Major League Baseball has a marketing and image problem. They know it. All 30 teams know it. Most fans can sense it, too.
The game has changed dramatically in the 21st century as baseball has continued to crawl slowly away from the Steroid Era. Teams aren’t scoring runs by the dozens as they did in the final decade of the last century – just seven times in the last five years have teams scored more than 800 runs in a season (all American League teams) and just two of those teams averaged five runs or more for the season (Toronto, 5.5 runs per game in 2015; Boston, 5.27 runs per game in 2013).
The days of dramatic home run chases, whether it be the tainted pursuits of Babe Ruth by Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez or the race to 61 from Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, are over. Fans have always dug the long ball, but how many of you can name the AL and NL home run leaders in 2015 (no peeking*!). Baseball has become dominated by the pitchers and has had a massive influx of foreign-born players, yet despite the sheer undeniable talent of these players, casual fans don’t know some of these names. Meanwhile, the other two big sports, the NFL and the NBA, continue to cash in and make their money on the name recognition of their athletes. Fantasy sports, smaller schedules, and video games have helped with this marketing. But you also see these guys in advertising left and right, while professional baseball players seem absent from any mainstream spots outside of the time span between first pitch and the final out of the game.
That needs to change and it starts with each team. Baseball needs new faces and a new image. There are stars around the league, all deserving of the attention and fan fare to help inject life back into the game. The Indians, as well as Major League Baseball, need to embrace Francisco Lindor as one of those faces of the game today because he embodies everything that is right and exciting about the one-time national pastime.
Why Lindor? In case you’ve lived under a rock…
He’s energetic and exciting.
He’s all hustle.
He’s dirt and grass stains and chalk lines.
He’s passionate and emotional.
He’s fast and flashy.
He’s incredible with the glove, has a cannon for an arm, and continues to impress and improve at the plate.
He’s marketable. He’s the full package. And he can handle the pressure.
This is a kid who will not turn 23 until November, but his play on the field already harkens back to some of the defensive wizards that roamed the dirt before him in the city of Cleveland and beyond. The stage fazed him for the first few weeks of his career, but once he settled in, he has never looked back. He is already the type of player who you cannot wait to watch, because you know if he’s on the field, there’s a chance you’re going to see something special and bordering on the impossible.
This is a kid who was anointed the savior of the Indians franchise from the moment the ink was still wet on his contract, the second coming of Omar Vizquel, a young man who unseated a two-time All-Star in Asdrubal Cabrera from a future with the club before he had reached the Double-A level.
This is a kid who hasn’t even played a full season’s worth of games, yet has a defensive “web gem” highlight reel a mile long.
He smiles. Constantly.
His passion for baseball is infectious.
He’s a role model for the next generation.
He plays the game the right way – with his full heart.
And he’s going to be in the game for a long, long time.
The Indians need guys like Lindor on the field and in the clubhouse. Major League Baseball does, too.
But they need more than that. While there are games on nearly every single night for nearly seven months out of the year, the lack of games getting national exposure on big networks makes following individual players difficult. They need commercial exposure. They need endorsements, they need increased visibility.
Do these players need the extra cash flow? Certainly not. The baseball landscape is littered with hundred dollar bills while player contracts continue to escalate and will only get worse (just look ahead to the free agent class of 2018 and keep a straight face in telling yourself that some still young and talented ball players are not about to get paid ridiculous sums of money).
It has nothing to do with the money and providing for these gifted individuals but has everything to do with keeping the game of baseball alive and relevant in a crowded sports scene, an environment where they have undoubtedly lost significant footing after the scandals of the last two decades and still will, with young stars like Dee Gordon getting busted for PEDs.
When was the last time you saw a star MLB player in a national commercial that wasn’t on a home team’s broadcast? Mike Trout selling Subway? Ryan Howard before him (a surprising move, given the number of more recognizable and popular players in the game at the time of his endorsement deal)? Maybe you were attentive and caught the glimpse of Bryce Harper in recent Gatorade ads?
