Mike Trout, arguably the best baseball player in the world right now, visited Kansas City last weekend, and while fans came out to fill Kauffman Stadium, there was not a buzz about the two-time MVP coming to town. Mike Trout has put up numbers at a young age not seen since Mickey Mantle, finishing in the top two in MVP voting in every full season of his career, and he could very well reach 1,000 career hits and 200 home runs by the time he celebrates his 26th birthday. Despite these eye-popping numbers and sensational performance, Mike Trout is relatively anonymous on the sports landscape.
The anonymity of baseball’s best isn’t limited to Trout. ESPN’s Jayson Stark recently lamented that baseball is devoid of big-time superstars that grab the nation’s attention. He cites a recent poll that asked fans to list their favorite professional athlete. Of the top 50 players named, only four were baseball players - Derek Jeter and Peter Rose (retired), Tim Tebow (more known for football), and Babe Ruth (dead).
Stark does a good job delving into why baseball stars have failed to reach the public consciousness in the way a Lebron James or Tom Brady has in other sports. Some of it is on the players - Mike Trout regularly turns down appearances to devote himself to baseball. Some of it is on the sport - baseball has been accused of downplaying individual stars, perhaps out of concern it could lead to escalating salaries. Some of it is simply because the top players in the game right now are just coming onto the scene - Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Corey Seager are all at the beginning of their careers.
But perhaps we should also just accept the fact that perhaps baseball is not a sport suited to have national superstars?
Certainly baseball has had its stars in the past. Derek Jeter was a household name. Watching Barry Bonds was must-see TV. Fans flocked to see Ken Griffey, Jr. But these rare talents are the exception rather than the rule.
In a 1995 Harris Poll asking fans to list their favorite athlete, here are the top 15:
1. Michael Jordan
2. Joe Montana
3. Troy Aikman
4. Emmit Smith
5. George Foreman
6. Magic Johnson
7. Larry Bird
8. O.J. Simpson
9. Dan Marino
Nolan Ryan, who was retired at this point, is the only baseball player on the list, less popular than O.J. Simpson, a man, who at the time was being tried for a double murder! Granted, this was in the middle of a baseball work stoppage, when baseball players were about as popular as Saddam Hussein. So let's go back further.
From a 1993:
Additionally, a national sports marketing firm's recent survey showed that dead and retired players are still the most popular with boys 12 to 17 years old.
"When dead players are more popular with kids than David Justice or Barry Bonds or Bobby Bonilla, then baseball has to ask itself some serious questions," said Nye Lavell, the chairman and managing director of Dallas-based Sports Marketing Group. "The problem with baseball is that no one is asking the question."
How about 1991?
Earlier this season, the guardians of baseball gathered in New York to ponder a Sports Illustrated poll identifying the 20 American athletes kids most admire. Only one baseball player -- Bo Jackson -- made the list, and he's equally known as a football player.
"When people talk about spoiled, overpaid athletes these days, they're talking about baseball players," says David Burns, owner of Burns Sports Celebrity Services of Chicago, which finds athletes to endorse products. "Compare the reputation of Clemens and (the Oakland A's Jose) Canseco with squeaky-clean Joe Montana or patriot David Robinson or good guy Wayne Gretzky. Other sports' superstars appreciate their role, but baseball's best seem to be foaming at the mouth."
Burns described the endorsement market as "dead for every active player but Nolan Ryan. We get calls for retired players -- Jim Palmer, Johnny Bench. Burns' interpretation is that fans haven't turned off to the sport, just to most of the current stars.
Baseball stardom has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, dependent on factors largely out of baseball’s control. Superstardom requires the right combination of amazing talent, personality, and flair. Superstardom doesn’t quite work when it is artificially manufactured. Remember “Dan and Dave”?
In anticipation of the 1992 Summer Olympics, Reebok plunged millions into an ad campaign based around American decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. One problem - O’Brien failed to make the Olympics. Even Johnson had to settle for the bronze in Barcelona. America wasn’t ready for “Dan and Dave.”
Another factor that should be mentioned is that baseball is not really a national sport anymore, it has become very regional. National television ratings are down to historic lows, but local television ratings are at all-time highs. People care about their local nine, not what other teams are doing. It should stand to reason, then, that baseball stardom has become local.
If you asked Kansas Citians who there favorite professional athlete was, the top two on the list would probably be Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer. Locally, those two are bigger than any NFL player, despite the fact the Chiefs are very good, have a player near the top of his position (Justin Houston), a player with a compelling narrative (Eric Berry), and a player with enough personality to host a reality TV show (Travis Kelce). Those Chiefs players are almost certainly better known nationally, but in Kansas City, kids wear more Salvy jerseys than Kelce jerseys.
Interestingly, this could make it more lucrative for free agent stars to stay in one local market and become an icon, rather than try to pursue national TV dollars in a larger media market (looking at you, Hosmer!) Regardless, in many markets, the local baseball stud is still a big deal. Cincinnati loves Joey Votto. St. Louis loves Yadier Molina. Pittsburgh loves Andrew McCutchen. Should it matter that they don’t love Mike Trout?
George Brett was a national superstar who made appearances on Letterman and did national 7Up ads. There was also less competition from other sports back then. The NFL had not yet surpassed MLB in popularity. The NBA was so popular its championship games were broadcast on tape-delay. The NHL was limited to only then northeastern United States and Canada. Aside from those sports, boxing, tennis, and the Olympics, that was it for sports stars. Now kids grow up following international soccer superstars, MMA fighters, skateboarders, and NASCAR drivers.
I don’t know if we’ll ever see baseball stars again permeate national culture the way George Brett did. But I do know that baseball attendance is up 50% from 1980. I know that Fox Sports Kansas City continues to set records for viewership. Revenues have never been higher for the game. Baseball does not have national superstars right now. Maybe they will again, someday. But it doesn’t seem to matter.