Baseball Has a Great World Series Matchup. Now It Needs a LeBron.

Major League Baseball has a dearth of high-profile stars. Is the problem a down cycle, or is it the sport itself?

David Ortiz is one of the most followed baseball players on Instagram, as is Alex Rodriguez. Neither of them has played since 2016. CreditCreditMichael Dwyer/ Associated Press
Kevin Draper

Major League Baseball has a dream matchup for the World Series as two of its marquee franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers, face off in the so-called Fall Classic.

It also has a problem: Most people, even sports fans, might struggle to name a single player on the field.

The percentage of Americans who say baseball is their favorite sport to watch is at a low. Fewer baseball players have crossed over into wider popular culture than did a couple of decades ago. There is no Derek Jeter or Ken Griffey Jr. at the moment.

By almost any measure, baseball players just aren’t well known. ESPN’s annual ranking of the most famous athletes in the world includes 13 basketball players, seven football players, several cricket players, two Ping-Pong stars and zero baseball players. And ESPN is a media partner of M.L.B.

No baseball player ranks among the 100 most followed athletes on Instagram, according to the company. The top baseball players are Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz. Both retired in 2016. The most followed active player is Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. He has 1.5 million followers. LeBron James has almost 44 million; the N.F.L.’s Odell Beckham Jr. has 12 million.

A screenshot of Lebron James’s Instagram follower countCredit
A screenshot of Mike Trout’s Instagram follower count.
Boston’s Mookie Betts is considered a critical part of Major League Baseball’s future.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

The issue of baseball’s dearth of widely known stars commanded a lot of attention at this summer’s All-Star Game. M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about relatively low public profile of Trout, a seven-time All-Star and two-time winner of the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Trout might be recognized walking along Fifth Avenue, but he might not.

Trout, 27, could be hugely popular if he wanted to be, Manfred said.

“He has to make a decision that he’s prepared to engage in that area,” the commissioner said. “It takes time and effort.”

Mike Trout has said the long baseball season prevented him from marketing himself.CreditStephen Brashear/ Associated Press

David Schwab, a senior executive at Octagon, a global sports marketing firm, said the setup was hardly ideal.

“They may get 190 games,” Schwab said, including the postseason. “They have 75 percent of their time committed already.” On-field performance gives athletes the ability to become stars, Schwab said, but their personalities and passions help them become megastars.

As examples, he compared Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan, perhaps the best two big men in recent N.B.A. history. While O’Neal’s gregariousness and advertising ubiquity made him a global superstar, Duncan’s reserved nature meant that he rarely connected with fans beyond basketball.

To be fair, O’Neal’s highlights were rim-rocking — and occasionally rim-breaking — dunks. Fans had a harder time getting excited about the tidy bank shots from Duncan, who was known as the Big Fundamental.

“We live in an era of five-second clips or three-second clips,” said Schwab, which helps explain baseball’s problem.

Gifs of game-winning 3-pointers and dunks, or of Hail Mary passes and big tackles, rocket around the internet to millions of marginal fans. But a large part of baseball’s appeal comes from developing drama, like duels between pitcher and batter in which the hitter might foul off numerous 90 mile-per-hour sinkers to wear down the pitcher.

Television exposure may be a factor, too. Every N.F.L. game appears on some form of national TV, as does a high percentage of N.B.A. games. Most baseball games are televised only locally.

There is also the limited effect a baseball star can have on his team’s success. Position players can bat only a few times a game, and dominant starting pitchers take the mound only every five days. But a quarterback has the ball in his hands every offensive play, and an N.B.A. player can stay on the court for an entire game.

LeBron James has made eight straight N.B.A. finals and won three of them; Tom Brady has made eight Super Bowls with the Patriots and won five. The spotlight is on them continually.

Trout, on the other hand, has largely been missing from baseball’s biggest stage. He has played in just three playoff games total, all losses.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II wearing the Mets jersey of his father, Pat Mahomes, on Sunday. The elder Mahomes remembers when David Ortiz, the gregarious former Red Sox slugger, was uncomfortable in the spotlight.CreditEd Zurga/Associated Press

“For a long time he wouldn’t do interviews, because he didn’t think he could get his point across,” Mahomes said. “It took him a long time to get comfortable to be able to do that. Then came the 500 home runs and the World Series championship — that helps, too.”

Perhaps star power is cyclical. Basketball experienced its modern nadir in the mid-2000s, after the generation of Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon had retired. The N.B.A. lulled, and then James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant arose.

Maybe the next group of Jeters and Big Papis is right around the corner — or better yet, somewhere in the Dodgers’ and Red Sox’ dugouts.

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