Building MLB an International Face Station

RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a Pete Davidson fan. No wait, fan isn’t the right word. I’m obsessed with Pete Davidson? Fascinated by Pete Davidson? Transfixed by Pete Davidson? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I have spent a confounding amount of time thinking about Pete Davidson. He’s a math equation where I need to solve for x and just when I think I’m getting close, he produces more exes. The strangest part is how I consumed a cornucopia of content about this man before ever consuming any of his actual work. Eventually, I watched a few Saturday Night Live clips and his stand up special and Set It Up, and now I’m a regular Pete Davidson connoisseur. But I only know about Pete Davidson at all because he transcended the comedy corner of entertainment and elevated himself to being a full pop culture icon.

Though Davidson is a pop culture icon, he doesn’t have any obvious ties to baseball (I mean, Set It Up is a baseball movie, but Davidson doesn’t feature in the main baseball scene), so what’s he doing occupying the intro to an article on a baseball website? Well, this particular article is the last of a three-part series on marketing the game of baseball in service of growing the sport, and Pete Davidson is a marketing savant, whether intentional or not. But before further succumbing to the gravitational pull of Davidson’s charismatic wiles, why does growing the game matter at all? Doing so would generate more revenue, but team profit margins really only matter to those with a financial stake in a team. Still, growth matters to those of us with a non-financial stake in the sport because it holds the potential to improve the overall product. For example, more games on national television, more and higher quality media coverage, more kids playing, more teens choosing baseball as their primary sport thus leading to a larger pool of stronger prospects, more folks getting involved with baseball research, and so on and so forth.

Parts I and II of this series approached growth from the perspective of MLB and its teams, making the case for original content to supplement live games by using expanded storytelling situated on the right platforms and with an appropriate level of investment and access to captivate potential converts. Part III plans to take on growth from the perspective of individual players. While individual players would surely feature in the storytelling approach described in the first two parts of the series, here the focus shifts to strategies players might undertake independent of the league or their team.

Which brings the conversation back to Pete Davidson. I discovered Davidson’s work due to his status as a pop culture icon. Standup comedy isn’t really my thing. I don’t regularly watch SNL. And yet, Pete pulled me in. I kept hearing about him as he crossed over into the pockets of pop culture I do engage with. Then I started seeing him in commercials. I suddenly noticed him everywhere, in much the same way that when you get a new car you suddenly notice how many of that same make and model exist side-by-side with you in traffic. Eventually, I had to ask the eternal question: What’s this guy’s deal?

All of that is to say, a pop culture icon — not just a star within an industry, but what many colloquially refer to as a household name, a figure of that magnitude — possesses the power to compel a culture to dabble in something new. The strike that cut the 1994 season short and lopped off the postseason left fans in the lurch, with no champion crowned and a cloud of uncertainty around the future of the sport. Upon the resolution of the work stoppage, it wasn’t clear whether fans put off by the whole ordeal would return. Enter Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey debuted in 1989 but began his ascent to pop culture icon a few years later. His ability to transcend baseball is partially linked to his pedigree, a level of cool that feels impossible, and just being really freaking good at baseball. But beyond that, he made purposeful moves to crossover into other arenas. In 1992, he performed on the track, The Way I Swing with hip hop artist Kid Sensation and voiced himself on an episode of The Simpsons. In 1994, he appeared in the movie Little Big League and guest-starred on an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The Super Nintendo edition of a baseball video game bearing his name came out in 1994, with the Nintendo 64 edition following in 1998. Nike offered him a coveted signature shoe deal (a rarity even among Nike-sponsored athletes and even rarer amongst baseball players), leading to the release of the Nike Air Griffey Max 1 in 1996. While little tops a signature shoe deal in terms of product-based cultural clout, a diverse portfolio of brand sponsorships increases the size and impact of one’s presence in the cultural consciousness, and the internet has kindly preserved a catalog of The Kid’s commercial appearances, including the one spoofing his run for president.

While Junior is rightfully known more for covering the outfield, his coverage of all types of media and entertainment transformed him from baseball star to universal icon. In a five-part podcast series, American Prodigy: The Kid documents Griffey’s rise to stardom, his broader cultural impact, and how his interactions with pop culture outside of MLB influenced the league. The show’s host, Alex Ward, brings on several guests to speak to Griffey’s career from different vantage points. The evidence they offer is admittedly anecdotal, but echoes sentiments heard many times over from a variety of sources: an icon like Griffey brings in new fans.

Comedian River Butcher recalls how Griffey changed perceptions of the sport, saying, “It opened up the joy of the game to me. He smiled. He had a good time. He loved what he was doing while he did it.” Likewise, fellow comedian David Gborie, who grew up in Seattle in the ‘90s, described Griffey as, “the coolest baseball player, hands down.” As a kid Gborie remembers “feeling lucky to be a Mariners fan.” For writer Shakeia Taylor, Griffey’s legacy includes the representation he offered Black kids within baseball: “He captivated African American kids all over the country. We had someone who looked like us. Who was huge. He was popular, he listened to rap, he wore gold chains, he wore his hat backwards. He was just the coolest.”

