Derek Jeter‘s impending exit from the baseball stage has a number of people wringing their hands about the next “face of baseball.” Major League Baseball and its advertisers could not have found a better vessel than Jeter: he plays for the Yankees, a brand inextricably linked to excellence; he’s clean cut and conventionally attractive; and of course, he could play.
But most importantly, Jeter was the face of baseball because he was always on TV. His Yankees missed the playoffs once in two decades. He played in 15 All-Star games. In a media world preceding the explosion of the internet, Jeter was inescapable. Even as cable went from a luxury to a common amenity, Jeter’s face was a constant on SportsCenter and the rest of ESPN’s baseball programming.
This is perhaps the biggest change in baseball (and indeed all sports) over the past 15 years. The standardization of sports media has been disrupted by the internet. Many speak of the democratizing effects the internet has had on the press, an influence that should be obvious in sports. Consider just how impossible a site like Fox’s new Just A Bit Outside would have seemed five years ago: Rob Neyer, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have managed to move onto the same stage as mainstream media figures like Ken Rosenthal, Jon Morosi and, of all people, Jeff Garlin.
Freedom of choice in consumption is considered to be a deeply American value, but for baseball fans prior to the internet age, there wasn’t much choice to be had. Writing was limited to beat writers and publications like Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, which were little but public relations arms of the league (the Spink family members, which founded The Sporting News and ran it for multiple generations, were close family friends with American League founder and first president Ban Johnson). Television was limited to local broadcasts, games of the week and features like “This Week in Baseball” prior to cable. Even after the rise of cable, ESPN’s SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight were often the only popular shows of their kind. As with print, television outlets often found (and continue to find) themselves beholden to the leagues they were covering for access and broadcast rights.
This standardization of American society was exacerbated by the television but has been commented on by visitors from abroad for over two centuries. As the authors of The American Business Creed, an analysis of rhetoric and symbols in American business, put it, “Observers from de Tocqueville to the present have found American consumers less distinguished as individualistic judges of quality than as anxious conformists to remarkably uniform and standardized patterns.”
Advertisers and businessmen often trumpet this standardization as proof of quality of the product; if the product wasn’t great, the free market would swiftly elevate an alternative. Beardsley Ruml, a Macy’s executive, claimed in a 1945 paper titled Tomorrow’s Business that writers were no longer chastising America (as de Tocqueville did) for how millions “eat the same cereals, drive the same cars, see the same movies, and wind the same watches” because of the apparent high quality arising from that value of standardization. But as the authors of The American Business Creed (writing in 1956) noted:
If toothpaste advertising has made us brush our teeth and thus given us the best teeth in the world or if soap advertising overcame our grandparents’ fear of bathing thus ushering in “the prophylactic period in these United States” (as claimed by Mark O’Dea in Preface to Advertising), the achievements may be admirable; but the sovereign power of the consumer to determine what the system will produce is logically brought into question.
Apply the same analysis to baseball and Derek Jeter. There was no choice, no collective conscious decision by baseball fans outside of New York to embrace Jeter as baseball’s “face,” the name synonymous with the game. Jeter was a symbol, a perfect vessel for the advertisers and sportswriters who push the game to carry and represent the values they believe in. Of course, Jeter could not have become the face of baseball without talent, but Jeter was never without peer as a player at any point in his career. As a marketing tool, however, he remains unmatched to this day, as this year’s All-Star festivities proved.
Jeter, or at least the image of Jeter propagated through television broadcasts and print features, gave the coveted 18-to-49-year-old male demographic exactly what they wanted. Jeter embodied dignity, respect, the “right way” to play the game, and of course, a man who had tons of sex. Jeter was deft with the media, but the role chose him as much as he chose the role.
Harry Edwards was a sociologist at UCLA and one of the first to turn a sociological eye to the world of sports. In his 1973 work, Sociology of Sport, Edwards described the sports reporter — whether broadcaster, radio talking head, or newspaper journalist — as occupying a “liaison role” between leagues and fans. The sports reporter, Edwards argues, is the connector between sports fan and the “internal functioning of his sports ‘family'” and how the fan “comes to feel that he ‘knows’ his team or his favorite coach or athlete, their shortcomings and attributes.”
…the chief responsibility of the sports reporter as liaison person between the athletic unit and the fan is that of casting the activities of primary-level persons in sports and of sports aggregations within the context of the societal values that the institution of sport functions to reaffirm and sustain. Out of this institutionalized responsibility attached to the position of sports reporter emerges an inherent contradiction in role demands. As a journalist, the sports reporter is bound by professional ethics to strive for objectivity. As a sports reporter, however, his role demands that he portray the activities of groups and individuals involved in sport at a primary level as conforming to the ideal values of society.
