MIAMI — On the afternoon of the 88th All-Star Game, there are issues with baseball, and they’re inescapable. Want four seats, all in a row, for Tuesday night’s showcase at Marlins Park? They’re available, because the game is not yet sold out, a jaw-dropping revelation that could seem damning both to Miami as a baseball market and baseball as a marketer of itself.
But here, too, is a 6-foot-7, 282-pound tight end lookalike wearing pinstripes and holding a bat, liable to send a baseball into an unimaginable stratosphere any time he swings in this, his rookie season. There is a mesmerizing, oops-my-helmet-fell-off-so-look-at-my-locks star who has considered the All-Star Game an annual summer vacation since he was a teenager.
What does baseball lack? How about, for once, what does baseball have?
It has Aaron Judge, just 25 and finding out what being a New York Yankee – and therefore a full-fledged, everyone-recognizes-him star – is all about. It has Bryce Harper, who could teach a master class in carrying one’s self as a celebrity as he approaches his fifth All-Star game at just 24.
And baseball, even with those two assets, has this, too: a struggle with itself, about what it always has been and what it should be, now and going forward. When Judge propelled himself into his first All-Star Game by winning what was an enthralling Home Run Derby on Monday night — he hit four balls further than 500 feet, and if you haven’t seen a 500-foot home run in person, it appears to defy physics — there was a movement to label him the “Face of Baseball,” gap-toothed smile and all.
That’s fine, and his position with the Yankees and in New York might make him a better choice to define the sport than even Harper, who has made it his personal mission to push baseball players to become crossover stars, to break out of staid clubhouse culture and become part of pop culture.
“Face of baseball?” Clayton Kershaw asked, rhetorically, Monday afternoon. He could be one, for sure, because there’s no more accomplished pitcher right now than the Dodgers lefty. But Kershaw, like so many players, demurs.
“It’s a tough question, because I don’t really love all the marketing and stuff,” Kershaw said. “But if I had to start a team, I’d take Mike Trout.”
Trout, the Los Angeles Angels center fielder, isn’t here because he is rehabbing an injury. But he is a symbol of baseball’s quandary. Within the sport, he is admired for what he has accomplished: In his five full seasons, his finishes in the MVP voting have been second, second, first, second and first. But in clubhouses, it’s possible he’s more respected for how he carries himself. Trout was born with his head down, his blinders on. The next time he thumps his own chest will be the first.
That admiration for self-restraint is something with which baseball must grapple, because it is simultaneously admirable and constraining. Baseball players who adhere to the traditions and mores of the sport believe no one player is more important than the team, that showmanship designed to draw attention to yourself has no place in the game, that individuality should be suppressed. On one hand, that’s what you want to teach your kids. On the other, it’s why a celebratory bat-flip can cause controversy, why a shoe contract or endorsement deal can be seen as a player’s distraction rather than the sport’s promotion.
“Honestly,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, “a lot of the baseball guys just don’t like to do that kind of stuff.”
So here was Judge, announcing himself with his violent, athletic swings Monday night, but then walking it back afterward with his words, saying, “I try to take everything one day at a time.”
“He is a tremendous talent on the field, a really appealing off-the-field personality, the kind of player that can become the face of the game,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday at his annual all-star meeting with baseball writers.
Manfred knows what his sport has here. And yet, in the same breath: “People talk about marketing the game and players becoming the face of the game. Our game is a team sport. And that means inherent limitations in terms of how big a star any individual player is going to become. It actually creates a reluctance among players, sometimes, to market themselves.”
Moreover, what’s beautiful about baseball’s rhythms, not just its characters, also can be what holds it back. Baseball is a soundtrack, a backdrop to an entire summer. It can be on while you do your taxes or surf the Web. It can be part of a beach vacation or it can be left at home, because even if you’re away for Labor Day, it’ll be there when you come back. It’s a nightly reality television show in which the characters become relatable, part of the family and the fabric.
But when you play 162 games, you’re not appointment viewing. Even if, say, Judge’s at-bats become must-see TV in a certain household, there are just four or five a night, and they might come 45 minutes apart, and if you flip to something else and forget to flip back, you might miss one. LeBron and Steph, though, they have the ball on every possession, and they rest just a few minutes in an important game. The design of basketball means the stars are central to every possession. The design of baseball means the stars must wait their turn.
Those aren’t criticisms. They are realities. Neither Aaron Judge nor Bryce Harper can change them.
But what Judge’s insane first half — a Ruthian 30 homers, a Bondsian 1.139 on-base-plus-slugging — reminds us of is that it’s possible for this sport to produce stars. Monday’s Home Run Derby produced the highest ratings for the event in eight years. In the New York market, the souped-up batting practice session drew more viewers than any in the history of the event. For a sport that needs its most compelling stories to be exposed to the widest possible audience, that’s important.
“Look at what he’s doing,” Yankees reliever Dellin Betances said. “Everybody’s noticing him. And I’m not just talking about in baseball. People everywhere know who he is.”
That’s what baseball needs, guys like that. If we’re taking stock at this midsummer classic, let’s trust baseball to monitor and address its flaws. But let’s also leave room to acknowledge what it has right now, which is Aaron Judge and Bryce Harper and Jose Altuve and Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa and Giancarlo Stanton and Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer and Mookie Betts and . . .
There’s room for them all if the sport can just push them forward rather than holding them back.