Major League Baseball is trying to help fans connect nationally to the biggest and best players in the sport, especially players like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and now the great Aaron Judge.
While it’s true that MLB games and players lend themselves to mostly regional coverage and connect all the time with their fans who love their specific team, baseball doesn’t get the national attention that sports like the National Basketball Association and the National Football League do.
In fact, there is not a single baseball player rated in ESPN’s top 100 most famous athletes, according to the Denver Post, being beaten out by guys like the New England Patriots Tom Brady (who, let’s face it, deserves to be there).
The study was “based on endorsements, social media following and internet search popularity” and the top players, besides Brady, were not what the average American would expect. Cristiano Ronaldo was ranked first, followed by the Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, tennis star Roger Federer and golfer Phil Mickelson. Brady is the top NFL player at 21 after leading New England to five Super Bowl titles.
That’s pretty crazy, but it’s also a study of the entire world, with soccer being so prevalent on the list. However, MLB needs to and is attempting to focus on the United States first, especially considering baseball’s long, rich history of being “America’s Pastime” and surviving through World Wars and other major events that could have derailed it as a league.
Yet, baseball has persevered and withstood adversity. It is still here and still popular, just not as popular as new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would like it to be.
It’s really hard to compete with the NFL and NBA, though. They get more endorsements as baseball players are busy playing 162 games in 183 days. Even the Los Angeles Dodgers’ star Clayton Kershaw, arguably the greatest pitcher in the world today, admitted it’s true.
“Football is football. You can’t even really compare yourself. It’s just everybody loves football in America. That’s just the way it is.”
But it doesn’t have to be, and players like the New York Yankees’ power-hitting rookie Aaron Judge proved that yet again Monday night in his epic home run derby win.
Everyone, and not just New Yorkers, is talking about Judge. How can you not? The 6’7″ rookie leads the majors with 30 home runs, and it is just the All-Star break. He has already broken Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees’ rookie record for home runs (29) in a single year before the All-Star break even began!
He is also just the second rookie ever to hit 30 or more home runs prior to the All-Star break. Mark McGwire hit 33 before the break for the Oakland Athletics in 1987.
Then came Monday night and the 2017 Home Run Derby. Judge proved himself to be one of the greatest power hitters to come into the league since the 6’6″, 245-lb Giancarlo Stanton. Judge himself is 6’7″ and 282 lbs. He’s as massive as they come.
The derby started out with an eight-player bracket with the New York Yankees’ catcher Gary Sanchez upsetting the Miami Marlin’s great Stanton. Minnesota Twins’ shortstop Miguel Sano defeated the Kansas City Royals’ Mike Moustakas, Judge defeated the Marlins’ Justin Bour and Dodgers’ rookie Cody Bellinger defeated Colorado Rockies’ star Charlie Blackmon.
It all came down to two youngsters in the end. Sano, 24, was easily defeated by the rookie Judge, 25.
Guys like Judge, Harper, and the game’s all-around best player Mike Trout, who is also just 25, are the players that need to connect with today’s youth, but it isn’t that easy to do.
Under former commissioner Bud Selig, the league wanted to keep more revenue from endorsement deals and discouraged players from taking on time-consuming endorsement events, according to one of the league’s most infamous agents, Scott Boras, whose clients include the Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant and Harper.
However, under Manfred’s direction, MLB has made plans to better allow players to gain endorsements the way NBA and NFL players do, so they will be more recognized nationally than regionally recognized, according to Bob Bowman, MLB’s president of business and media.
“We have set aside a significant percentage, 15, 20 percent of contracts, to activate around players. We require players to be utilized in every national deal we do now, since Rob Manfred became commissioner.”
Manfred has made a lot of positive changes to the game and for both the players and the fans since being made commissioner two years ago.
Still, 46-year-old Jeff Berry, co-head of CAA Baseball, along with others, thinks that some of Manfred’s changes aren’t necessary.
“The doomsday atmosphere has been around since I was a kid. Baseball doesn’t need to be cooler. It doesn’t need to be hipper. It doesn’t have to be more fast-paced.”
But what baseball does need is for the league’s superstars to be nationally loved and looked up to. They need to have endorsements the way the Golden State Warriors’ star Steph Curry does. He’s become beloved by the basketball community for his work on and off the court, but mainly because he’s seen everywhere, especially on the national stage.
Players like Harper, Trout, and Judge just need that to better connect with the fans. Even if they don’t want to be too distracted during the season, they need to connect with the younger generation, which is something Aaron Judge began when he made the 2017 Home Run Derby, perhaps the most epic derby in Home Run Derby history.
Hopefully, it’s a trend that will continue under Commissioner Manfred, along with the help of the best players in the game, like Trout and Harper. They could continue on Tuesday by providing an All-Star game for the ages, even without Trout — who is currently on his way back from the disabled list.
They can do it, even now without the incentive of the winning league getting home-field advantage in the World Series. It’s likely to happen with guys like Harper, who wants to “make the game fun again.”
If the players really do want to connect with the fans, they will play their hardest on Tuesday and make their names even bigger on the national stage than they already are, and that will be a good start to bringing baseball’s popularity up to the level of the NBA and the NFL.
Not that baseball really needs it, it will always be “America’s Pastime,” but the game deserves it for that very same reason.
[Featured Image by Mark Brown/Getty Images]