A year ago, during the All-Star break, commissioner Rob Manfred was positively giddy the morning after the Home Run Derby at Marlins Park.
The event was won by Aaron Judge, who teamed with then-Marlin Giancarlo Stanton to launch roof-scraping bombs for an awestruck ESPN audience. And it had everything Manfred could possibly want: video-game homers, superhero-sized hitters. A Yankee emerging as the champion.
No wonder Manfred gushed about Judge the next day at his annual meeting with the Baseball Writers Association of America. In his eyes, a star was born. A bona-fide, marketable, Madison Avenue-caliber star, something MLB craves more than sub-three-hour games.
“He is a tremendous talent on the field,” Manfred said back then. “A really appealing off-the-field personality, the kind of player that can become the face of the game.”
At that point in Judge’s very young career, he had played 111 games — including a strikeout-saturated two months in 2016 — and none in the postseason yet. But Manfred was so smitten with Judge, and so anxious for the next Derek Jeter, he couldn’t help himself. That said, the commissioner was probably right.
So what happened between Manfred and Mike Trout this week?
In one of the stranger — and perhaps overly stretched — controversies involving a commissioner and a sport’s best player, Manfred found himself taking fire for questioning Trout’s appetite for self-promotion. A closer examination of what really happened during that 36-hour span suggests that Manfred wasn’t really ripping Trout for how he chooses to take care of business, either on or off the field. That wouldn’t be very smart for someone in his position.
But Manfred’s response, to a very specific question about Trout’s national profile, was indicative of MLB’s frustration at times with promoting a sport that doesn’t lend itself to the same splashier styles of the NFL and NBA — two leagues that don’t seem to have any difficulty making their biggest stars household names with crossover appeal.
Let’s start with that question to Manfred first. It was asked by Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register, and this is the text, word for word:
“We hear all the time about how it’s a problem for Major League Baseball that Mike Trout does not choose to put himself on the big stage, and obviously the Angels have been unable to put him in the playoffs or World Series. Is that a problem for Major League Baseball?”
Based on the way the question was posed, this obviously wasn’t the first time it’s been asked of Manfred. As the commissioner began to answer, he referenced another recent story on the same topic — this one by Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times — that appeared under the headline, “Mike Trout, the best player in his sport, is the mostly unrecognizable face of baseball.”
A quick summation: Trout’s profile is hurt some by playing on the West Coast, where most of those games happen in the middle of the night for the large East Coast markets, and he rarely gets in front of a national TV audience. Also, the laid-back Trout is not a big self-promoter, or in today’s parlance, reluctant to push his “brand” recognition. Simply put, the two-time MVP prefers to let his play speak for him.
That has always been an admirable quality among athletes. The choice to lead by example. But in this social-media era, if your message isn’t dotted with emojis and doesn’t loop on Instagram, it tends to get missed. There also is frustration on MLB’s part, however, that Trout has never participated in the Home Run Derby — a made-for-TV event that shows stodgy baseball in a looser, livelier setting — or signed on for the offseason All-Star tours in Japan (there is another one scheduled for this November).
Trout isn’t alone in that. Bryce Harper admitted the only reason he competed in this year’s Derby is because it took place at Nationals Park, yet he won the slugfest in a memorable blizzard of homers to overtake the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber. It’s worth nothing that both Judge and Stanton took a pass this year. As for the overseas promotional tours, which have been going on since Babe Ruth, it’s not easy recruiting players to give up their vacation time.
But back to the question: Does Manfred consider Trout’s absence from the “big stage” a problem for MLB? This is how the commissioner responded:
“We hear a lot about player marketing, right?” Manfred said. “Player marketing requires one thing for sure — the player. You cannot market a player passively. You can’t market anything passively. You need people to engage with those to whom you are trying to market in order to have effective marketing. We are very interested in having our players more engaged in having higher-profile players and helping our players develop their individual brand. But that involves the player being actively engaged.”
It was here that Manfred referred to Shaikin’s article, and attempted to expand on the writer’s premise.
“I think the point — at least one of the points I took from Bill’s article is — Mike’s a great, great player. And a really nice person. But he’s 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, really big. But he has to make a decision that he’s prepared to engage in that area. It takes times and effort.”
Notice that Manfred wasn’t criticizing Trout for how he conducts himself in any arena, public or private. But he clearly wishes Trout would push those “branding” boundaries a little bit, as Manfred no doubt feels like his sport’s LeBron James — who now plays in California, too — is being underutilized by the MLB’s promotional machinery.
Somehow, this became a Manfred vs. Trout staredown, and the 48-hour period without baseball allowed it to blow up as everyone waited for the Manny Machado trade to the Dodgers to become official. Perhaps in an effort to grab some of that spotlight from their SoCal rivals, the Angels felt the need to fire back at the commissioner’s comments — or at least the public perception of them — by issuing a 161-word statement that trumpeted his “humility” along with his many charitable efforts as well as being an “exceptional ambassador for the game.”
“In addition, Mike spends quality time as a husband, son brother, uncle, and friend,” the statement said. “We applaud him for prioritizing his personal values over commercial self-promotion. That is rare in today’s society and stands out as much as his extraordinary talent.”
Not a surprising endorsement from the Angels, who had their MVP’s back. But the best commentary came from Trout himself in choosing to close the matter in the most Trout way possible.
“I have received lots of questions about Commissioner Manfred‘s recent statement,” Trout said in the statement. “I am not a petty guy and would really encourage everyone to just move forward. Everything is cool between the Commissioner and myself. End of story.”
Oh, and there was one last sentence from Trout: “I am ready to just play some baseball!”
Is there a better slogan for the game? Somebody should put that on a T-shirt.