Baseball has been smart to hitch its cart to the stardom attached to Trout and Harper, two young stars and easily deserving faces of the game both for now and for the future. But there are others around the league who deserve the recognition and could help globalize and popularize the game.
Nolan Ryan pimping Advil, the late Yogi Berra selling Aflac insurance, and the series of “Bo Knows” spots with fan favorite Bo Jackson are long past. It’s time for the new era and a new wave of faces selling the world on the joys of baseball.
Give me more Carlos Correa, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt; Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Archer, David Price. You could probably find a player at nearly every letter of the alphabet who could represent the MLB well as one of its faces (go ahead, try it, it’s fun!) and yet, the names are known only by those invested heavily in the game today.
In Cleveland, it’s just a matter of time before the attendance chatter starts filling the airwaves while people whine and moan about the Dolan’s spending habits. Fans will clamor for the days of the 1990’s, when the Indians hit and hit and scored and scored. But while the results for those teams helped to lure some in and keep them around, the guys on those rosters had personality, had character, were likeable (for the most part), and were flat out good. Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez. The names were beloved then and are beloved now.
People in the city knew the names and still know them. The Indians need that to be the case with their current crop of young, exciting ball players. Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, and Yan Gomes stepped up as leaders in the clubhouse last season and became names to know. Lindor needs to be recognized among them by the Indians, who need to make sure that every sports loving person in the city knows his name and just how special he is.
I had the opportunity to meet and observe Lindor just briefly, early in 2013. Just 20 years old, he carried himself differently, which was a shocking revelation for a man who had more than his fair share of years on this earth than this super prospect had, still two and a half years away from his MLB debut. He knew he was special. He knew he had a talent that others could only dream about. While he could have handled himself as a cocky, snobbish professional athlete destined for millions, he engaged the fans, he played video games with kids, and he loved every second of the experience and never let that grin leave his face.
Baseball needs to change, to evolve, to keep relevant. This isn’t Rich “Goose” Gossage’s Major League Baseball any more. It’s time for the new era of stars to take over and make this game theirs. The same can be said for their fans.
Jose Bautista’s dramatic bat flip in the playoffs did not ruin baseball any more than Terrell Owens dancing on the midfield star in Dallas ruined football. The same sabermetic “nerds” that Gossage criticized are of the same ilk who have brought fantasy football to the forefront of the fall and winter months and made fans follow individual players as well as their favorite dumpster fire on the banks of its own Great Lake.
Bring on the bat flips. Bring on the dancing. Bring on the fist pumps, the curtain calls, the chin music. Celebrate a little bit. Have some fun. Break up the monotony some. Baseball has prided itself so much on its traditions, but those same traditions may be holding the game back compared to the NFL and NBA, built much more around entertainment and flashiness.
In the end, it’s just one thing – A GAME! We can’t get so consumed in a sport to forget that that is all it is, competition amongst the best athletes in the world on a nightly basis, playing a child’s game.
Sure, Gossage is a Hall of Famer. He’s old school. His game and his comments were grounded in baseball’s traditions. But things change. Society has changed and so too has the attention span of the instant gratification, news as it happens, cell phones permanently encased in our hands culture that in many ways has strengthened our knowledge and ruined our world.
Baseball needs to keep fans interested, and for the Cleveland Indians, there is no more exciting and compelling player to glue one’s attentions to more than Lindor.
And maybe, just maybe, the baseball world will get to know him sooner than later. He will be visiting underprivileged youth around the country at various road stops for the Indians this season, working closely with the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, including his first stop on April 28 in Philadelphia ahead of the Indians’ series against the Phillies. At 10 AM ET Saturday morning, he is a guest on a new weekly show on MLB Network geared towards kids called Play Ball, hosted by former MLB infielder Harold Reynolds and guest MLB Network analysts.
Fans in Cleveland have already begun to enjoy the star in Lindor that has started to shine bright. Maybe now, fans across the country and around the world will begin to see the special talent and unique personality that he truly is.
Photo: Mark Cunningham/Getty Images