August 29, 2014

New Yorker: The Twilight of Baseball: "If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar, would you recognize him?" Ben McGrath asks in The New Yorker. "When was the last time baseball's reigning king was a cultural nonentity, someone you canít even name-drop without a non-fan giving you a patronizing smile?"

posted by rcade to baseball at 06:07 PM - 15 comments

Of course, the reason that basketball can develop memorable stars is that there are only 5 players on the court for each team, and they play for 80% of the game. In baseball, you have 9 players for each team, for only half the game, and the ones that might be famous sometimes only play every 5th game.

The thing is, Derek Jeter wasn't that "exciting" to talk about when he was early in his career. He didn't do anything that was memorable, and he may be the blandest speaking super star in sports history (with Steve Yzerman coming in a close second).
Even at the end of his career, Jeter's fame is because of the team he plays for, his off field bedding of a bevvy of bombshell beauties, the lack of real scandal, and his health/consistency. He never won a regular season MVP. His "black ink" statistic are shockingly weak (led the league in hits twice, and runs once), so much so they are less than half that of an average HOF.

Mike Trout already matches Jeter's career "black ink" stats in only his fourth season. Trout's biggest problems are that he's been robbed of at least one MVP award, and that he's on the west coast. More than half the fans of baseball don't have a chance to see him play because he doesn't start more than half his games after 9pm/10pm for those people. That's why the Angels are my #2 team I'm cheering for this year, as Trout NEEDS to showcase his ability in the playoffs so people will recognize this once-in-a-generation talent.

By the way, with the retirement of Jeter (and the future retirement of Ortiz, Suzuki), there is still an amazing set of young players that will keep us entertained (and are all under 30 years old):

Yasiel Puig
Jose Abreu
Mike Trout
Giancarlo Stanton
Clayton Kershaw
Jonathan Lucroy
Buster Posey
Andrew McCutchen
Billy Hamilton
Anthony Rizzo
Stephen Strasburg
Bryce Harper
Jose Altuve
Josh Donaldson
Cory Kluber
Felix Hernandez
Max Scherzer
Chris Sale
Yu Darvish
David Price
Adam Jones
Manny Machado
and probably a lot more I can't just name right now.

posted by grum@work at 09:01 PM on August 29, 2014

Trout's biggest problems are that he's been robbed of at least one MVP award, and that he's on the west coast.

That and the fact baseball is no longer America's Pastime and instead occupies a position next to basketball and below the NFL in the zeitgeist. Here are the yearly leaders in WAR for position players; I don't know there are a ton of guys who finished first more than once who were relatively anonymous, but it's also a different world media wise. And I think Rod Carew, Snuffy Stirnweiss and a few others could have gotten in and out of a bar without being noticed.

Also, is he baseball's "reigning king"? One of the most interesting things about Trout is how he's part of a group that divides newer, stats-friendly, maybe roto playing fans from older school fans, so there are plenty of baseball fans out there who would start talking up Miguel Cabrera when Trout walked into their local.

posted by yerfatma at 11:00 AM on August 30, 2014

That and the fact baseball is no longer America's Pastime...

So let me tell you all about "the good, old days". (Stop yawning! Pay attention, there will be a quiz.) My real interest in sports began around 1947-1948, when I was 6 or 7 years old. In the fall there was football. Not professional football, but college and high school. Pick a high school team in eastern Massachusetts in the late 1940s, and you will find its stadium packed with students, families, and much of the local citizenry with little or no connection to the team other than living in the town. Come winter and there was ice hockey. The Bruins were the team to follow in New England, there were fans in Chicago, Detroit, and New York, but in the US that was all. Granted these might have been the glory days for the AHL and the old IHL, but still the appeal of hockey was limited. Our household was a baseball place, and the Boston Braves was our team, but then, my eldest sister dragged me to every Winthrop High School game of baseball or football.

Don't forget in the late 1940s the mass media was limited to radio and print newspapers. The national radio networks covered sports, but such coverage was limited to baseball, the major college football teams, and a note here and there about pro football, hockey, and what might be considered minor sports like track and field. Boxing was still a big deal and received a lot of press and air time. When you read your newspaper or listened to your local radio station, you read or heard about local sports, and coverage of professional sports was limited to the local teams. The rest of the world appeared in the agate type. Television was broadcasting, but TV was still a novelty, and most of us watched only on the black-and-white screen on display in the window of the local TV and radio store. ESPN? What's that?

Once the football season was winding down, the media was dominated by baseball. The "hot stove league" was covered deeply and widely, and this in an era when there was no such thing as a free agent other than those who were just becoming of age. Spring and summer were dominated by baseball. The major leagues, all 16 teams, had the media all to themselves, but the professional minor leagues and the local amateur teams received their share of coverage. If you were a sports fan, you were a baseball fan, you understood the game, you knew the players, the players tended to stay in the same city for an entire career, and the local team was "yours".

So what is the "National Pastime", if it no longer is baseball? Really, there is no single thing. Baseball has lost popularity because of the competition from the other sports. The game tends to be slow, without the more constant action of basketball and ice hockey or the violence of football. It is a more cerebral game, the nuances are not easy to understand, and those who are casual fans just do not look at the game in the same way as someone who has played or been closely involved at a fairly high level. Now that the magic of TV, satellites, mobile devices, and what have you has enabled us to be in touch with whatever team in whatever part of the world we wish to follow, we have that wonderful thing called "choice". We have a menu that rich and varied. No longer are we limited to one or two things, with the occasional rarity thrown in as an appetizer.

