Derek Jeter: The Last Face of Baseball

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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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Reds 5, Pirates 4: Austin Meadows continues to mash the ball, crushing his fourth home run of the season on a three-hit afternoon. The homer cut the Pirates’ deficit to one run against Amir Garrett in the top of the ninth inning, but it wasn’t enough. Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez both went yard for the Reds. Suarez’s was a grand slam:

Angels 8, Blue Jays 1: The Angels chased Marco Estrada in the fifth inning, scoring four runs off of him, including one on a solo home run from Mike Trout that got the right bounce on top of the wall in left-center field.

Albert Pujols picked up a pair of hits, giving him 3,015 in his career. One of those hits was a solo homer, giving him 621 on the career. His next targets on the all-time list are Rafael Palmeiro for hits (28th; 3,020) and Ken Griffey, Jr. for homers (sixth, 630).

Orioles 9, White Sox 3: Dylan Bundy went the distance, giving up three runs on two hits and a walk with a career-high 14 strikeouts. Bundy threw 121 pitches, the most he’s thrown in a game since shutting out the Mariners on August 29 last year. All three runs scored on a home run by Jose Rondon in the fourth inning. Adam Jones homered on a three-hit afternoon. Manny Machado also picked up three hits of his own. Trey Mancini hit a solo shot of his own off of Lucas Giolito, who owns an ugly 7.53 ERA on the year.

Athletics 4, Mariners 3: The A’s scored all four of their runs against Felix Hernandez in the first inning. Hernandez settled down from there, but it proved to be just too much. He gave up the four runs on five hits and a walk with two strikeouts over six innings. The former Cy Young Award winner now owns a 5.58 ERA on the season. Jean Segura had three hits for the Mariners, raising his average to a lusty .317. This was essentially a bullpen day for the A’s, who used three pitchers to get through the first seven innings. Blake Treinen got the final four outs to seal the deal, staving off a series sweep in Seattle.

Astros 8, Indians 2: Alex Bregman was the star of this one, hitting a go-ahead three-run homer in the fifth inning, then adding an RBI double in the Astros’ five-run sixth. George Springer reached base four times and Jake Marisnick had three RBI. Charlie Morton held the Indians to two runs over six innings, which caused his ERA to go all the way up to 2.04. That, by the way, is the third-worst ERA in the Astros’ rotation behind Justin Verlander (1.08) and Gerrit Cole (1.86).

Rays 6, Red Sox 3: Wilson Ramos returned to the lineup, contributing three hits and a pair of RBI. Blake Snell struck out eight Red Sox over six shutout innings, yielding only three hits and two walks. Rick Porcello had a rough night, failing to exit the fourth after surrendering six runs (four earned).

Royals 8, Rangers 1: Salvador Perez had a pair of run-scoring singles. Ramon Torres, appearing in his first major league game this season, scored a couple of runs for the Royals on this little league home run:

Danny Duffy limited the Rangers to one run on four hits and two walks with five strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings. The outing helped lower his ERA to 6.14.

Mets 5, Brewers 0: Steven Matz fired six shutout frames, limiting the Brewers to four hits and three walks with three strikeouts. Brandon Nimmo reached base five times, doubling twice with a walk and a triple. Adrubal Cabrera and Wilmer Flores picked up a pair of RBI each.