There was a time when Alex Rodriguez was in the same superstar ballpark that LeBron James now occupies, a path that has been derailed by age and scandal, not necessarily in that order.
But the question put to the Yankees designated hitter Monday night concerned whether there is any LeBron-like attraction in baseball now as it attempts to recruit a new generation of fans and players.
In other words, the kind of star who can rivet the nation as James did in leading the Cavaliers to an NBA title on Sunday night — to the tune of 31 million average viewers, a figure baseball has not reached in this decade.
So, A-Rod, who is the LeBron of MLB?
“Boy, LeBron is just incredible,” Rodriguez said, speaking at a fundraiser in Manhattan for Harlem RBI, an organization that introduces the sport to inner-city youths. “I don’t know that answer, but the good news for us is our game has become a lot more regional, which financially is a plus. But as far as marketing, it’s something we have to work toward.
“I think the collection of young players, from Bryce Harper to [Andrew] McCutchen to Mike Trout, all of them together make up LeBron. I can’t think of just one guy.”
In fairness, no major American sport has one guy who can match James at the moment. But competing with the NBA for money, ratings and young people’s attention is baseball’s current reality as the two battle for a distant second place behind the NFL on the pro sports landscape.
Rodriguez and the Yankees missed Game 7 because they were traveling home from Minnesota, but he called Sunday night “a perfect storm for the NBA . . . I mean, it was really amazing. When it was 3-1 you had some people watching, and [Sunday] you had everybody watching.”
But that did not dissuade him from believing in baseball’s future.
“When I grew up baseball was the No. 1 sport,” he said. “I think we have the leadership in place now with [MLB chief operating officer] Tony Petitti and [commissioner] Rob Manfred at the top that I’m making a prediction in the next five to 10 years we’ll become No. 1 again. I really feel that way. Already Rob has made some incredible movement forward.”
Harlem RBI, founded in 1991, honored Manfred for his contributions Monday night.
“I’ve been involved with Harlem RBI in the past and I’m especially excited to be involved in the Bronx,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of these kids grow up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, and I want them to have more than just a great view of the stadium. I want baseball to be part of their lives.
“Baseball is the greatest game in the world. Anybody can play it and it’s also a great teacher of life. Not every baseball player as a kid or RBI member or Boys and Girls Club member is going to make it to the major leagues, but it gives you a lot of tools to be able to go out and have a successful life.
“I think for us, our main mission as baseball, is to recruit the youngsters. I started playing baseball when I was 3, 4 years old. My father taught me. But once you get kids involved in baseball, they will very quickly find out that they don’t want to play any other sport. I’m very biased, but I think getting them engaged early is very important.”
Said Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ managing general partner: “Look, there’s a lot of competition out there. There’s other sports. But baseball is still right up there as far as kids and Little League. We all played it, and Rob has definitely taken on a lot of initiatives . . . You have to get ’em and keep ’em interested all through life, all along that whole process. That’s the key.”