Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball Weekly Hit Ground Ball: The face of MLB?

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: The face of MLB?

by Matt Smith

Last week’s All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York brought together most of the biggest names in the sport today.

From veteran legends like Mariano Rivera to blossoming youngsters like Matt Harvey that are now bursting onto the scene, there was plenty of star quality on show.

However, prior to the game, ESPN’s Jayson Stark posed the question as to who the ‘face’ or ‘faces’ of MLB are today in the general consciousness of American sports fans. Stark’s article suggested that MLB currently cannot match the star power generated by the NFL and NBA and that there’s actually an inherent reluctance among ballplayers to push themselves forward as that type of personality.

Baseball produces the captivating duel of the pitcher versus the hitter, but ultimately it’s a sport that likes to portray itself as the ultimate team game, one that values the ‘productive out’ and sacrificing yourself for the greater good.

The marketing value of using a small group of players to promote a sport is clear and it seems to be particularly important in the North American market.

When I first started watching U.S. sport years ago, the way in which upcoming games were referenced seemed quite jarring. It was never “the Atlanta Braves at the San Francisco Giants” as you would typically have it in the U.K., it was always “Chipper Jones and the Atlanta Braves against Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants”, or something similar. They couldn’t just mention the teams, they had to refer to a star on each side.

Despite this attempt to promote certain players, Torii Hunter makes the point in Stark’s article that you never know on any given day who is going to be the key player. Miami Heat can make sure LeBron James has the ball in his hands with 15 seconds to go and Peyton Manning can be in charge of the Denver Broncos’ final drive when chasing a game, but it’s much more difficult to engineer such a situation in baseball.

It may not be perfect from a marketing perspective, but the fact that baseball can, and often does, produce unlikely heroes is part of its appeal. This is a game where Marco Scutaro can win an NLCS MVP with the San Francisco Giants after struggling for the Colorado Rockies earlier in the season. It’s a game where the glorious folklore of the New York Yankees has a place for all-time greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle but also for a hardworking player like Aaron Boone thanks to one swing of the bat in Game Seven of the thrilling 2003 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox.

MLB certainly does try to promote its leading players. Their series of “I play” promos has highlighted the likes of Trout, Bryce Harper, David Price and Andrew McCutchen between innings on ESPN America this season, showcasing their talent on the field and their passion for the game. Still, whilst clever marketing campaigns undoubtedly can help, what MLB really needs is for one or two of its young stars to achieve something that captures the imagination.

That’s easier said than done during regular season baseball. Take Mike Trout as an example. In 2012 he put together one of the best all-round seasons in recent memory and did so as a mere 20 year old. Yet whilst dedicated baseball fans can appreciate the body of work over the campaign, it wasn’t the type of performance that would grab the casual fan, let alone the people who only pay a passing interest in sport.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s ‘run for 61’ will forever be looked back at with huge regret due to the tainted records they set, but at the time what they did was precisely the shot in the arm (pun not completely unintended) that MLB needed after the misery of the 1994-95 strike. McGwire, Sosa and then Barry Bonds became the household names that MLB arguably doesn’t have right now and they reached that status by making non-baseball fans talk about the game.

The next true star will be born when – or if – one of the great young players in the game is close to batting .400 heading into September, or they get a hit in their 46th consecutive game to close to within 10 of Joe DiMaggio’s seemingly unreachable record.

It will be the player who gets baseball on the front page of the paper as well as the back page, who makes people who rarely venture near a ballpark sit down in front of a TV to see if the story everyone is talking about will continue or come to an end.

Who is that going to be? Trout, Harper or someone else yet to make it the Majors, perhaps. The beauty of baseball is that we just don’t know.

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