CLEVELAND – Nobody who watched Vladimir Guerrero Jr., hit 91 home runs Monday will soon forget what they saw.
It was a stunning display of power that even impressed the MLB all-stars watching from the sidelines. Whether Guerrero Jr., connected or missed, every swing was entertaining. Gold dreadlocks went flying with each twist of the torso. No effort was spared.
If baseball fans didn’t know Guerrero Jr., before the Home Run Derby, they certainly do now. A star was born–to an extent. But even as baseball celebrates its best players in Cleveland this week, one of the game’s top executives is concerned that baseball’s stars don’t shine bright enough.
How many of the 75 all-stars would you recognize in street clothes? How many could the average non-baseball fan name? If you ask Tony Clark, the answer’s ‘not enough.’
Speaking to the Baseball Writers Association of America before Tuesday’s All-Star Game, a 4-3 win for the American League, Clark acknowledged that baseball now markets its stars better than it once did. At the same time, he said baseball still lags behind sports like basketball, which has marketed its stars successfully since the 1980s.
“It was Michael, it was Magic, it was Larry,” said Clark, the executive director of the Players Association. “I’m offering single names, because I’m assuming everybody knows who those guys are.”
“Mookie should be a one-name guy,” he continued. “You say Ronaldo, you say Messi, you say Mookie. You should know who Mookie is. Outside of the baseball world, I’m not sure how many people do.”
Granted, players like Michael Jordan and Lionel Messi impact their sports more than any baseball player could. After all, there’s no guarantee that Mookie Betts will bat with the game on the line.
Still, for Clark, baseball players aren’t nearly as well-known as they could be.
“The talent level of our players is off the charts,” he said. “I’m not wishing this on anybody (particular), but I’d really like our players have the ability to not be able to walk down the street without being recognized. I think it’s not just beneficial to the player, but it’s beneficial to the industry.”
Within the National League clubhouse at Progressive Field, eight-time all-star Clayton Kershaw acknowledged that baseball’s best players probably aren’t as well known as their counterparts in the NBA or NFL.
“Everyone knows who Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are, but does everybody know who Freddie Freeman is? I don’t know,” Kershaw said. “Baseball’s a little harder to market, I guess, I’m not sure why, but it is.”
Earlier this month, NBA fans went to new levels while following Kawhi Leonard’s free agency, staking out his hotel and tracking the path of his SUV via live TV broadcast. Like so many others, Trout himself followed along, calling Leonard the celebrity he’d most want to meet. From afar, Clark wondered if baseball might benefit from a little more of that hype.
“Those midnight phone calls, those helicopter views of players going to and from the airport, that can happen,” Clark said. “Why can’t that happen? Wouldn’t it be great if it did.”
As for Kershaw, an inner-circle Hall of Famer in making, he sounds just fine avoiding that level of scrutiny.
“I don’t know if anyone wants that, but it comes with the territory,” he said. “If you’re going to get paid a lot of money to play a game and basically be in the entertainment business, you’re going to get recognized.”
Of course you can’t compare MLB to the NBA so directly. One reason for the hype around Kawhi? Players like Leonard are wildly underpaid relative to the value they bring on the court. As Clark says, “There’s no doubt that teams are very interested in going after guys when they don’t have to pay full value to get them.”
By way of comparison, baseball doesn’t have a salary cap (though commissioner Rob Manfred half-jokingly offered to implement one if Clark wants). MLB players are well-paid if not well-known. In CC Sabathia’s view, they can eventually be both.
“We’re doing a pretty good job,” Sabathia said. “(But) I think we can do a lot better.”
“The game is young. It’s fresh and new. I’d like to see a lot more of these young guys get their shot.”
Now in his 19th MLB season, Sabathia has seen baseball market its stars better over the years.
“It’s getting there,” Sabathia said. “You’d say ‘there’s Mook’ or ‘there’s Vladdy.’ You’ve got Trout. Judge. We have those stars, it’s just about getting them out there more.”
Betts, Judge and Trout have been stars for years now. After this week, baseball fans know who Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is, too. The current challenge for baseball and its players? Finding ways to make sure baseball fans aren’t the only ones who know about baseball’s next wave.
“Promoting our guys on baseball channels is not going to get us anywhere,” Clark said. “Baseball fans know who Mookie is. Non-baseball fans deserve to know.”