a league like the NBA gets enormous marketing assistance from its good friends at companies such as Nike, which, according to one baseball insider, could sell 100 pairs of basketball shoes for every pair of baseball cleats it peddles.
Much like your average defensive tackle, baseball players grumble, too, that the NFL actually manipulates its rules to keep its marquee quarterbacks happy, healthy and smiling for the cameras. In baseball, on the other hand, you might have to go back to the days of Babe Ruth to find a time when any player was allowed to rise above everything and everyone around him.
So why is that? We've heard a thousand theories. We've seen fingers pointed in all directions. But everyone agrees on this: If baseball wants to market itself -- and its most charismatic stars -- the way the other sports do in the 21st century, the culture of the sport needs to change.
Have baseball players ever noticed that during the NBA Finals -- for virtually every day of the playoffs, for that matter -- LeBron goes to the interview room EVERY day, including off days? That he stops to chat with the likes of Doris Burke on his way off the floor after every game his team wins -- and even, at times, on the way to the locker room at halftime?
No baseball player in the history of the World Series, the postseason or the invention of the TV set has ever done that. Ever. Or would even think about doing it.
Baseball players don't do that.
Says who? Says EVERYONE on the outside. That's who.
"We live in an era of accessibility," Swangard says. "We live in an age where a sport's young, core fan base expects its athletic heroes to be accessible. LeBron is a perfect example. He's done it in such a way that he actually has more privacy than we'd perceive that he has. But when he does [put himself out there], he commands the stage … and he drives that audience to watch. That's what that culture of accessibility is all about."
"The way things are going, fans want that access," Mannion says, "in a massive way. … In the NBA, players have to do those interviews. They have to go to the interview room [during marquee events]. It's mandated. I'm really not sure whether baseball has those types of rules."
Nobody disputes that LeBron has a lot at stake -- translation: a lot of dollar bills at stake -- when he agrees to take that stage. But the fact is, all players in the NBA get a mandatory course EVERY season in what's at stake -- for every one of them.
The NBA now requires that every player in the league go through a three-hour Business of Basketball session every year, Mannion says. They do that through their own teams. They're walked through every aspect of the business side of their sport. And they're basically told: This is where the money comes from. This is what we can do for you. But here's what you can do for us -- to make life (and business) better for everyone.
Baseball, meanwhile, offers a crash course for young players through its excellent Rookie Career Development Program. But what might be just as good an idea, those on the outside say, is a similar program for stars, or at least players who are likely to find themselves in the spotlight at a time when public figures have never been more visible.
Sutton, for instance, could envision a session by which those high-profile players get introduced to all of baseball's corporate partners or potential partners, in which they'd talk about ways to use their dealings with the news media and social media, during which they'd attend a seminar "on how to develop your personal brand AND manage that brand."
What's the downside to at least trying to take that step? If the folks who run the sport don't do it, Sutton says, it wouldn't be a surprise if someone like Jay-Z tries to attract clients by taking it for them.
Off in the distance, you can hear people across the baseball spectrum saying: Good idea. But baseball isn't that kind of sport. It's the ultimate TEAM sport.
But Mannion says: "Which sport is more individual than baseball? OK, so Bryce Harper might only come to bat four times. But he comes up there alone. And nobody has to throw him a pass to hit."
So why CAN'T this sport change? Why CAN'T it embrace the way the culture of the times has evolved? Why CAN'T it have a Face of Baseball? Or two, or three, or six?
These are questions everyone in baseball needs to be asking. And what better time to begin those conversations than on a special Tuesday evening, on the biggest stage of the summer, in the media capital of the world, with all those potential Faces of Baseball assembled on one emerald field?
"This sport needs to change," Sutton says. "We've lost our innocence."