We talk about this a couple of times a year, it seems: “The Face of Baseball.” Who is it? Who should it be? We’ve certainly talked a lot about it since Derek Jeter, the last “Face of Baseball” retired.
Today Jayson Stark talks about it, based on a survey which shows that the three most popular baseball players are Babe Ruth, Pete Rose and Jeter, none of whom, obviously, play anymore. Stark uses that as a jumping off point to talk about how baseball culture, which is aimed at smacking down individualism and showmanship, is itself to blame for there being no post-Jeter Face of Baseball. And he wonders who might break through that barrier and give us a new Face.
I don’t take any major issue with Stark’s observations. I will note, though, that a huge part of Jeter being the Face of Baseball was because of the very baseball culture Stark mentions as a barrier. He “played the game the right way” and “went about his business” and didn’t showboat and all of that jazz. That was his primary calling card, at least individually speaking. The Classy Captain stuff. If that’s part of what made him the Face, there’s no reason a new Face couldn’t emerge within the Play The Game The Right Way constraints Stark now cites as an impediment.
I don’t think that’s all there is to it, however. I think that what’s keeping there from being a new Face of Baseball is a bit more complicated. It’s multifaceted, in fact, and it’s the sort of thing that will keep us from having a new Face of Baseball for a long, long time. Maybe forever.
We covered this about three years ago. Then, Jack Moore of The Hardball Times wrote a fantastic column talking about the nature of The Face of Baseball and how they’re created. The short version — which I covered here — is that a Face of Baseball is designed to deliver a marketing and philosophical message preferred by the Baseball Establishment, communicated both officially through MLB’s own p.r. efforts and unofficially via the game’s gatekeepers in the press.
Let’s use Stark’s three examples to see how that worked.
- When the Roaring 20s hit, the national zeitgeist called for larger than life characters in nearly every facet of society, from Wall Street to Broadway to Gangland Chicago to Hollywood. A larger than life character like Ruth was perfectly suited for the role in baseball and he did more than anyone to send the message that BASEBALL WAS BIG! .
- Pete Rose was the Face at a time when the rougher NFL was taking over as the country’s favorite sport, the hippies were running amok and there was an interest in communicating that BASEBALL WAS TOUGH AND NO-NONSENSE. He had a crewcut when everyone else was growing their hair out long and, even after he gave that up, he was knocking the guys who played for the long-hair Oakland A’s over on their cans. Go find a 60-70-year old Pete Rose fan today and I can tell you, with certainty, what they thought about youth culture in 1969.
- Derek Jeter, apart from being the handsome young star of the game’s marquee team, was elevated to near sainthood during the Steroids Era when the message needed to be BASEBALL IS HONEST AND CLEAN.
I’m not saying someone had formal meetings to decide such things and name these guys as Faces, but between marketing and the media, these were settled on as rough messages and ideals to which baseball was supposed to aspire. They either furthered a good narrative or combatted a troubling one that people with baseball press credentials are almost hardwired to combat. The very close knit world of baseball leadership and baseball media saw to it, via a combination of groupthink, osmosis and an almost complete monopoly on baseball commentary, to elevate players like Ruth, Rose and Jeter at the time they were elevated in the way they were elevated. It was not coordinated, but it was no accident either.
This is almost impossible now, for a few reasons.
Structurally, baseball does not lend itself to a star just taking over as the Face the way one might in basketball and football. No one baseball player can dominate a game or lead a team to glory like a star basketball player or a star quarterback can, so an organically-created Face of Baseball — one who just cannot be denied as its biggest personality or star — is always going to be difficult.
Moreover, baseball is increasingly a local sport, not a national sport, the way basketball and football are national sports. That’s even more the case now, I’d argue, than it was when Derek Jeter ascended to Facedom, thanks to MLB.tv, larger local cable packages and the ability to watch more games locally than one could in the early-to-mid 1990s. Greater parity also hampers this, as no one has appeared in six or seven World Series in as short a time as Jeter did and likely won’t any time soon.
The biggest factor, however, has to do with baseball commentary and marketing.
Absent an organically-created Face, it falls to that media/p.r. apparatus, as it did with Ruth, Rose and Jeter to create one. Except now, thanks to the Internet, the ability to consume games in a number of ways and the democratization and fragmentation of baseball media, there is no rough consensus on the messages baseball wants to communicate sufficient to identify a face. Indeed, things are all over the map as far as that stuff is concerned.
Some may prefer the clean cut Mike Trout/Anthony Rizzo types and all of that workmanlike go-about-their-business stuff. Some may prefer the more brash, shoot-from-the-hip Bryce Harper types. Meanwhile, there has been a huge uptick in popularity of anti-hero types whose game flies in the face of the stuff that used to make one The Face of Baseball. The bat-flippers who DON’T play the game the right way, as it were. It’s also worth noting that baseball is becoming a far more international game with greater diversity on its rosters.
If there is no consensus on what a star baseball player is supposed to look like or be — if there is no agreement as to what baseball’s values are or that baseball even needs to have a given set of values — how can a single Face, which is supposed to be an avatar for those values, even emerge?
I’d say one will not emerge, at least not any time soon. The game, and people’s attitudes about the game, is too diverse for one to be created in the way past Faces of Baseball were created. At best we’ll get an organic, default one by virtue of a baseball dynasty. Give the Cubs five or six Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant-led pennants and we may have something to work with.
For now, though? Nah. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.