If Mike Trout walked into my neighborhood bar, I probably would not recognize him. I would recognize David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and several members of the Red Sox. Then again, if anyone except Tim Duncan, LeBron James, or several members of the Boston Celtics were to walk in, I wouldn't recognize them either. The point is, if you are a sports fan, you will favor one or two sports at the expense of the others. Within those sports you will have one or two teams that you follow closely. You will also follow the superstars, and if they do not get the closeup views of their faces in the media regularly, you won't recognize them either. Who and what you follow is your own choice, and the choices are now so broad that picking out more than a few is difficult.

So enjoy the era, sports fans. Follow whomever you wish, root for whatever sport and team you wish. America's National Pastime is now whatever you want it to be. Ain't it great?

posted by Howard_T at 12:07 PM on August 30, 2014

If Mike Trout walked into my neighborhood bar, I probably would not recognize him. I would recognize David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and several members of the Red Sox.

If the bouncers don't toss him for being a teenager with fake id.

posted by grum@work at 06:15 PM on August 30, 2014

The Trout angle seems really weak. I watch quite a few Angel games, and I watch Trout highlights often. I recognize him when he comes up to bat. I recognize him in his uniform.

But if he walked into a bar I doubt very seriously I'd recognize him. And that proves... really not much.

The 'baseball isn't our national pastime' story has been going on for years. No, it will probably never be as popular as the NFL unless the NFL folds, but I have confidence it'll be just fine unless those in charge fuck it up, which could happen.

In general, I agree with Howard. Choices are everywhere. The world is far different than when baseball was our pastime.

posted by justgary at 08:45 AM on August 31, 2014

But if he walked into a bar I doubt very seriously I'd recognize him. And that proves... really not much.

I think it shows a lot, unfortunately. Baseball is becoming hockey. That's not the worst fate in the world -- people who love hockey love it enough to keep it thriving within its niche -- but when your top stars no longer dominate the culture there's a cost to that. I can imagine a day when ESPN does to baseball what it did to hockey -- letting the TV deal go and suddenly caring 25% as much about the sport.

You'd recognize Trout if he was treated like Reggie Jackson was in the '70s, with commercials and TV guest appearances and candy bars and the like. Everyone recognizes the top NFL and NBA stars.

What I wonder is whether baseball will still attract enough young fans to replace us old fogeys who grew up when baseball was king. The game requires a lot more attention than other sports with its 162-game season and an average game length of 2:58.

posted by rcade at 10:42 AM on August 31, 2014

You'd recognize Trout if he was treated like Reggie Jackson was in the '70s, with commercials and TV guest appearances and candy bars and the like.

But back in the 70s there were only three networks. If you were on TV, there is a good chance people saw you because there wasn't much else on TV.

Nowadays, someone could appear on the same number of commercials and TV guest appearances and still be relatively anonymous, because there would be 10-50x as many channels to watch (which is assuming people consume their media through the TV).

The game requires a lot more attention than other sports with its 162-game season and an average game length of 2:58.

It's still shorter than an average NFL game, and there is FAR more action in an MLB game than an NFL game.

posted by grum@work at 01:03 PM on August 31, 2014

But back in the 70s there were only three networks. If you were on TV, there is a good chance people saw you because there wasn't much else on TV.

Our media choices are more divided, but I don't know that we see less of the most famous people today in our thousand-channel TV world. If anything they're more out there, hitting us on more platforms.

posted by rcade at 01:49 PM on August 31, 2014

You'd recognize Trout if he was treated like Reggie Jackson was in the '70s, with commercials and TV guest appearances and candy bars and the like. Everyone recognizes the top NFL and NBA stars.

I don't think it's really a fair comparison, though. Reggie was a personality. Does Trout want to go that route? Maybe those opportunities aren't there, and that does say something. I don't know. Was Jackson that recognizable and famous after 4 years? He wasn't a Yankee until his 11 year in the league.

But I'd recognize plenty of other baseball players. And there are plenty of football players that I wouldn't recognize in street clothes. Basketball players are different (extreme height, fewer players, lot of face time).

And I agree, baseball could become hockey. I just don't find the Trout example convincing. I'd recognize Josh Hamilton, Pujols, but Trout just seems pretty nondescript.

posted by justgary at 04:14 PM on August 31, 2014

It's possible that Trout, like Pete Sampras, is a black hole of PR. But I don't see that much more attention being paid in the culture to Bryce Harper, a player who is more of a personality.

Part of the reason Reggie was a personality was because the commercials and other gigs made him one. Peyton Manning is an example of that. He turned out to be great on funny commercials, so that elevated his cultural clout.

posted by rcade at 04:29 PM on August 31, 2014

Harper is a great comparison to Trout. He seems to enjoy attention, and has had some commercial success, and is even a similar styled player, but he hasn't lived up to expectations lately.

Give Harper Trout's stats and you might have something. I have no doubt there's less MLB player posters on kids walls than the NBA or NFL. Not sure how to fix that.

posted by justgary at 04:43 PM on August 31, 2014

Also, I wonder how Trout or Harper would fare if they played for the Yankees. Definitely would help any player become more recognizable.

posted by justgary at 04:45 PM on August 31, 2014

Everyone in the shirtcocking crowd at Burning Man seemed to know who Greg Oden was.

posted by beaverboard at 09:20 PM on August 31, 2014

Surely if Trout or Harper played for the Yankees or the Red Sox he'd be real famous instead of baseball famous.

posted by rcade at 09:25 PM on August 31, 2014

Surely if Trout or Harper played for the Yankees or the Red Sox he'd be real famous instead of baseball famous.

Sounds like a plan.

posted by justgary at 10:44 PM on August 31, 2014

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