Picture this: You’re a sports fan, even a casual one. You’re walking down the street, and someone accidentally bumps into your shoulder. You turn. Holy s—, it’s LeBron James! You’re stunned, speechless, almost breathless. Or it’s Peyton Manning. Maybe it’s Rafael Nadal. It’s an iconic face, someone who’s on top of his sport and instantly recognizable.
Now picture this: the current best player in baseball — a guy who has hit an outlandish 73 home runs since the start of last season, a guy who has already hit 19 home runs in his first 41 games of this 2011 season, which puts him on pace for 71 home runs, at a time when power is down across the game — likewise stumbles into you.
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You turn. “Hey, man, watch where you’re going.” You then continue your walk to the grocery store.
Because really, if you bumped into Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays on the street, would you have any clue who he was? (Toronto fans, hard-core baseball nuts and citizens of the Dominican Republic excluded.)
Well, let me introduce you to him: Bautista, a right fielder, is the best baseball player, and maybe best professional athlete, you’ve never heard of.
Which is sad, because Bautista is putting on quite a show. His swing in particular is worth watching. He holds his hands high, near his helmet, and exaggerates his leg kick to generate power. He gets his hips out in front of the ball and turns on it, thanks to his superior bat speed. And now he can also hit for average: he’s batting .342, second in the American League.
Bautista’s lack of recognition doesn’t bode well for baseball, a sport that is already coping with attendance lags early in the season. How unfamous is baseball’s best player? In March, a marketing firm compiled the Q scores (general measures of likability that are well respected within the sports industry) for 500 active and retired athletes, coaches and sports-media personalities. Subscribers to the Q-score service, who include player representatives, companies seeking sports endorsers and other industry insiders, ask for specific names to be evaluated. Bautista is so irrelevant to sports marketing that no one even requested him.
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(And maybe even more disturbing, from baseball’s perspective, is that the active player with the highest Q score, Derek Jeter, finished 64th overall; by contrast, the most likable active athletes in other sports ranked significantly higher. Tiger Woods finished third — a bit of a shocker — Peyton Manning eighth, Sidney Crosby 19th, Shaquille O’Neal 20th and Serena Williams 35th.
Bautista also hasn’t generated much Internet buzz. According to Yahoo!, over the past 12 months, James got 100 times as many searches as Bautista, Williams 59 times as many searches and Tom Brady 46 times as many. No, Bautista hasn’t achieved a long history of success like these other athletes. Before he broke out with 54 homers last season, his career high had been 16 (Bautista was first called up to the majors in 2004). But compare him with, say, Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward who, like Bautista, has emerged as a true superstar in the past year. Durant gets 11 times as many Yahoo! searches as Bautista.
To be fair, Bautista is a hard sell. First off, he plays in a city outside the U.S., for a team that has finished above third place only once in the past 17 seasons, in a division dominated by the big-market rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who seem to be on national television a thousand times a year. Though he speaks clear English — a challenge for some ballplayers from Latin America — Bautista is not overtly charismatic. And since he grew up in the Dominican Republic, he doesn’t have that Americana tale that connects with U.S. fans. “You don’t have that Mickey, Babe, Stan ‘the Man’ Musial or Willie Mays all-American story,” says Kenneth Shropshire, a sports-marketing expert who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
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Still, Bautista is not unmarketable, and baseball should share some of the blame for his relative anonymity. “The marketing machine at Major League Baseball’s central office is and has been deficient in promoting its stars,” says Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp LTD, a marketing and consulting firm that has worked closely with several MLB teams. Compare this approach with that of the NBA, which has pumped up its players for many years. (Just look at the “talking ball” advertisements the NBA has been running during the playoffs, in which a basketball reminisces about the amazing plays individuals have made while holding him.)
Baseball, on the other hand, has traditionally focused on the teams, the game itself and its storied history. Ganis attributes this in part to the fallout from the league’s long-contentious history with its players’ association, which led to severe work stoppages in 1981 and 1994–95. Sure, the league-union relationship is much improved these days, unlike the current state in pro football and basketball. But player-centric marketing, Ganis says, is not as deeply ingrained in the sport’s culture.
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More than ever, however, personalities drive fan interest. Consider that on Twitter, which is all about personality, MLB has 1.24 million followers, compared with 2.6 million followers for the NBA and nearly 2.1 million for the NFL. “Anyone who studies this stuff would not put MLB on the list of out-of-the-box sports marketers,” says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “In our classes, we use case studies of best practices, and I can’t remember the last time I ever used baseball.”
For its part, baseball might be hesitant to overpromote a power hitter like Bautista, for good reason. When the sport marketed the Sammy Sosa–Mark McGwire spectacle of 1998, it blew up in baseball’s face, as both players were subsequently implicated in steroid scandals. As were many other sluggers: Barry Bonds, who surpassed Hank Aaron’s career record of 755 career home runs in 2007, was just convicted of obstruction of justice for his testimony about performance-enhancing-drug use. (He’s appealing it.) Though the verdict didn’t directly say Bonds knowingly used steroids, most of the public is convinced that he did. Alex Rodriguez, who has 622 career home runs and has a shot of surpassing Bonds’ record of 762, copped to using steroids. Manny Ramirez just retired after testing positive, yet again, for performance-enhancing drugs.
Much of the credit for Bautista’s power surge is due to a change in swing mechanics: he moved closer to the plate, up in the batter’s box, and started that leg kick sooner. But fairly or not, when a player like Bautista goes from averaging 15 home runs per year over four seasons to suddenly hitting 54 in pitcher-dominated 2010, suspicions will be raised. Fans are clearly curious. The third most popular search term related to him, according to Yahoo!: “Jose Bautista and steroids.” Bautista has said he understands the questions but finds them upsetting. He is subject to drug testing, and no evidence suggests that he has ever used performance-enhancing drugs. Bautista is listed at 6 ft., 195 lb. (183 cm, 88 kg) — his body has not ballooned like some of the giants of the steroid era.
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Bautista’s lack of fame raises a question about the poststeroid era: Will we ever see another home-run legend? Will fans ever again embrace sluggers as they did in the past? “Based on history, they could actually be taking a smarter approach by not trying to oversell Bautista,” says Ganis. “It’s a real dilemma.”
So what should baseball do? Despite the risks, the sport has to trust the integrity of its players and try its best to build buzz around them. By all accounts, Bautista seems like a stand-up guy. He even signed a five-year, $64 million contract extension with Toronto in the off-season instead of testing the free-agent circus. The contract includes financial support for his charitable activities.
In the poststeroid world, players who produce like Bautista may not turn up too often. And baseball can’t afford to have one of its best hitters go unrecognized in public.