derek jeter getty

Derek Jeter: The Last Face of Baseball


A few weeks ago I wrote a little bit about who might follow Derek Jeter as the so-called “Face of Baseball.” I didn’t think too deeply about it, but in the course of my musings I noted that it may be tough to find one given that Derek Jeter has this quality about him — a mystery and a privacy, however pleasant it may be — which allows fans and the media to project our values on him and say “yep, he stands for what I stand for!”

I didn’t realize that, rather than being an odd quirk of Jeter’s persona that lends him to being the avatar of the game for so many, it’s an essential trait for anyone who would take that role. And that it’s a role — The Face of Baseball — that may now be obsolete.

I learned this by reading Jack Moore’s excellent article at the Hardball Times this morning, in which he explores why it is baseball (and all sports really) have historically needed a “face,” and how the media and marketing arms of professional sports have traditionally served as intermediaries between the sport and the fans and who promote that face. Intermediaries which communicate to fans the values the intermediaries want them to appreciate. This is all based on actual social science Moore talks about in which things like character, discipline, competition, nationalism and the like are appreciated and celebrated by sports fans and which they have come to expect as the primary mode of understanding sports as a default. Values that are even fetishized to some extent, I would argue.

The most prominent intermediary: the sports media. Reporters columnists and TV producers who play up these themes in their coverage. It’s impossible not to see this once you are aware of it. Think any column talking about a player’s character or about what makes him great, separate and apart from the fact that he hits the ball hard. The entire conversation of player character and attitude that utterly consumes sports radio and those shout-fests on ESPN. The little features at the top of or in the middle of broadcasts. The narratives that are applied to the stories of the games.

But Moore notes something important: in the past 15 years or so, the need for intermediaries like journalists and TV producers has become less necessary. We can mainline our sports via the Internet far more easily than we could before. This, for some, leads to a view of the game that is far more data-oriented than stories/values-oriented (think the sabermetric community). For those who still go through media intermediaries, there is a far wider choice of them, including intermediaries which may extoll a set of values which are radically different than the “hero/competitor/champion/gentlemen” values extolled by the traditional sporting press (think contrary bloggers who LOVE flamboyant showboats and don’t get too bent out of shape about PED users). And of course, the mainstream media and those sports yakkers are still out there pushing the idea of “winners” and “competitors” and “class acts” and all of that nonsense.

If the way baseball is consumed and understood has fragmented — and it clearly has — having a single face for baseball is an obsolete concept. For some it may be a hard-working, clean-living, marquee guy like Derek Jeter is assumed to be. For some it may be an entertaining/frustrating force of nature like Yasiel Puig. For some it may not be a face, but a heel. A guy who becomes an anti-hero just like heels have in wrestling since the 1990s. For others it may be no one, as they choose to just have the game pump into their veins via the visceral experience and data.

These are some pretty heady concepts about which I have always been vaguely aware and have promoted in piecemeal fashion, but which I am just now realizing, thanks to Moore’s piece, explain almost everything about what has shaped sports and sports media and the online conversation about baseball over the past several years.  Kudos to Moore for laying this out as he does here.

David Ortiz and Kris Bryant win 2016 Hank Aaron Awards

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  (L-R) Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer 2016 Hank Aaron, Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred and David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox pose during the Hank Aaron Award ceremony prior to Game Two of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images
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Major League Baseball announced on Wednesday that former Red Sox DH David Ortiz and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant won the 2016 Hank Aaron Award in their respective leagues.

Ortiz, 40, flourished in his final season, batting .315/.401/.620 with 38 home runs and 127 RBI in 626 plate appearances during the regular season. His .620 slugging percentage, 1.021 OPS, and 48 doubles led the majors while his 127 RBI led the American League. Ortiz also won the Hank Aaron Award back in 2005.

Bryant, 24, is the likely winner of the National League Most Valuable Player Award as well. He hit .292/.385/.554 with 39 home runs and 102 RBI over 699 plate appearances. He also led the league by scoring 121 runs. Bryant is the first Cub to win the Hank Aaron Award since Aramis Ramirez in 2008.

Last year’s winners in the AL and NL, respectively, were Josh Donaldson and Bryce Harper.

Alex Rodriguez is taking his analyst role quite seriously

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 12: Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees answers question in a press conference after the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium on August 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

If you’ve happened to catch any of the coverage of the 2016 postseason on Fox and FS1, you’ve heard former Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez as part of an analyst panel with host Kevin Burkhardt and former major leaguers Pete Rose and Frank Thomas. Rodriguez has drawn rave reviews not just for passing a rather low bar we set for former athletes-turned-commentators, but because he’s adding real insight drawn both from his playing days and from doing research.

Indeed, Rodriguez is taking his new job as an analyst quite seriously, Newsday’s Neil Best reports. Bardia Shah-Rais, the VP of production for Fox, said of Rodriguez, “This is not a hobby for him. It’s not a parachute in. He’s invested. If we have a noon meeting, he’s there at 11:30 a.m. He’s emailing story ideas in the morning. He wants research. He’s almost all-in to the point where it’s annoying.”

Rose also praised Rodriguez, saying, “You’ve never been around a guy who prepares more than Alex does. Alex does his homework. He knows the game. He understands players. He’s into the deal . . . Frank does a great job in preparation, too. I’m the only one that don’t prepare as much as these two guys. I don’t know if that’s because I can’t write or what it is. But these guys do their homework and they ask questions and they ask the right questions and then you put that in with our experience, all the things we’ve been through and how good we get along with each other, that’s why it shows up on the TV.”

Rodriguez, who hasn’t officially retired despite not having played since the Yankees released him in mid-August, wouldn’t commit to more TV work beyond this year’s postseason.