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Trout, Harper ride MLB's new wave
The All-Star Game on Tuesday will showcase a record five major league rookies, including wunderkinds Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. A decade of revenue sharing has drawn the 30 franchises closer together, resulting in bizarre word combinations such as “first-place Washington Nationals” and “division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates.” Major League Baseball is in the midst of an attendance boom.
Our national pastime is changing, in ways that have not become clear until now. The sharp decrease (if not complete eradication) of performance-enhancing drugs has initiated an epoch of dominant pitching and monthly no-hitters. But that is only part of the story.
The denouement of the Steroid Era transformed the way we watch baseball — for the better.
Juiced-up sluggers, sluggish paces and slow-pitch softball scores are out. Speed, athleticism and savvy defensive shifts are in. Players, managers and even general managers — thank you, Sandy Alderson — have brought personality to a sometimes staid sport through their use of Twitter.
Baseball has become younger — in style, in appearance, in personnel — and it is, unquestionably, more entertaining. Remember Trout’s swashbuckling smile after pilfering a home run from J.J. Hardy with his gravity-defying, over-the-wall catch at Camden Yards? That is the new face of baseball.
"It is a game played at a higher level than in the past,” Toronto Blue Jays superstar Jose Bautista said. “When it comes to competition and the level playing field, you see small-market teams on top of divisions. You see young teams competing with veteran teams. You don’t see many lopsided games. There’s not that one dominant (team), like you used to see.”
Trout, the 20-year-old American Leaguer, and Harper, his 19-year-old National League counterpart, are leading figures in the renaissance. But they are not alone. Because the competition itself is more equitable — thanks to steroid testing and healthier small-market teams — the true superstar talents are both more legitimate and more obvious.
Without artificial home runs to distract us, dazzling catches and intrepid baserunning have reclaimed their rightful place in the highlights.
“It’s totally different,” said Ian Desmond, the engaging Washington Nationals shortstop and a first-time All-Star, though he won't play because of an abdominal injury. “There’s not so many home runs. That’s pretty apparent. Speed is an important tool to have on your team, which it wasn’t a few years back. You definitely have to play cleaner baseball. You have to be quick. You have to be sharp. It’s not like, ‘Hey, we’re going to hit a five-run home run and win.’
“The game is so much better now. Ten years ago, Bryce and Trout may not have gotten a chance to break into the big leagues at 19 or 20, because there were older guys doing great. Younger guys are having an impact, because age is catching up to people.”
Desmond is 26, close to the median age for the players who will converge in Kansas City for the All-Star Game (Tuesday, MLB on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET). As is the case for many of his peers, the sport Desmond plays is quite different from the one he watched while growing up in Sarasota, Fla. Desmond followed the Atlanta Braves in those days, because he could watch their games on TBS after school. His favorite player was Kenny Lofton, whose speed-and-defense skill set was so rare at the time.
Today, many GMs are looking for the next Lofton — and the even rarer five-tool talents that will be on display Tuesday night. Trout and Harper are the newest pledges in the exclusive fraternity of those who run, hit for average, hit for power, catch and throw at exceptional levels. Willie Mays was the five-tool archetype, and few contemporary players deserve the distinction. The consensus list includes Matt Kemp, Josh Hamilton, Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones — all of whom are All-Stars this year.
“We need more of those five-tool players; that makes the game more exciting,” said Torii Hunter, who plays alongside Trout in the Los Angeles Angels outfield. “It’s starting to change. We’re starting to get back to where speed and a good arm and defense (matter). The total package is it.
“You can tell where the game has changed. At one point, the game was all about hitting homers. They call that the Steroid Era. It’s not really the Steroid Era. It’s just that people wanted to hit homers, even if they weren’t on steroids. It was the Home Run Era. Now it’s starting to shift to get the complete player.”
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Today’s “complete player” is probably a star in the realm of self-marketing, as well. After all, many in the Millennial Generation who aren’t playing in the major leagues spend time on Facebook and Twitter, so why should the players be any different? Social media has become an official component of the All-Star Game itself, as players who have departed the game will interact with fans through computer stations set up near each clubhouse.
For decades, most players — young or otherwise — subscribed to baseball’s stoic ethos. They resisted celebrating individual achievements, for fear the baseball gods would bring retribution the following day. But the mentality is changing. It’s OK for stars to act like stars — or, at the very least, to tweet like them.
“I don’t think MLB was really promoting the game using their stars. That’s something the NBA, NHL and NFL really do. But I have seen a lot of change in the last five years,” said Bautista, who, by the way, has more than 200,000 followers @JoeyBats19. “Instead of using the glory days — Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Rollie Fingers — they’re changing their culture and trying to attract a younger crowd by using today’s stars. That’s a good way to engage (young fans) and get them to fall in love with baseball.
“Now it’s all electronics and mobile and watching games on your iPad or your phone or tweeting about it. That’s what the young people are doing. Using the game’s current stars to promote that sort of thing has been huge for MLB, because it’s going to engage those younger kids who in three or four years are going to be sitting in the seats.”
Perhaps fans feel a greater attachment to players on the field, because they follow their heroes on Twitter. Or maybe the additional wild card has spread genuine optimism to more major league markets. Whatever the reason, MLB entered Sunday with an average attendance of 31,253 this season — the best mark since the US economy cratered in 2008 and sixth-highest all-time. Attendance around the majors is up roughly 7 percent over a comparable point last year.
The grand old game is young again. That will be evident Tuesday night — at the ballpark, on the FOX telecast, and @ the Twitter handle of your choosing.