The average American can likely identify LeBron James and Tom Brady, who transcend the world of sports and have seeped into the broader American culture.
With lucrative endorsements from Nike, Coca-Cola, Under Armour, and UGGS, their faces are plastered across billboards, magazines, and television advertisements. They are routinely photographed rubbing shoulders with movie stars, musicians, and politicians, and have accumulated the statistics and championship pedigree necessary to become fixtures in heated debates about which is the greatest of all time in their respective sport. You might think Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant is better than LeBron or that Joe Montana is better than Brady, but love them or hate them they spark conversation and encourage even the most nominal of sports fans to tune in for their biggest games.
At present, Major League Baseball does not have its version of LeBron or Brady. The game of baseball, although ripe with emerging young talent, is experiencing a passing of the torch as the old guard of baseball superstars have, over the past ten years, retired (Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr.), fallen from grace (Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez), or entered the twilight of their careers (Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki). Whether saints or sinners, these players succeeded at energizing regional, national, and, in some cases, international audiences of America’s oldest pastime.
The difficulty in developing transcendent superstars is, to some extent, a natural consequence of the game itself. Unlike basketball and football, a single player can rarely dominate a baseball game. The Cleveland Cavaliers can run their offense through LeBron, ensuring that he either scores or assists in a high percentage of its offensive possessions. In the final seconds of a tie game, LeBron will most certainly have the basketball in his hands.
Likewise in football, Brady, as the facilitator of the New England Patriots’ offense, touches the ball on every single offensive play. With help from a faceless offensive line, he is the commander-in-chief of each drive and funnels the football to members of his supporting cast.
In baseball, however, position players can only bat once every nine times. While quick-footed outfielders and sure-handed infielders can make the occasional defensive web gem, each player only gets a handful of defensive opportunities per game, many of which are routine. Starting pitchers, meanwhile, do have the unique opportunity to single-handedly dominate a game. But they, at most, play once every five games during the regular season and, if their team makes the playoffs, once every three games in the postseason.
Despite these underlying disadvantages, baseball superstardom is still achievable. However, it requires a recipe that consists of the following four ingredients: personal excellence as measured by Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards; team excellence as measured by championship rings; marketability as measured by the size of the team’s regional market and fan base; and sustained success as measured by prestigious career milestones. Having established this criteria, a few players come to mind.
Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
In his first five full seasons in the Major Leagues, Mike Trout has won two American League MVP Awards and finished in second place three times. Only 25 years old, Trout is, without a doubt, the best player in the major leagues. In addition to consistent offensive excellence, Trout makes highlight reel catches and routinely robs home runs. Barring a career-altering injury, he will undoubtedly join the ranks of Ruth, Williams, Mays, and Aaron on baseball’s Mount Rushmore.
Despite his unprecedented personal accomplishments, his superstardom remains half-baked. This is partially due to the fact that he plays in the American League West. Although Anaheim, California is part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the Angels are a West Coast baseball team that consequently plays more than half its games when most of the country is asleep.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the Angels were a perennial playoff contender. However, in the Trout era, the Angels have only made the playoffs one time (2014) and were swept in the first round. Other than their one division title, they have finished in third place three times and fourth place once.
The future doesn’t look much brighter as the Angels are, once again, expected to flirt with the cellar of their division and, once again, have one of baseball’s worst farm systems. Trout signed a six-year contract extension in 2014 which, absent a trade, will keep him stuck in baseball purgatory through the end of the 2020 season.
Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs, after 108 seasons of championship futility, won the 2016 World Series and ended the longest championship drought in the history of professional sports in America. Kris Bryant was a major reason. Between his regular-season exploits and postseason heroics, Bryant became an instant icon in the hearts and minds of the Cubs’ faithful. As the centerpiece of a young and talented lineup, Bryant might very well lead the North Side of Chicago to a couple more championships in the next half-a-dozen years.
Two weeks after the World Series, Bryant won the National League MVP Award, becoming the first player in baseball history to win the college baseball player of the year award, the Minor League Baseball player of the year award, a Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award, and a Major League Baseball MVP Award in consecutive seasons.
Off the field, he has the looks of an Express model and an honest-to-goodness, aw-shucks personality that makes you wish he were still single so your sister (or daughter) could marry him.
Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
As a 16-year-old high schooler, Bryce Harper was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline: “Baseball’s Chosen One: Bryce Harper is the Most Exciting Prodigy Since LeBron.” No pressure.
In his five big league seasons, the fulfillment of the prophecy has been a bit of a mixed bag. His National League Rookie of the Year season in 2012 was followed by two disappointing injury-plagued seasons in 2013 and 2014. But in 2015, at the age of 22, he posted one of the best offensive seasons in baseball history en route to winning the National League MVP. He was, however, unable to repeat his performance in 2016, suffering considerable regression in almost every single offensive category.
Harper seasons his game with bat flips, clubhouse fights, and ejections. His fans say he’s confident, his haters say he’s arrogant, but Harper says he’s simply trying to “make baseball fun again.”
A free agent after the 2018 season, Harper could very likely sign the most lucrative contract in sports history if he comes anywhere close to replicating his 2015 performance in the next two seasons. The New York Yankees are a rumored suitor, setting the table for one of baseball’s brightest young stars to play for one of baseball’s most storied franchises in one of America’s largest markets.
Other young players with the potential to rise to the ranks of baseball’s greats include Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox, Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles, and Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros.
These players are well-known among baseball fans. However, none have broken through the glass ceiling of cultural superstardom. Serious injury or performance regression can certainly derail their rendezvous with destiny—the game of baseball is no stranger to the meteoric rise and fall of promising stars.
But regardless of which team you root for, if you are a fan of our nation’s oldest pastime you should be rooting for the success of the game’s next generation of superstars. As youth participation in baseball declines, and as the average age of baseball fans inches increasingly north of 50, the emergence of a new crop of rising stars just might attract the next generation of fans to the ballpark.