Sunday, November 30, 2008

King James and the MLB

As some of you probably know, on Tuesday night, the New York Knicks played LeBron James and the Cleveland Caviliers at Madison Square Garden. The game was a blowout by the second quarter, but most of the fans in the stands did not come to watch the Knicks win. They came to see LeBron, who is far and away the best player in the game. LeBron can do anything he wishes on the court and will have hundreds of millions of dollars thrown at him when he becomes a free agent in 2010. James is that good, a once in a lifetime basketball talent. He is unquestionably the face of the NBA.

So what the hell does this have to do with baseball? Well, it's simple. Even though baseball has boomed since the lockout and continues to swim in massive revenues and profit, I don't think that there is a LeBron in baseball. There is not one player who completely takes over the game with his ridiculous skills and has crossover appeal into pop culture. There is no mid nineties Ken Griffey Jr., a guy who could completely captivate an audience and transcend the minds of young children. Griffey was by far the most popular player in the majors and easily had the most hype attached to his name.
You can certainly make the case that Alex Rodriguez is the "face" of the MLB. Here is a guy who can do it all, looks like a million bucks, will probably hit over 800 homers, and plays for the Yankees! And did I mention that he is probably dating Madonna! What more could a marketer want?

Well, here's the problem with A-Rod. Even if he is the best player in baseball, he is far from being the most popular guy on his own team. Ask any Yankee fan who the leader of the Yankees is and the answer will be Derek Jeter. Jeter was in NY long before A-Rod and there is no chance that A-Rod will ever surpass Jeter in popularity no matter how many MVPs A-Rod wins. Furthermore, A-Rod's struggles in clutch situations have prevented Yankee fans from fully accepting Rodriguez as a "Yankee." And c'mon, he's dating Madonna...doesn't that make him sorta weird?

So then why isn't Jeter the LeBron James of baseball? He's good looking, talented, plays for the New York Yankees, and has won four world championships. Strangely enough, this probably hurts Jeter more than it helps. His best days are well behind him and he has not won a championship with the Yankees in eight seasons. There will always be a lure around Derek Jeter, but the luster is clearly fading away.

So how about some non-Yankees. There is no doubt that MVP Albert Pujols is a fantastic hitter and a remarkable person, but for some reason, I don't think of Pujols as the face of baseball. Pujols has won a championship, two MVPs, and even had his "Oh my goodness" moment when he hit a monstrous home run off Brad Lidge during the 2005 why isn't he the LeBron of baseball? Pujols plays in a somewhat constrictive market. It's difficult for people in New York and California to fully embrace a guy who plays all the way in Missouri.

And I'm sure many of you will think, "wait, Lebron James plays basketball in Ohio and he's the face of the NBA! What gives!" Well, even though LeBron James is only entering his sixth season in the NBA, most of America already knew who he was well before he entered the NBA. Anyone remember ESPN broadcasting LeBron's high school basetball games? Or how about the LeBron beign featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated during High School? Hype has sold and will continue to sell LeBron James no matter where he goes or where he plays.

So how can major league baseball recreate the hype that brought us Junior and developed LeBron James into an icon? For MLB, the ingredients are simple: he must be a minor leaguer with an absurd amount of talent sprinkled with some good looks and charm. Oh yeah, playing in a big market helps alot! Take for example, Joba Chamberlain. During 2007, there was a hype about Joba before he even entered the big leagues because of his amazing stats in the minors and 100 MPH fastball. Once Joba reached the majors, every time he pitched became a showcase, an event of some sort, as every fan wanted to take a glance at the amazing Joba. Even into 2008, as Joba began to pitch out of the rotation, his starts became a spectacle in New York, oozing with hype and enthusiasm.

Chamberlain might have been the Griffey of this generation. However, there is no comparison between the two because Griffey played every day while fans have to wait and anticipate when Joba will pitch. Furthermore, Joba is way to unknown to even be in the conversation for face of the MLB even with the enormous hype he entered the league with. He may be the best thing since sliced bread...who knows? Too early to tell.

Maybe finding a LeBron James type is more difficult for the MLB than the NBA. Even if basketball is a team sport, one player can certainly dominate a team and more importantly, take over a game at any given point. That's impossible for baseball players, who either have to wait their turn to hit or can only pitch when the manager gives them the ball. That's a huge difference between the two sports.

I'm sure that the next Ken Griffey Jr. will come. Maybe this year, maybe in ten years...or maybe we already missed him. Just make sure to appreciate greatness while it's there, because as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa proved, legends don't last forever.

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