The NBA’s popularity is surging, and it’s been eyebrow-raising to witness. I recently penned a piece on all the reasons hoops is hot right now, and the proof is in its cultural positioning. LeBron vs. the Warriors is a happening. Steph Curry jerseys are everywhere. The NBA’s funhouse mirror of an offseason is a daily point of national debate. Television ratings and attendance for Summer League (an exhibition tournament for rookies and fringe players) have jumped significantly.
What used to be the part of the calendar reserved for baseball (post-NBA Finals/pre-NFL training camp) is now the land of basketball. And it’s not going away. The league has gained a significant place in culture by building and selling its stars, and this week baseball was caught with its jockstrap down losing a massive opportunity to do the same.
The greatest player in baseball today is Mike Trout. The Angels prodigious talent hits .300, averages 35 homeruns and drives in 100. He also plays elite defense, is a locomotive on the basepaths, and has gone to six All-Star Games by the age of 25. He’s already won two MVPs, and has finished second every other season. Baseball Reference’s similarity scores at this point in their careers puts Trout in the category of Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Junior, Mel Ott, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson. I’m laughing while typing how ridiculous that list is.
Bryce Harper is baseball’s cool kid. He’s Val Kilmer in Top Gun, an Iceman who can often come off as arrogant and condescending, yet undeniably owning the “it factor.” He’s also won an MVP, could grab another this season, and is the one MLB star who seems to crossover into the mainstream. For the first time in three years, and only the second time ever, Trout’s Angels will face off against Harper’s Nationals. And baseball scheduled it for a midweek, two-game mini-series, the first night relegated to regional television.
Nothing sums up baseball’s inability to market its stars more than this. This is baseball’s LeBron vs. Steph matchup. This should be their Brady vs. Manning. These are two generational talents, the game’s two most identifiable stars. And baseball shrugs its shoulders as though it couldn’t be bothered. I asked MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand about this missed opportunity on my show. He’s an excellent writer who knows the game thoroughly, but he pushed back on my idea of making sure this isn’t a once-every-three-years event.
“You can’t sort of maneuver the schedule based on two players,” Feinsand said. “What if you do that and then one of them is on the DL? Trout was out for six-and-a-half weeks. What if you’ve done all this manipulation of the schedule to put those two on national TV together and then Trout’s on the DL when it happens? So I just think you have to let these things happen organically. I actually think the fact that they don’t play each other often makes it even better when they do.”
This logic escapes me. The NBA puts the stars on Christmas every year. They don’t schedule the Kings and Magic just because LeBron, or Carmelo, or Harden or Russ might be injured. When KD returns to Oklahoma City, that’s not relegated to Fox Sports Oklahoma in the middle of the night. The NBA makes sure that game is available to the entire nation, putting it on TNT or ESPN. The first night of Trout vs. Harper? Only on local cable. For critics that wonder why baseball should make an exception to push the Nats and Angels together once a year, what about Mets-Yankees, Dodgers-Angels, White Sox-Cubs? The league has forced those matchups for 20 years on specific weekends. Good thing most of the country missed them both go yard in the first inning. Who would want to see that?
“One of the problems with trying to highlight that is it’s not two basketball players going at each other where they’re actually going to be sort of facing off,” Feinsand said. “They don’t pitch to each other, maybe they hit a ball to each other – but that’s about it. So people want to say, ‘Oh, it’s Trout versus Harper,’ but that’s not really how baseball works.”
Peyton didn’t have to look off Brady in the secondary. Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have to beat Matt Ryan to the sideline marker. Quarterbacks don’t face one another, either. But you’re damn sure the NFL found a way to make the Colts and Patriots play every year on national television, even after they split into different divisions. The second game of Nats/Angels will be carried on ESPN, but now it appears Harper will sit out. This might be exactly the reason critics would say don’t risk promoting a regular season game. But it’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy for baseball. There has been no promotion. It’s a two-game, Tuesday/Wednesday series that’s ignored by the league itself. Why would Harper assume he couldn’t rest tonight? MLB barely noticed the two were playing.
Feinsand argued the way to become a national crossover star is by performing in October, burnishing your legend when it matters most. But through no fault of Trout, his Angels have only played one playoff series his entire career. How is the nation going to fall in love with Trout when his team doesn’t make the playoffs and his matchup against the most identifiable player in the sport is on a Tuesday night on regional cable after much of the country has gone to bed?
Anthony Davis doesn’t play in the postseason. Barry Sanders’ teams won one playoff game his entire career. Those guys play(ed) on national TV constantly. You have two massive talents, in contrasting huge markets on the two densely populated coasts. This should be perfect fodder to schedule every year on the first weekend of August. Friday night should be on FS1. Saturday on Fox. Sunday night on ESPN. It should be a summer rite of passage, the same way MLB pounded Yankees/Red Sox down our throats for a decade. But baseball moving the furniture and throwing a party for its two signature players? Nah. It would make too much sense.
D.A. hosts 9am-12 pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.