For around 20 years, Griffey served as a face of the sport, capable of energizing the game with an influx of new fans. But when his era ended, not all of the new fans he brought in stayed. Gborie no longer follows baseball, noting, “Griffey left and then I was done.” Some who felt represented by Griffey struggled to find new representation. It suggests that a singular face of baseball, one transcendent icon, is not a sustainable formula for growth and retention. A constellation of pop culture mega stars representing all different types of people, passing the torch from one generation to the next, keeping the lights shining bright each night in stadiums across the continent, that’s the magic formula.

Baseball isn’t without pop culture relevance, and Griffey isn’t the first or last to do a crossover episode with other types of entertainment — he simply provides a prominent blueprint. Brady Anderson appeared on an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Mike Trout periodically dips his toe into weather reporting. Derek Jeter hit the big screen and silver screen with roles in Anger Management, The Other Guys, and Seinfeld. IMDB even claims he made a cameo in a Limp Bizkit video, but I couldn’t find him, which leads me to believe he’s the guy in the mask holding the giant chocolate bunny. I’d offer more examples, but I don’t know how to smoothly segue away from that.

Flashes of pop culture brilliance present themselves here and there, but for the sport to shine it needs a consistent cast of characters hitting a variety of cultural touchstones. The aforementioned Jeter shone as bright as any pop culture luminary representing baseball. In a recent newsletter, Sam Miller posited that Jeter checks in as the third most famous baseball player of all time after Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. The crux of his argument? Jeter appears in a Subway commercial with other transcendent sports icons Steph Curry and Patrick Mahomes. I believe Miller intended to argue that Jeter’s presence in the commercial proves the caliber of his stardom, but one might argue the converse is also true, that appearing in a commercial alongside superstars like Curry and Mahomes adds a little glitter to Jeter’s sparkle. (For as we all know, proximity to even a small amount of glitter leaves you and everything you’ve ever touched covered in the stuff until the end of time.) Likewise associating oneself with a popular or bougie brand might elevate one’s status in the eyes of brand’s loyalists. Something along the lines of, “Hey, I like Taco Bell. Maybe I should check out this Pete Davidson guy.”

Among active players, several candidates possess the requisite glow to ascend to stardom, some even accessorize with a shimmering halo. But enough about Hunter Renfroe. As my colleague Esteban Rivera noted in March, Shohei Ohtani must headline this conversation. Though among MLB’s best and brightest, Ohtani’s Q score illuminates the disconnect between baseball stardom and universal stardom. A Q score answers the following question: Of those familiar with a celebrity, what percentage rate them as one of their favorites? In 2022, Sportico calculated Q scores for 300 top athletes. Ohtani logged the highest Q score of all of them, edging out Michael Jordan by 1%. Of the people who know about him, 33% say Ohtani is one of their favorites. However, only 13% of those surveyed had heard of Ohtani, while 76% knew about Michael Jordan. To know Ohtani is to love him, but not nearly enough people know about him. He remains in the baseball bubble.

Bursting out of the baseball bubble via social media furnishes a fairly frictionless course of action for major leaguers to reach new audiences relative to other methods, like convincing a movie studio to cast you in the baseball version of Space Jam. Many top players boast large followings regardless of the quality of their posts. Sponsor United tracked year-over-year growth in social media followings after the 2022 season. The top five largest gainers include Alek Manoah, Bobby Witt Jr., Oneil Cruz, Jeremy Peña, and Yordan Alvarez. The report cites the largest followings independent of growth as Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Mookie Betts, Justin Turner, Walker Buehler, Cody Bellinger, Clayton Kershaw, Christian Yelich, Gary Sánchez, and Francisco Lindor. The two lists fill out a strong starter kit for creating a many-headed monster to supply a multiplicity of Faces of Baseball, representing a variety of ethnicities, ages, and playing styles.

As a final caveat, not everyone wants to be The Face of Baseball, or to market themselves aggressively. Despite his previous willingness to be The Face of SuperPretzel, Mike Trout clearly prefers a quieter existence. Ken Griffey Jr. expressed irritation with the response to his parody presidential campaign and demanded that Nike shift to a new concept. No player owes the sport or its fans anything beyond their efforts on the field. No one should feel obligated to do anything they don’t want to do, especially if it makes them uncomfortable. It would feel inauthentic and consequently, it wouldn’t work.

Griffey and Jeter are among those who have taken on the spotlight as the face of baseball, absorbing the pressure that comes with the role, and casting a shadow upon their departures. Rather than pointing a hot, blinding light at one player, why not throw a party under a multifaceted disco ball and invite a bunch of people to come enjoy our sport?

Kiri lives in the PNW while contributing part-time to FanGraphs and working full-time as a data scientist. She spent 5 years working as an analyst for multiple MLB organizations. You can find her on Twitter @technical_K0.

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Ostensibly Ridiculousmember
11 months ago

We need a stat for this!
EDIT: oh nevermind it’s already there… Can we get it Q score on Leaderboards?

Last edited 11 months ago by Ostensibly Ridiculous