On Opening Day 2016, Derek Jeter will be 41 years old.
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Alex Rodriguez will be 40.
Roy Halladay will be 38.
Albert Pujols will be 36.
Oh, and Mariano Rivera will be 46. He might be retired by then.
Baseball is rolling forward, as it always does. It’s difficult to imagine the game without Jeter in pinstripes. It’s just as hard to recall a time when he wasn’t one of the most famous athletes in the country. But he was a rookie once. Just like everyone else.
And that raises an intriguing question, with the new season just days away.
Who is baseball’s next superstar?
Not a star talent alone, but someone with the combination of class and marketability to reach Americans who have only casual interest in our national pastime.
Jeter could probably continue endorsing Gillette and Gatorade until he speaks at Cooperstown. But eventually, he’s going to retire. And then baseball will need to find someone who shares at least some of Jeter’s qualities — the work ethic, the rapid success, the extended prime, the October appearances, the good looks, the wholesome image. Derek Jeter is a great celebrity, because he’s entirely focused on being a great player. And that sounds easier than it is.
But here’s one list of candidates with a chance to attain Jeter-esque status in the next five years. Every player included is 30 or younger, and not yet as popular (nationally) as he could be.
1. Buster Posey, 24, Giants: Posey won a World Series at 23, in his first year of meaningful big-league action. Jeter won his first World Series at 22, in his first year of meaningful big-league action. That doesn’t mean the Giants will win four championships in five years, as the Yankees did. But their catcher has already established himself as a bona-fide winner. As a rookie, he coolly pumped his fist after hitting a home run that effectively clinched the division in Game 162; there is nothing common about any of that. Plus, he’s a polite country boy from Georgia, with an easy-to-remember first name.
2. Troy Tulowitzki, 26, Rockies: On his best days, it seems like Tulowitzki is involved in every important play on the diamond. His physical presence on the field is that noticeable. And he understands that his new contract — 10 years, $157.75 million — is about more than playing nine innings each night. He seems to embrace his responsibility — to the Rockies, their fans and the game at large. At 26, he plays the game with visible passion. The only limit on his popularity is that Denver isn’t Boston, New York or L.A.
3. Evan Longoria, 25, Rays: Teammates and rival executives speak of Longoria’s skills and professionalism in the strongest terms. He’s been counted on as a middle-of-the-order run producer since immediately after he was summoned to the majors early in the Rays’ pennant-winning season of 2008. And he was only 23 at the time. Madison Avenue has already picked up on his appeal, as evidenced by the endorsements he has now.
4. Joe Mauer, 27, Twins: It’s easy for the average American to like Joe Mauer. He was a three-sport star in high school and considered playing football for Bobby Bowden before signing with his hometown team. Then he signed a long-term deal with the Twins, rather than chase the last dollar as a free agent. He has one MVP award, three batting titles, and the best sideburns in baseball. Now, he just needs to ward off the wear-and-tear that befalls many catchers. It wouldn’t hurt his visibility if the Twins had more October success.
5. David Price, 25, Rays: Price is one of the most likeable stars in the game today, someone whose love for the game remains so obviously unaffected by the business of baseball. (One example: At a recent spring training game — in which he wasn’t the starting pitcher — Price remained perched on the top step of the dugout to congratulate teammates as they came off the field. Cy Young Award candidates don’t usually do that.) He’s an excellent role model who starred at Vanderbilt and has rapidly become one of the game’s top pitchers.
6. Adrian Gonzalez, 28, Red Sox: We’re about to find out just how perfectly Gonzalez will fit at Fenway Park. His excellent production in San Diego should be amplified by The Wall, thus making him an instant celebrity in one of the nation’s most baseball-crazed markets. Gonzalez has the type of frank, outspoken personality that will keep his name in the headlines. (He wasn’t afraid to take a public stand on Arizona’s immigration law last year.)
7. Robinson Cano, 28, Yankees: Cano is the rare Yankee who deserves more attention than he receives. Last year, he held the lofty distinction of being the best all-around player for the most famous franchise in the sport. Listen to what Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said about Cano this spring: “He has a chance to be one of the premier second basemen of all time. Guys of his ability, (the question is) are they going to be one of the better players of this generation at his position, or one of the better players of all time? He has a chance to have a Hall of Fame-type career.”
8. Jason Heyward, 21, Braves: Mature well beyond his years, Heyward created a media frenzy with his performance during spring training last year. He made the Opening Day roster at the tender age of 20 and crushed a three-run homer in his first big-league at-bat, as if to confirm that, yes, the hype was well-placed. And he would have been even better last year if he hadn’t suffered a thumb injury. He appears healthy now, which is good news for the game. Heyward, whose parents both graduated from Dartmouth, is a marketer’s dream.
9. Dustin Pedroia, 27, Red Sox: In Pedroia’s first full season, he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award and a World Series. In his second full season, he was named AL MVP. As entrances go, that’s hard to top. And Pedroia has remained a visible star, by virtue of his performance, the team’s success, and a colorful personality (“Laser Show”). Perhaps best of all, fans can identify with his everyman stature and all-out play.
10. Prince Fielder, 26, Brewers: No, that’s not a misprint. Fielder is 26, even though he entered the national baseball consciousness more than a decade ago — after sending a BP home run over the Tiger Stadium fences at age 12. He’s averaged 40 home runs over the past four years, so he’s a favorite of fans who are still excited by the long ball. He’s set to become a free agent after this season and is represented by Scott Boras, so he’s certain to land in a market where he can showcase his talents to the world.
11. Mike Stanton, 21, Marlins: And to think, Stanton could have been playing football (and baseball) at USC for the past four years. Instead, he chose pro baseball and slugged 22 home runs in fewer than 400 plate appearances last year. Stanton is one of the most physically impressive players in the game today, with long arms capable of launching baseballs out of sight. He figures to get even more national exposure next year, when the Marlins open their new ballpark.
12. Bryce Harper, 18, Nationals: On principle, the only player on this list without big-league experience belongs at the end. But even though he’s barely old enough to vote, Harper won’t be in the minors for long. He redefined what it means to be an amateur phenom, skipping his senior year of high school to instead play at the College of Southern Nevada — and he dominated there, too. The brashness that rankled college opponents won’t necessarily affect his star power. If anything, it demonstrates that he’s extroverted enough to capture the public’s attention.