Baseball has an identity problem. It doesn’t have one.
Specifically, it doesn’t have one of those move-the-needle sports stars. It doesn’t have a guy who makes you stop when he comes on television to sell you shoes, video games or sports drinks.
Think about it: Who is the face of baseball?
It’s a hot topic these days in the wake of an ESPN poll asking more than 6,000 American sports fans, ages 12 and above, to name their favorite athletes.
Not counting Tim Tebow and Bo Jackson, only three baseball players appeared in the top 50. And get this, the three don’t even play anymore: Derek Jeter, Babe Ruth and Pete Rose.
Other sports have players who are immediately recognizable. The NBA probably has the most with LeBron, Steph, KD, Russ and Harden. See, you don’t even have to say their full names to know who we’re talking about.
The NFL has Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Von Miller. Even the NHL has “faces,” with Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
There was a time when it was loaded with faces, but it has been a while. Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron are from a day long gone by. Even more recent faces of the game — guys like Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa — haven’t played in more than a decade. It’s no coincidence that baseball’s diminishing popularity coincides with the lack of a face.
Baseball still has talented players. It still has charismatic personalties. So, what’s the problem? Well, there are several problems.
The West Coast
Mike Trout of the Angels should be the face of baseball. He is the game’s best player. He’s good and good-looking with an easy demeanor. The problem is no one ever sees him play. With most of his games being played at a time when much of America is in bed, we don’t get to see how incredibly talented this five-tool player is. If Trout played in New York or Chicago, he would be on television — both in games and in commercials — ever single minute of the summer.
Not everyone likes the next best player
I love Bryce Harper of the Nationals. He plays the game hard. He plays the game with flair. He plays the game with no apologies. But for all the reasons many of us like Harper, many dislike him. The haters say he comes off as arrogant, entitled and dramatic. It also didn’t help that last year he took an unexpected backward step on the field.
New York and the Dodgers don’t have big stars
The three biggest media magnets in baseball — the Mets, Yankees and Dodgers — don’t have what we’re talking about. Now before you throw Dodgers’ pitcher Clayton Kershaw and any of the big Mets’ arms such as Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom at me, remember this: they are pitchers. You can’t be the face of a sport when you only play one out of every five games. You can’t be the face of the sport when you play 30 to 35 times a season. (That also goes for Madison Bumgarner and Max Scherzer.) And the Yankees are at a rare moment in history when they don’t have an “it” player, not since Jeter retired.
What about the Cubs?
Here’s the problem with the Cubs. They have too many guys. They sort of split the vote. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jake Arrieta. We can’t even agree on who the face of the Cubs is.
Good players on bad teams
There are a handful of players who are sensational and likeable, but play for teams that just aren’t good enough to capture our attention or imagination. We’re talking Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins, Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks and Nolan Arenado of the Rockies.
Some guys are getting too old
If marvelous players such as Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen and Toronto’s Josh Donaldson (all over the age of 30) haven’t become TV stars already, they never will.
Okay, so who does that leave us with?
Well, how can you not appreciate the likes of Baltimore’s Manny Machado, Houston’s Jose Altuve, Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor and Boston’s Mookie Betts?
Personally, I’d say Trout and Harper are the faces of baseball. But all of the above would work for me. Problem is, much of the rest of the country disagrees. Who do they say?
None of the above.
Contact Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org. Folllow @tomwjones