Blaming the Player

Baseball's commissioner thinks it's Mike Trout's fault the game's greatest player isn't its world public face.

Since the unexpected death of A. Bartlett Giamatti and the fooleries that ended in the putsch of Fay Vincent, baseball's two subsequent commissioners have had geniuses for putting their feet in their mouths. The all-but-handpicked successor to the dubious Bud Selig, Rob Manfred, wrapped his lips and his jaw so squarely around his toes during the All-Star break that it becomes to wonder if he really knows who Mike Trout is.

One of baseball's worst kept secrets is that it hasn't figured out a way to make Trout, its no-questions-asked best all-around player, into the face of the game or something close enough to it. Asked how and why this could be so, Manfred looked into his heart of hearts, prayed hard, and came up with the revelation that the fault lies not in his game but in his star.

"Mike is a great, great player, and a really nice person," Manfred replied to his questioner, "but he has made certain decisions about what he wants to do, and what he doesn't want to do, and how he wants to spend his free time, and how he doesn't want to spend his free time. That's up to him. If he wants to engage and be more active in that area, I think we could help him make his brand really big. But he has to make a decision that he is prepared to engage in that area, and it takes time and effort."

Apparently, it isn't enough for the commissioner that Trout is exactly the kind of player baseball's gawdsakers (as in, from H.G. Wells, For gawdsakes let's do something!) led by the commissioner himself, carping almost constantly that the game is broken enough to have become a one-dimensional power plant of home runs and strikeouts, pray to see. He's been that kind of player since his arrival in 2011 as a precocious nineteen-year-old wunderkind, and he hasn't changed since maturing into a ripe old veteran of 26.

He hits for average. (Lifetime through the All-Star break: .306.) He hits for power. (Lifetime averages per 162 games: 36 home runs; 98 runs batted in; .569 slugging percentage, which leads all active major league players.) He hits for extra bases that aren't just overweighted toward clearing the fences. (Lifetime averages per 162 games: 35 doubles; seven triples, and he's hit nine triples in a season twice while having as many this year [three] as he did all of last injury-interrupted year.) He plays center field like six parts Willie Mays and half a dozen parts of a Flying Wallenda. He steals bases a little more often than people lamenting the tack's absence think. (Average per 162 games: 29; stolen base percentage: .845.) He takes walks, and they're not all intentional, even though he's leading the league with seventeen free passes this season---two more than the number with which he led the league last season. And he's not exactly a double play machine at the plate. (Lifetime average per 162: eight.)

That isn't the lump sum of the young man and the Angels took pains to review when confronted with Manfred's flat dismissal. They issued a formal statement reminding people that Trout has a habit of community involvement, both on the Angels' southern California turf and on his native East Coast grounds, including but not limited to charitable work, hospital visits, and school visits, as well as being one of baseball's fan friendliest players at home or on the road. He spends time before and even after games posing with fans for selfies (taken as often by himself as by fans, by the way) and is one of the most accommodating autographers in the game.

He's Mickey Mantle without Mantle's legendary insecurities and self loathing, one of the least likely players you may find bellying up to a hotel bar just long enough to be lured into the overnight company of a comely female. He's known as one of the most playfully accommodating men in the Angels' clubhouse who never lets the serious business of fun obstruct the serious work of play. When he proposed to the young woman who is now his wife, Trout couldn't resist putting his own aerial twist upon the matter---he hired a skywriting plane to pop the question.

"I am not a petty guy," he said in a formal statement that served to dismiss Manfred's dismissal, "and would really encourage everyone to just move forward. Everything is cool between the commissioner and myself. End of story. I am ready to just play some baseball!" So the Angels did it for him: "His brand," the team statement continued, "is built upon generously spending his time engaging with fans, both at home and on the road, while remaining a remarkable baseball player and teammate. We applaud him for prioritising his personal values over commercial self-promotion. That is rare in today's society and stands out as much as his extraordinary talent."

There's the prospect, however vague, that Manfred's remarks were "intended" to give Trout just the bump up he thinks Trout goes out of his way to avoid, but Manfred isn't exactly fabled for being a cunning man. His remarks expose himself further as a man unable to comprehend that the common good of baseball isn't the same thing as making money for or through it.

