The Fame Game

Let’s start with the obvious: Google News counts don’t really tell us very much about where we stand as a society. There is too much static and noise in these things. “Kim Kardashian” (8,090,000) will always dwarf “Yo Yo Ma” (481,000). That doesn’t really mean we respect or care more about the first search string.

Still, this seems pretty daunting to me.

Google News search: “Tim Tebow” and “baseball,” and you get 475,000 results.

Google News search: “Mike Trout” and “baseball,” and you get 109,000 results.

It isn’t just the number of results either. On top of the Tebow string you have general news stories — Tebow workouts ready to begin, where Tebow’s baseball journey could go from here, etc.

On top of the Mike Trout string are these headlines:

“ESPN columnist: Mike Trout’s too boring to win MVP.”

“Mike Trout has strong case for AL MVP, but no one cares.”

“Baseball Superstar Mike Trout involved in vehicle crash.”

“The Angels Should Trade Mike Trout.”

Now, this thing is about Trout, not Tebow — I’m only using him as a point of comparison. Tebow is a young man of strong faith and deep conviction. He was a fantastic college quarterback, one of the best in the history of the sport. He graduated seven years ago. He was a contentious NFL draft choice because people disagreed how his skills (athleticism, running ability, powerful competitive spirit, winning history) and flaws (erratic arm, for starters) would play out in the NFL. His brief run as a starter in Denver, where his team won games but he proved to be profoundly inaccurate, did not settle the dispute. He played his last regular season NFL game in 2012. He decided a while ago to dedicate himself to baseball for the first time since high school, sparking both admiration and sneering from various sides.

Mike Trout, meanwhile, plays baseball like Willie Mays more or less every day.

So why is Tebow so much more interesting to us than Mike Trout? Why is the best player in baseball so far outside of the American Zeitgeist. Why is it that Tebow giving a public baseball tryout stops the sports world cold, but Trout proposing to his high school sweetheart by skywriter does not trigger even a tremor? Why is that the top-100 social media athlete (Facebook likes plus Twitter followers) will include numerous NBA players, NFL players, MMA fighters, pro wrestlers, golfers, tennis players, a dozen or more soccer stars, a diver, a snowboarder, a couple of skateboarders, a badminton hero, race car drivers and numerous retired athletes but no Mike Trout?

This is where the story usually bends to gripe about baseball losing its place as a national sport. But I think there’s something else going on.

The knock on Trout, as the headlines above suggest, is that he’s boring. But what does that really mean? Is he boring because he doesn’t say interesting things? That covers 90 percent of all famous athletes. Is he boring because he has an effective but monotonous style of play, like Tim Duncan? Absolutely not — the guy hits bombs, makes breathtaking catches, runs like the wind.

So what makes him “boring?”

Excellence. That’s all. Trout is consistently excellent in ways that no one else is, in ways that no one has been in baseball for a very long time. He’s consistently excellent on the field, of course, where by WAR he has been the best player in the American League every single year for the last five years. The last player to do that? Right: Babe Ruth.

Other players come and go. At first, the argument for best player in baseball was between Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Then it was Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto. Last year, people talked about Bryce Harper challenging Trout as best player in baseball. This year, you have Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve and Kris Bryant.

Always, though, it ends up with Trout. The staggering variety of his brilliance — his speed, his power, his patience, his defense, his bludgeoning consistency — wins out. But then there’s off the field, where Trout is a dream — irrepressibly modest, eager to deflect credit, thoroughly unselfish, a relentless autograph signer (especially for kids), everything you could possibly want in a sports star.

And all this makes him boring.

Well, yes, there are extenuating circumstances. He plays on the West Coast, for one, which means much of the country sleeps through his splendor.

He also plays the one sport where even the best player on earth cannot carry a team very far. If LeBron James went to the worst team in the NBA, he would, through his own magnificence, make them a playoff team. Corey Crawford or Jonathan Quick, just as examples, have never played on losing teams and probably never will. Tom Brady’s career record is 172-51 and he’s played with hundreds of different players.

That’s not to say that one player in football, hockey or basketball is enough to win a championship. But it’s enough to make a team pretty good.

Not baseball. Mike Trout is having a transcendent year, one of the best of his transcendent career, and his Angels are brutal. In his five extraordinary full seasons, the Angels are 415-383, and even that blah record is only because things came together in 2014 when they went 98-64 and made the playoffs for the only time in Trout’s career. Combine the other four years, Trout’s teams have actually lost more than they have won.

So, those things do add to Trout’s surprising anonymity. But, I think mostly it’s the excellence. There’s just stuff to TALK ABOUT with Tebow, you know? With Trout, it’s all oohs and ahhs. The writer W.P. Kinsella once said, “It’s hard to write a story about nice people in normal relationships. Stories about nice people who are happy usually are not very interesting.”

I don’t entirely agree with that, but I do think that in sports, especially in today’s social world, we are drawn to stuff we can argue about. Is Joe Flacco an elite quarterback? Should Kevin Durant have signed with the already awesome Golden State Warriors? How about that Ryan Lochte? What do you think about Colin Kaepernick? How do you think this Tebow baseball thing will end up? That’s a conversation. That, as George once said on Seinfeld, is a show.

And there’s nothing to argue about with Mike Trout except whether he should win the MVP award. On the pro side, he’s the best player. On the con side, you know, let’s give the MVP award to someone who isn’t the best player because it would be more interesting. Now THAT is a boring argument.

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