Mike Trout

Baseball is dying, you guys, because no one would recognize Mike Trout in a bar

78 Comments

Ben McGrath of The New Yorker has the latest Baseball is Dying story.

And, actually, it’s a good story, as you might expect from a good writer at a good publication. In it he makes a good distinction — one I should do better about making when I cover my currently favorite beat — about how the metrics of baseball and the cultural zeitgeist of baseball are two different things. Specifically, that’s it’s one thing to say that baseball is financially healthy and gets good attendance but it’s another thing to say it’s culturally healthy and prominent and all of that.

But his mode of testing that cultural health is pretty dubious. It’s the “would you recognize Mike Trout if he walked into a bar” test. No, really:

If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar, would you recognize him? . . . When was the last time baseball’s reigning king was a cultural nonentity, someone you can’t even name-drop without a non-fan giving you a patronizing smile?

He compares Trout unfavorably in this regard to Derek Jeter and David Ortiz, each of whom are big, big stars but who are now fading from the scene. And soon, baseball will have no one to replace them in terms of star power, and that “baseball’s role in the national consciousness” will now suffer.

To which I’d say: how many people would’ve recognized Derek Jeter or David Ortiz if they had walked into a bar before they spent multiple Octobers on national TV screens? Mike Trout has never appeared in the playoffs. He has not won an MVP award. When David Ortiz was his age he played in 86 games for the Minnesota Twins, splitting time with Orlando Merced and Doug Mientkiewicz. When Jeter was 22 he was far more well known, but he had also happened to be playing for the World Series champion New York Yankees. Ortiz and Jeter’s legends — and their national profiles — grew after a decade and a decade and a half of consistently being featured as stars by Fox in postseason broadcasts.

A featuring, by the way, others who lament baseball’s impending death claim was a bad thing because it excluded everyone else who played for teams that aren’t the Yankees and the Red Sox. And which mischaracterizes the nature of baseball anyway, portraying it as a sport where stars rule when, in fact, it is less amenable to domination by any one player than any other major sport is. Was pumping Jeter and Ortiz up to big heights while ignoring the rest of baseball a good thing for the sport? Is teasing a baseball game as “Star 1 vs. Star 2!” wise given the small likelihood that Star 1 or Star 2 will actually dominate the game? I sort of feel like it isn’t, even if LeBron/Kobe or Manning/Brady-style marketing works for the other sports.

But that stuff aside, the people who talk about baseball’s cultural insignificance routinely use hindsight and compare apples and oranges in this way. “Babe Ruth was huge, but who knows who Giancarlo Stanton is?!” they lament. “Mickey Mantle owned the world, but no one could pick Andrew McCutchen out of a lineup!” Never mind that the players to whom current stars are being compared have decades of movies, books and other assorted bits of lore building up their legend.

Babe Ruth was three seasons away from even joining the Yankees when he was Mike Trout’s age. I feel like we can cut some barflies some slack if they don’t recognize Trout when he walks into a bar. Hell, he’s only been legally able to do so for about two years as it is.

UPDATE: Sorry, still thinking about this and the more I think about it the more irked I am at the very premise of the New Yorker piece. The premise being that it’s somehow bad that baseball is no longer the preeminent sport in the American landscape.

Worth noting: When baseball was THE NATIONAL PASTIME three or four teams were good, no one else drew crowds and players sold cars in the winter because they had to in order to make ends meet. A lot of players were out of shape and the quality of the game was pretty poor in many respects. Baseball was a monopoly in many ways and it suffered from the same problems any other monopolies do: complacence and laziness and dumb and destructive management that was never truly punished. Go read the book “Lords of the Realm” to get a flavor of how that all played out from the 20s through the 60s. Baseball’s alleged “Golden Age.”

Baseball is no longer the only game in town. It is no longer the most popular game in town. So what? What did its prominence and popularity do for it back in the 1950s? It didn’t add any money to the bottom line of the many teams which struggled to make ends meet and were forced to sell off their players or move cities. It didn’t give fans a better product. Unless, of course, the fans happened to cheer for the Yankees. In no other area of life do we pine for a time when there were fewer choices and options, yet we seem to do it with sports. Imagine someone saying TV was better when there were only three networks. Imagine someone saying beer was better when there were only a couple of big brands you could buy. Yet people, all the time, say that we were somehow better off as a society when baseball was king.

It’s empty nostalgia is what it is. Someone explain to me how either baseball as an institution or we as a society were better off when baseball was the only sport that mattered. In one single way, tell me how baseball or society is worse off now.

Athletics trade Billy Burns to the Royals for Brett Eibner

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - MAY 13: Billy Burns #1 of the Oakland Athletics waits on deck to bat during the fourth inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on May 13, 2016 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
Brian Blanco/Getty Images
3 Comments

The Athletics and Royals swapped outfielders on Saturday. The Athletics sent Billy Burns to Kansas City and the Royals sent Brett Eibner to Oakland.

Burns, 26, doesn’t provide much in the way of offense, but he runs the bases well and plays solid defense. He was hitting .234/.270/.303 with 11 doubles, four triples, and 14 stolen bases in 274 plate appearances.

Eibner, 27, was batting .231/.286/.423 with three home runs and 10 RBI in 85 plate appearances. He has spent most of the season with Triple-A Omaha, where he’s put up a .902 OPS in 219 PA. Eibner played the outfield corners in the majors, but racked up a ton of time playing center in the minors, so his versatility will be valuable to the A’s.

Burns will become eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2017 season while Eibner has hardly accrued any service time, which might explain part of the motivation behind the trade for the small-market Athletics.

Nationals acquire closer Mark Melancon from the Pirates

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 20:  Mark Melancon #35 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches during the ninth inning against the Colorado Rockies on May 20, 2016 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images
7 Comments

The Nationals announced on Saturday afternoon that the club acquired closer Mark Melancon from the Pirates in exchange for reliever Felipe Rivero and minor league pitcher Taylor Hearn.

Melancon, 31, put together another solid season for the Pirates, leaving the club with 30 saves, a 1.51 ERA, and a 38/9 K/BB ratio in 41 2/3 innings. He led the majors last season with 51 saves and has a 1.80 ERA since joining the Pirates in 2013. Melancon is earning $9.65 million this season and can become eligible for free agency after the season.

With Melancon out of the picture, the Pirates intend to have Tony Watson take over the closer’s role.

Rivero, 25, has handled the seventh and eighth innings for the Nationals this season, compiling a 4.53 ERA and a 53/15 K/BB ratio in 49 2/3 innings. He’s just shy of one year of service time, so the Pirates will have control of him for a long time.

Hearn, 21, was rated the Nationals’ 27th-best prospect by MLB Pipeline. He was originally drafted by the Pirates in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft but he didn’t sign and ended up going back to college. The Nationals took him in the fifth round of last year’s draft. This season, between rookie ball and Single-A Hagerstown, Hearn put up a 2.79 ERA and a 39/13 K/BB ratio in 29 innings. He’s a long way away from the majors, so he’s essentially a lottery ticket for the Pirates.

The Nationals needed an upgrade at closer as Jonathan Papelbon has struggled this season. The right-hander has allowed runs in each of his last three appearances, ballooning his ERA up to 4.41 with a 30/13 K/BB ratio in 32 2/3 innings. It will be interesting to see how Papelbon, who has never made a habit of letting his feelings go unspoken, handles a demotion to the eighth inning.