Few things in sports are more overrated than superstars as saviors, specifically the idea that Player X saved sport Y. A romantic notion that falls apart under the slightest investigation. Entropy puts more butts in the seats than excellence can ever dream.
Mike Trout is not the most famous player in baseball right now, he’s the best. Trout is 22-years old and toils for a mismanaged club in the shadow of one of the game’s monoliths. As good as Trout is, his generally “unspectacular” play paired with his grand total of zero playoff games played doesn’t move the needle on a national level. He is not Johnny Manziel. He is barely Yasiel Puig.
An inability to create headlines and shockwaves is not an indictment of Trout, though to hear some tell it, Major League Baseball has a big problem on their hands. Because the Angels’ superstar is blandly inoffensive, baseball’s slip into irrelevance is only hastened.
It’s true, Mike Trout is short on personality. In front of prying eyes, that’s absolutely the truth. He trades heavily in self-effacing cliches and rarely offers much insight, even when the conversation takes place squarely on his turf.
His nascent fame manifests itself in an ideal partnership with a national fast food chain, the thick-necked Trout hocking tubular foodstuffs blanched white in a near-perfect marriage of form and function.
Trout is famous enough that when his Angels come to town, the local news outlets send their columnists and opinion-makers to suss out the situation. What he isn’t famous enough to do, however, is turn out in numbers. Even with previous Face of Baseball-type Albert Pujols and Trout on the same team, the Angels rank 21st among 30 teams in average road attendance. Last season, they finished 26th.
Generalist eyes glaze over as generational talents looks to end brief clubhouse conversation as quickly as possible. Looking for an angle but seeing none, columnists makes this the angle, concern-trolling the future of the game when its finest practitioner fails in his role as ambassador.
It’s an ambassador role Trout inherits from Derek Jeter, as Cathal Kelly of the Globe & Mail sees it. Derek Jeter, author of countless dramatic moments on the field and exactly zero off the field, is held up as the edgier model to emulate.
Jeter’s “otherness” trumps Trout’s “sameness”, as though Jeter did anything beside toe the company line for his entire career. A man envied for his bevy of model/actress exes by half the sportswriters who covered him while worshipped for bestowing the honorific “mister” upon George Steinbrenner by the other half.
It says more about the current media landscape that a writer walks away from Mike Trout disappointed that the star center fielder lacks rough edges. Previous generations spent hours and column inches smoothing over personality flaws or substance abuses, clearly vested in the myth-making process.
For some audiences, a guileless superstar does represent a failing. These people are called “non baseball fans.” They are the folks looking for reasons to deride the game, to prop up their own belief that the sport fails to rate because of snapshot TV ratings or their own personal preferences.
Talk radio oxygen thieves spout half-baked theories and point their nicotine-stained fingers at players like Trout because he and Clayton Kershaw and Buster Posey and [insert name of square-jawed ‘Good Ol’ Boy’ here] don’t lead Sportscenter with their every utterance. It’s the job of morning zoo crew goons to ignore the forest and zero in on the trees. That doesn’t make them right.
Baseball is a uniquely regional experience. Baseball wins on the macro scale, not the micro. There are no masses. The cumulative power of 81 home dates a season times 30 teams created a financial superpower still printing money. 30 fanbases blanketing the nation with the success cycle and expansion shifting allegiances and sparking turf wars between fathers and sons, neighbours and friends.
Baseball fans care about their team, first, foremost, and only. Out of market superstars don’t motivate ticket sales except among the most desperate of baseball diehards. Only the threat of losing one forever sparks a nostalgia-fueled farewell tour where the fans who happen to be in the ballpark that day clang their jewellery together in appreciation of a great career that place for the benefit of another fanbase.
It took a lot more than one gigawatt smile to build that behemoth, just as it will take more than one Cuban with bad baserunning instincts to derail it. Baseball outlasts. It outlasts racial strife and labor unrest and cocaine and the cash-and-viewer-rich game will survive Mike Trout coming to grips with his role as Face of the Sport. At 22, he has a few years to get his lines down pat.
Feature photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports/Andrew Fielding