Baseball’s All-Star game once marked a peak in the summer sports calendar. This All-Star game finished second in the overnight Nielsens to “America’s Got Talent.” Its 6.5 rating was a tick above from last year’s all-time low of 6.4. This after a highly hyped Home Run Derby won by Aaron Judge, a fresh face who plays in New York. This after a World Series won by the forever futile Cubs, the final game of which drew the biggest baseball audience since Braves-Twins in 1991.
I watched a bit of Tuesday's game, but only a bit. (Maybe you’ve heard, but baseball takes a while.) My first look came during the bottom of the third through the middle of the fourth. Here’s what I saw: Strikeout, walk, walk, ground out, strikeout, strikeout, walk, strikeout. Fifteen minutes passed with more wild pitches (two) than balls in play (one).
The point today isn’t to rip baseball or the All-Star game for what they are and aren’t. It’s not that previous All-Star games never featured a strikeout. (Google “Carl Hubbell, 1934.”) It’s not that home runs were never important. (Remember when Pete Rose lusted to be “the first $100,000 singles hitter”?) Still, it's matter of statistical fact that the sport keeps skewing toward what the sabermetric set calls the Three True Outcomes – strikeouts, walks and homers.
Sure enough, two of Tuesday’s three runs came via the circuit clout, as it once was known. The game included 17 hits against 23 K’s. That can happen when good hitters never see the same pitcher – and every pitcher is of All-Star caliber – even a second time. That’s also how you get an inning like the top of the fourth, when Bryce Harper conducted a live interview from his position in left field without having to move to react to a single batted ball.
In the course of that discussion, Harper referred to Judge, who per the latest narrative is The New Face of The Sport, and said, “There are 20 faces of the sport.” This got me thinking. If baseball’s 20 best players in baseball walked through Lenox Square in civilian gear, would you recognize any except Freddie Freeman? (Maybe Kershaw by the beard.) And would Our Freddie be spotted if he ambled through the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.?
This isn’t to say that contemporary baseball players aren’t worth knowing. Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw are, achievement-wise, comparable to Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax. When the latter two were in their heyday, they weren’t just baseball players. They were two of the 10 most famous people in these United States. They were bigger stars than football’s Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown, bigger than basketball’s Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The word “iconic” has become diluted by willful overuse, but Mays and Koufax were just that – icons.
On May 30, after Trout was lost to a thumb injury, the baseball writer Joe Sheehan offered in his newsletter: “Trout’s busted thumb resonates beyond the L.A. basin to baseball fans all around the world.” Sheehan’s phrasing struck a jarring note. That same afternoon, ESPN had released its World Fame list, a rundown of the 100 most renowned athletes. Trout wasn’t on it. Kershaw wasn’t on it. No baseball player was on it.
LeBron was. Brady was. Heck, Dwight Howard was, at No. 65. Three of the top six – Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar – were soccer players. But from the sport that brazenly deems its championship round the World Series, there was nobody.
That’s not, I submit, Trout’s fault or Kershaw’s fault. They’ve become the best player and pitcher of their era. They’re comparable to the best player/pitcher of any era. And it's not as if they toil in some flyover state. One works next door to Hollywood, the other across the street from Disneyland. To paraphrase Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”: Baseball players are still big; it’s just baseball that got small.
Again, the intent isn’t to go into all the reasons why. (Usual suspects: Pace of play, lousy marketing, PEDs, late start times for playoff games, the ever-changing nature of entertainment consumption.) If we go by TV ratings, we see that baseball still does OK in local markets; it’s just that, barring a once-in-a-century occurrence, we don’t much care who’s in the World Series. We follow our baseball team, which isn’t quite the same as following baseball.
The most ardent fans of baseball writ large seem to be those who grew up listening to games on transistor radios or those who track the statistical side. I count myself among both sets, but I concede that I’m a little weird. And I’m old enough to have known baseball when it truly was our national pastime, which make its shrinkage in our consciousness doubly jarring. Sometimes I feel as if I need to explain why Mike Trout is such a big deal. Nobody ever had to explain Willie Mays. He was an article of faith.
We know “KD” by his initials. We know Aaron Rodgers as Mr. Discount Double Check. They’re among the best half-dozen players in their sports. So is Paul Goldschmidt, but I’m guessing a few of you might stumble to identify his team. (Hint: It's coming to SunTrust Park this weekend.)
Heaven help me, but there are days when I’m clicking around on the internet and I really wonder if the most famous contemporary baseball player isn’t Tim Tebow. And I fear for our world and all who inhabit it.
Further reading: Inciarte as an All-Star shows the Braves know what they're doing.