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Who will be this generation's Griffey?

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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PHOENIX

I turned 13 in 1995, the year Ken Griffey Jr. slid across home plate and saved baseball in Seattle. I grew up in Michigan, so my friends and I rooted for the Tigers. But there were two status symbols at baseball practice — teal-brimmed Mariners hats and Griffey’s high-top Nike cleats.

To a baseball-obsessed teenager in those years, Griffey was unrivaled in his nationwide appeal. From more than 2,000 miles away, we talked about Griffey’s home runs — the towering shots at the Kingdome and those he denied with trademark leaps at the wall. He was so mesmerizing that he transformed the notion of fan allegiance for an entire generation: You had a favorite team. And you rooted for Griffey.

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Today’s environment should make it even easier for fans to connect with non-home-team stars. We have the Internet, social media, national television packages, telecasts on tablets and smartphones.

But we don’t have a New Griffey.

The Real Griffey — now 43, retired for nearly three years, his son Trey a wide receiver at the University of Arizona — attended Sunday’s World Baseball Classic game between the U.S. and Canada. Griffey, who hit .524 for Team USA in the inaugural WBC seven years ago, was at Chase Field to promote fan voting for this year’s MetLife All-World Baseball Classic Team.

During a pregame interview, I told Griffey about the fan base he had in our small town. I expressed my belief that he was the face of baseball in America for much of the 1990s. And I asked Griffey to identify his successor among active players.

In 2013, who is the face of baseball in our country?

“There’s a lot of guys,” Griffey replied. “I don’t think there was one person who carried the torch when I played. There’s a bunch of guys. … You look at every generation, every era, there’s four or five guys that people know. I think it’s going to continue that way. You look at (Andrew) McCutchen … (Mike) Trout … ”

His voice trailed off. He had to think about this one.

“You’ve got Prince (Fielder),” he continued. “You’ve got the veteran Jimmy Rollins. A couple new guys. Adam Jones. There are so many guys that carry the torch. It’s just not one person. Nobody can say, ‘I am baseball.’”

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I’m not sure I agree with that last part. Junior was baseball to a lot of us kids. And if the World Baseball Classic had started in 1996 instead of 2006, I can promise you this: When the Team USA lineup was announced, Griffey would have received the loudest and longest ovation of any player on the team. Cal Ripken Jr., Frank Thomas and others had strong followings. None of them would have come close.

Contrast that with, say, Friday night at Chase Field. When the U.S. roster was announced before the WBC opener against Mexico, no player received noticeably louder cheers than his teammates. Many of the pitchers received golf claps, as if to say, Who are these guys? Sure, the fans knew Rollins, Joe Mauer and David Wright. But the applause was polite and supportive, not visceral. (The reception for Wright and Jones became louder after they delivered key hits against Italy and Canada, respectively. That was encouraging.)

I realize many Americans — even serious baseball fans — have been slow to embrace the WBC. Still, this was an international tournament on U.S. soil. If the FIBA Basketball World Cup were held in, say, Chicago, how would the fans react to the introductions of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant? How about Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, if we imagined a similar football event? Whether positive or negative, we have very passionate feelings about the stars in those sports.

In baseball, though, devoted national followings don’t exist for many of the majors’ biggest stars — further evidence that Major League Baseball has become the quintessential regional sport. That is why television networks invest billions of dollars in local television rights. Most fans follow their teams and divisions intensely, while showing moderate interest in everything else. It was different with Griffey. He transcended that by virtue of his talent and charisma.

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Derek Jeter — the only current player who can approach Griffey’s status in both areas — is 38 and coming off a serious ankle injury. Buster Posey has emerged as the new Jeter, with a National League Most Valuable Player award and two World Series rings at age 25. Posey is savvy, steady, gritty, humble — a baseball purist’s delight. But he’s not going to wow crowds with daring stolen bases or highlight-reel defensive plays. And he’s probably not going to hit second-deck home runs during batting practice with his hat turned backwards. That was Junior’s thing.

If marketed and promoted properly, the World Baseball Classic could help the sport (and potential endorsement partners) evaluate the candidates to succeed Jeter as The Most Popular American Baseball Player. There’s only one problem: Three of the players Griffey mentioned — Trout, McCutchen and Fielder — aren’t playing for Team USA. The same goes for Posey, Bryce Harper, Justin Verlander, David Price and others.

Even as skeptics question the WBC’s legitimacy, the “USA” jersey tugs at our emotions — particularly in victory. We know very little about many Olympians before the Games but fall in love with them — and their stories — as they climb atop the podiums. LeBron’s gold medal in London — when combined with his NBA title — aided his evolution from villain into a much more sympathetic figure. Suddenly, the guy we booed was playing for us.

If Team USA wins the WBC next week — on, perhaps, a walk-off home run — won’t that earn the hero some applause on the road this season?

Of course, for someone to become baseball’s new American idol through the WBC, with the endorsements that go along with that, he must . . . you know . . . play in the WBC.

“It’s a little different,” Griffey said, when asked about the comparison to NBA stars playing in the World Cup and Olympics. “Ownership may be a little different and more involved in the decision — no matter what anybody says.

“I would like to see it that way, where the guys go, ‘You know what? I’m playing.’ But there are some factors in there we don’t know about. I know Felix (Hernandez) is not doing it. They talked about his elbow, things like that. There’s guys not doing it maybe to protect themselves from injury. When I played, it was like, ‘I’m in.’ There wasn’t a second thought. After a while, you say, ‘If you get hurt, you get hurt.’ You did it to represent your country.”

Maybe the decision was easier for Griffey, because he was revered in so many corners of the U.S. A number of players on the current Team USA probably contributed to that adulation. They were kids when The Kid dominated baseball — statistically and expressively, with the supreme ability and unquestioned cool. They grew up wanting to be like him. So far, they have failed. The 13-year-olds of America are waiting.
 

Tagged: Tigers, Yankees, Mets, Giants, Derek Jeter, David Wright, Buster Posey

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