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Death of the Baseball Role Model?

Baseball has always been places where the youth can look to for influence, but is the baseball role model a non-existent one anymore?

One would think that with his boyish looks, his charming personality, and lack of criminal history that Angels slugger Mike Trout would be an influence to the youth, but many seem not to even know Trout (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Written by Jake Elman

It’s Tuesday night, and for the first time since May 2007, the city of Cleveland is celebrating a trip to the championship; that’s with all due respect to the reigning college football champion Ohio State Buckeyes, of course, but it’s been a long eight years in C-Town. We all know the stories — the Browns have stuck to mediocrity, the Indians have been inconsistent, LeBron James left…and even during the King’s first season back this year, things weren’t so hot in Cleveland.

But, what stood out most during the postgame celebration wasn’t J.R. Smith’s selfie at the podium, but it was instead the response that LeBron James earned not just from Cavalier fans, but fans all over the world. Gone was the heel LeBron James that so many of us rooted against for his four years in Miami, the player that had made the decision on national television to take his talents to South Beach; instead replacing him was The King, the player that our youth wanted to be like not even as a basketball player, but as a person.

The conversation of athletes being influences and role models to our youth has one we as a society have had for a long time, but it seems that this conversation seems to be dead in baseball. As a New Yorker, I can certainly say that the conversation has stopped here, and that’s not just a generational thing either: baseball, football, and basketball have always been places where the youth can look to for influence, but after the Selig Era, maybe that conversation might be a silent one in America’s Pastime.

Part of that might come from the general lack of mainstream popularity that the game’s stars have; a 2014 USA Today article said that the five most famous players in baseball, at the time, were Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper, Angels first baseman Albert Pujols, Red Sox first baseman/designated hitter David Ortiz, Yankees third baseman/designated hitter Alex Rodriguez, and former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Of those five, two (Oritz and Rodriguez) have been tied to steroids, a third (Pujols) hasn’t really ever had the popularity in America that he has in Latin America, one (Harper) is among the most ‘arrogant and cocky’ players in the game, so that meant that Jeter was the most ‘innocent’ and good for being a role model.

Now, that makes sense, because Jeter was the face of baseball for a long time and was never in the news for anything bad; you never heard about him getting into fights with his girlfriend or cheating the game, and Jeter was also one of the few players to be on the national stage, often appearing on talk shows and at red carpet events. But still, four of those five players over the age of 34 at the time (Pujols turned 35 in January 2015) and I don’t see many people saying that they look up to Bryce Harper.

As of right now, if you asked me point-blank which five players would be the biggest role models for the youth, I’d say Mets third baseman David Wright, Angels outfielder Mike Trout, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig (for Latin America and Cuba), Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, and Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Yet, the way my generation knew Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Pedro Martinez, and others when we were young, this generation might only know Trout, Puig, and Cabera, and that’s because the latter two were on the past two MLB: The Show games.

Right now, we’re in a time where the main sports of influence are football and basketball, even if it the former is plagued by criminals and awful human beings right now. If I’m a ten year old kid and I have the choice of looking up to LeBron James, this super-popular guy who dominates every time he goes out there, or Mike Trout, a star outfielder who might be content with a 1-4 game and a walk if his team wins, I’m probably going with LeBron.

Now, as you might expect, I’m sure the steroid age played a big role in kids not wanting to look up to baseball players as much. Why, if we use logic, would a youth look up to someone who has cheated the game and cheated themselves by using PEDs? What kind of standard does that set for the kid looking up to Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Braun?

But, maybe it’s just a generational shift, but even then I’m not sure if that’s the case.

But, maybe it’s just a generational shift, and even then I’m not sure if that’s the case. Maybe we as a society have reached a point where because of the steroid era and the shift in balance that baseball has taken over the past two decades that there’s really no mainstream player to truly look up to; I also think part of it may have to do with the fact that a lot of these players either were signed at a young age from Latin America or come from relatively wealthy backgrounds that enable them to play for the best travel teams, attend the best camps, etc. If you’re someone from a poor city like Detroit or southern Chicago, how would you be able to relate to someone that’s had all of these things given to them?

Though one could make the argument that someone like LeBron James played at an elite basketball academy, which is true, LeBron also came from a single parent household where his mother gave birth to him at sixteen, lived in the seedy parts of Akron, Ohio, and eventually moved in with his football coach. Oklahoma City star forward Kevin Durant, one of the most popular players in the NBA right now, also came from a home with no male role model, as his father deserted the family when the former MVP was just a year old.

That’s not to say that scenarios like that don’t happen in Major League Baseball, but for American kids, a lot of them want to relate to people that went through similar situations in America. Even if he was a playboy, people growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s respected Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle because he came from a poor Oklahoma background that involved a lot of lead and zinc mining; they could relate to the hard-working American, and it’s hard to relate to players that come from such extravagant lifestyles when you haven’t even come closing to have those luxuries.

Will this change? Well, I don’t necessarily think that’ll be the case anytime soon, and a lot of that goes back to what I said in a recent article about youth baseball. There’s a big, big differentiation between where the majority of baseball players and where, for example, the majority of basketball players come from, and it’s very hard to look up to someone when you can’t claim to have anything really in common. The sad thing is that arguably Major League Baseball’s biggest role model right now, as hard as this may be to believe, is Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez: he came from a single parent household and wasn’t wealthy, used his talent to get where he was, eventually made a mistake, and is now trying to redeem himself.

When Alex Rodriguez is arguably baseball’s biggest role model, then you know that there may be a bit of a problem.

Do you think that kids, and youth as a whole, will ever look up to baseball players the way we once did, or is that phase over with for good? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by tweeting me at @JakeElman