Specifically, those values are the values of what Edwards called the American Sports Creed. Edwards posited the creed had seven central themes, which any sports fan who has lived for either the sports section or SportsCenter should be able to recognize, roughly in order of importance:
IV. Physical Fitness
V. Mental Fitness
Publications constantly found ways to show Jeter through the lens of one or more of these central themes. See this Men’s Health profile, titled “Competitive to a Fault”:
That’s part of what makes Derek Jeter officially inspiring, although the inspiration depends on the context. Among Yankees fans, he inspires pennant dreams. Among Yankees haters, he inspires grudging respect despite the affiliation. There’s no denying the guy plays hard, leads his team, shows class, and never uses his mouth as a firearm. Reputations like this do not happen by accident. “Obviously, you’re known for what you do,” says Jeter. “But you still want to be known as a good person. You’re a person a lot longer before and after you’re a professional athlete. People always say to me, ‘Your image is this, your image is that.’ Your image isn’t your character. Character is what you are as a person. That’s what I worry about.”
Or this Star-Ledger story from February:
Again, we should be fine with it. But we still don’t know how he’s managed to pull this off, right until the final curtain.
So we asked somebody who did:
“To be as accomplished as Derek is on his level, you have to have compulsive features,” said our go-to sports psychologist, Marshall Mintz of Springfield. “It’s not obsessive-compulsive disorder, like checking the light switch all the time, but compulsive features: a determined, organized, disciplined, mildly evaluative and judgemental style that lets you keep after things.
Or this MLB.com feature, also from February:
Phil Coke hasn’t been a teammate of Derek Jeter’s for four years, but Jeter still remembers Coke’s father and says hello. That, Coke said, says plenty about Jeter’s character.
As Jeter embarks on what will now be known as his farewell season, that’s what Coke remembers.
“He’s a class act,” Coke said Thursday. “He’s been accused of being a class act his whole big league career, even when he was younger. He’s always been incredibly respectful to everybody. He’s just a guy that, as a person, you’d like to model yourself after, because he’s got so many qualities that he exhibits day-to-day.
What faces do for people you meet, Jeter did for baseball. The association is so deep, people have difficulty even imagining baseball without him–even people who knew him and played with him. From the same MLB.com feature:
“You never think it’s going to end,” [Joba] Chamberlain said. “And obviously he’s getting older, but you see him every day, and I was with him for a long time. It’ll definitely be weird not to see him at shortstop.”
The question of who is the face of baseball is a marketing question first and foremost. The authors of The American Business Creed tell us the Brand Names Foundation claimed popular brands have “won esteem the hard way” because they give customers “exactly what they want.” In the era of the standardized media experience, there thus had to be one face of baseball in order to give the most customers what they wanted.
There are a number of obstacles now standing in the way of a player becoming the pure symbol of the chosen values of American sports that Jeter was. Social media makes what Craig Calcaterra called the “enigmatic, mysterious or even somewhat intriguing” part of Jeter impossible to attain. The internet has created more and more niche sports reporting (like this very piece!) to give fans more and more viewpoints into the game.
And in the era of cable, fans are able to watch every game and access every highlight easier than ever. When SportsCenter was the primary source of highlights, the great play of others would be lost to the ether. Now, if my favorite player happens to be Carlos Gomez instead of Mike Trout, merely typing his name into MLB.com’s search bar brings up hours of highlights to watch.
Edwards discusses what he calls an “information explosion” between the 1930s and 1973, when he wrote Sociology of Sport. He talks of “the onset of truly mass communication” and cites “television, books, telephones, radio, mass rallies made possible by the jet plane and the automobile, newspapers and magazines” as contributing factors. He concludes:
Under the impact of the information explosion, many people have come to dissent from such values and orientations, athletes among them. Much of the ceremony and pomp which surrounds sport spectaculars at least implies generalized traditional political orientations. It could come to pass that athletes and others occupying sports roles will reject the implied political thrust of such ceremonies and seek to substitute gestures and ceremonies perceived to be more in line with their own personal political views.
The internet has unleashed an information explosion of similar, if not larger, proportions. For the individual baseball fan, it means the world of sports is available to us in a way that it never has been before. Rather than being told who is the face of baseball, who represents the things we are supposed to value in the game, now baseball fans can find for themselves a player who represents their own values.
In today’s baseball world, then, the face of baseball is something obsolete, or at least it should be for anybody who cares about baseball rather than Major League Baseball’s advertising strategies. Despite what the Brand Names Foundation might have to say about it, I believe this is a much better world for baseball. Not everybody needs to watch the game the same way, or put the same face to it, and freedom of choice can be a beautiful thing indeed.