Beneath bright lights he shines as the brightest star in the midst of a nascent dynasty, a talented player in one of the nation’s largest cities and with an avid fan base that in the recent past identified with failure and now expects excellence. Such were the first few seasons of Derek Jeter’s career and they are currently being paralleled by San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Poesy, and this World Series may be his launching pad to the Jeterian stratosphere.
It has been a conversation since Jeter announced his retirement prior to the 2014 season: who will take up the crown from the abdicating face of the MLB? And what does it even entail? Essentially, Major League Baseball is looking for a talented, captivating, young, and honorable player to step forward and be a fantastic representative (and preferably, from the business side, a ratings and ticket draw) for the game of baseball through ad campaigns, PSA’s, public relations, and someone that the general public can look to as a representative of Major League baseball. Names have been bandied about, but placing such a label on a player is not an exact process like tallying votes in an election, due to the fact that many variables are at play, chief among them being that the fans will inevitably gravitate to the most talented, likeable, charming, and dramatic players. Jeter had an overabundance of those attributes.
However great Derek Jeter was, and there is no denying that, one can’t help but notice that his rise to cultural prominence was quite fortuitous. He was the soul that baseball needed as PED use became an issue, he was the youthful face with superstar charisma that shone the brightest during the last great dynasty in North American sports, he hit his stride as a great ballplayer as Ken Griffey Jr. began his tragic decline and faded from relevance, and he played in the biggest city in the country for the most storied franchise in sports history. Jeter was great, but his iconic status was not only attributable to his outstanding play and winning smile.
Buster Posey is not privileged enough to have such a confluence of events at this time, however, but he is undeniably one of the great players in baseball, and the hardware he is hauling around in the form of MVP and Rookie of the Year trophies and two World Series rings is emblematic of his success thus far. He is just entering his prime, he is photogenic, and his talent is evident. However, Posey has several strikes against him if he wishes to take the place of Jeter as baseball’s cultural face and media ambassador. Factors such as his west coast location–leaving half the country in bed while he is playing–, the public’s indifference to his team (except for the scorn of Dodgers fans,) and the fact that many old school fans look down on him as a diva for his lobbying to change plays at the plate due to his injury a few years ago (during a legal play) are all issues that Derek Jeter never had to deal with except with Red Sox fans.
When it comes to other players to fit the mold, it is hard to see anyone transcending the game in the manner which Jeter did. Mike Trout is a magnificent player, nearly historical with his performances at such a young age, but his west coast locale plays against him like it does for Posey. Miguel Cabrera’s hitting talent is second to none, but his off-the-field troubles are never going to be exonerated. Bryce Harper is young and compelling with a unique look, but he is very divisive when it comes to baseball fans’ opinions about him. Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale? It’s hard to fathom that Major League Baseball would push a player who only plays once every five days as the face of the game. Andrew McCutchen has an MVP, charisma, endorsement deals and talent to go with being the star player for a resurgent franchise as well as playing on the national stage in multiple All Star games. He seems likely, but it all depends on whether or not the fans buy into it.
That was essentially the magic of Bo Jackson, Griffey and Jeter: the fans loved those players for more than one or two reasons and they became athletic American icons due to their immense talent, personal magnetism, and ability to be excellent ambassadors for the game of baseball. The fans bought into them as great players and great people. Whether anyone in the coming years can rise to their level of relevance is an open question, though one that is a fun diversion as the World Series is about to begin and the off season approaches.