In the coming months, the two players that have defined my sports fandom are retiring. I imagine you’ve read a pretty good amount about Kobe’s retirement tour, so I won’t add to the pile. The other player is David Ortiz, the slugging soul of three Red Sox championships, who is hanging them up at the end of this season.
I’m not worried about the NBA moving forward without Kobe. One generational superstar has given way to the LeBrons and the Currys who are more than able to serve as faces of the post-Mamba NBA. The Warriors are more beloved than Kobe’s Lakers ever were, and basketball is simply the coolest sport to my generation.
More people are worried about the MLB. Derek Jeter was the only true superstar ballplayer of my life, and he’s been gone for almost two years now. Ortiz may be the most famous player of that generation still playing, and while he is adored by Red Sox fans, he is hardly a national figure. Mike Trout is the most talented player I’ve ever seen and will be putting up the numbers of a superstar for the next 10 years. Unfortunately, the most personable element of his personality is his love of weather, and in basketball terms, he is Tim Duncan-levels of boring off the court.
You’ve almost certainly heard it before: Baseball is more and more becoming a local sport giving way to disastrous playoff viewing numbers over the past few years. People try to say this is because the game is boring by nature. I think the fault lies somewhere else. For a sport to thrive, it needs big national stars to serve as ambassadors of the game in the media.
Think about kids my age, in 2004 and 2005, right around the time those kids were forming their sports interests. Basketball had Kobe, LeBron and Shaq — guys so famous they only need one name.
Baseball had Derek Jeter, who was fine but boring. There was A-Rod, who is simply unlikeable. And right in the middle of the first great steroid scandal was Barry Bonds. A steroid scandal is the polar opposite of fun. The difference was stark.
The reason I became such an Ortiz fan is that the first baseball game I watched on T.V. included one of his many postseason home runs (this one in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series). An extra-innings walk-off blast to stave off playoff elimination, it only took that single moment to make me a lifelong fan. But if I hadn’t happened to tune in right then, I may have simply not had the exposure that turned me into a rabid fan of the game. For baseball to thrive, it needs a better shot at gaining fans than fluke timing. It needs the stars it now seems to finally have.
Bryce Harper is an incredible slugger who gives great quotes and literally wore a hat reading, “Make Baseball Fun Again” for Opening Day. Matt Harvey and Yoenis Cespedes of the Mets wear enough flashy suits and drive enough flashy cars that they make as many New York Post back pages as Carmelo does. Jose Bautista and Yasiel Puig are homering and bat flipping their ways into media debates and young fans’ hearts.
So, during this opening week, give yourself a chance to fall in love with a new bunch of fun players the same way we once did with Kobe and LeBron. And if you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for the kids.
Contact Andrew Wild at [email protected].