Trout's only the best of a crop of players whom baseball can't seem to find room to promote the way other sports promote their top crop. You'd think such players as Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, Madison Bumgarner, Jacob deGrom, Bryce Harper (who takes a back seat to few for promoting baseball without getting paid extra to do it), Aaron Judge (he may be a Yankee but that isn't guaranteed world face time, either), J.D. Martinez, and Joey Votto (and every All-Star who set the All-Star Game record for big bopping Tuesday night) would give baseball no problem splashing their phizzes and exploits across television screens, billboards, and radio spots not otherwise tied to sportscasts. But that's the problem. You think. Manfred doesn't.

In Mantle's day baseball players were chattel at the mercy of their owners, who misapplied the ancient reserve clause to bind them until sold or traded, and those good enough to attract commercial attention pounced upon endorsement opportunities as imperative income supplements. That era's baseball stars couldn't rely on World Series checks (as often as the Yankees' stars did) for annual income supplements, and almost any endorsement offered was a financial godsend.

This writer's memory traces back to seeing Yogi Berra endorsing Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink (and becoming a promotional executive and stockholder in the company); Brooks Robinson endorsing Vitalis hair tonic (likewise 1960s Cincinnati pitching ace Jim Maloney); Ernie Banks endorsing the Sunbeam Shavemaster electric razor (and, no, he didn't say, "It's a beautiful day, let's shave twice!"); Bob Gibson endorsing Primatene mist (Gibson himself suffered respiratory issues, and this endorsement was a natural for him); Mantle and Willie Mays endorsing assorted baseball board and practise games; Roger Maris doing commercials with kids for Post Alpha-Bits cereal; Tom Seaver (with his wife) doing spots for Royal Crown Cola; and, losing count of the reserve-era players doing their thing for Wheaties cereal and Rawlings baseball equipment.

Berra got tight enough with the Yoo-Hoo makers that a Yankee teammate, pitcher Jim Bouton, could visit the company with Berra and observe, "He was a god there." The deity was often able to throw or join ad spots with such Yankee teammates as Bouton, Mantle, Elston Howard, Moose Skowron, Joe Pepitone, Tom Tresh, Bobby Richardson, and Whitey Ford, doing likewise with and for assorted Mets after joining them as a coach in 1965. The association even provoked one of his famous Berraisms, when he answered a woman's telephone query about whether the brand's name was hyphenated with, "No, it isn't even carbonated."

His relationship with the company ended in the late 1970s, when the drink and its ownership changed too often for his liking, and Berra and his wife sold their stock for considerable profit.

With the disgraced reserve era now over four decades in the past, a player today whose talent earns him a $34.08 million salary for 2018, which just so happens to be Trout's salary and the highest in baseball this year, isn't exactly in desperate need of an income supplement. The only major promotional enterprises into which Trout has stepped have been endorsements for Bodyarmor SuperDrink, SuperPretzel, Subway (including a spot or two he shared with the Dodgers' superpitcher Clayton Kershaw), and Nike. He also joined a public spay-and-neuter campaign for pit bull terriers in his native New Jersey.

In generations where professional athletes well enough paid for their work of play seek every opportunity to inflate their already ducal incomes with one after another high-profile commercial advertisement, Trout is one of the rare fish who can live without being branded. These are also generations in which you can find assorted enterpreneurial stars who've built businesses that amount to about 95 percent their "brand" and perhaps five percent actually creating or building anything. One such star now occupies the White House.

If Manfred really thinks it's Trout's fault that he isn't better known or appreciated away from the ballpark, Manfred has a bigger problem on his hands than the one his predecessor exposed when he took positions in the 1990s that could be translated, charitably, as saying, "Baseball sucks! Bring the wife and kids!" But in one sense you might take pity upon the commissioner who seems congenitally incapable of understanding a player who prefers to think of himself as a person first, a player second, and anything else a distant third through tenth.

Compared to that, the Angels' number one problem with Trout, surrounding him with a team worthy enough of him to re-join and stay in the pennant races and a postseason or three, is child's play.