It’s exciting times for baseball in Cleveland. The hope-n-hype engines are running full speed with a full-fledged star in José Ramírez, some budding excellence up and down the roster, and what appears to be a bursting farm system ready to feed a seemingly never-ending flow of talent into Progressive Field.
It’s fun, exciting, and yet a bit disheartening that there’s so little chance for the broader baseball fanbase to get a taste of what’s coming. They got a good introduction to Ramírez, Andrés Giménez, and Emannuel Clase in the All-Star Game, but the mostly lacking presence in October is restricting a larger cultural impact. It’s a travesty, because more than just excellence on the field, there are some guys here that should be promoted, and should be beloved by not just fans but normal people, too. One man specifically too Josh Naylor. He has everything we need to be the face of the game.
I don’t mean The Face of Baseball, though that would be fun. I couldn’t tell you who that is — the two best players play on a second-rate, loser team and the guys we see on commercials tend to be towards the tail end of their careers. Maybe Mookie Betts in part? Played in Boston and LA, he’s won, he makes sick plays, and he has the charisma and looks to be a star. It’s a hard title to capture, and outside of maybe Derek Jeter who was a perfect storm of charisma, looks, talent, and market, we haven’t had anything like that in nearly a decade. I thought Juan Soto could have been something like a national figure whose stature grows the game, but going to San Diego hurts that a bit with all the talent that won’t let him shine quite as brightly as well as the presence of the Dodgers, which is a similar problem the Guards have — market and media attention.
The issue is just that the MLB makes the NBA look downright visionary in how they promote players that play in any market not on the coasts. We’re often told that baseball is a “regional game”, and this feels like a handicapping that gives the league as a whole a chance to just not talk about teams like Cleveland. Which is a failing, not only because of Ramírez’s excellence. We just need more Naylor, is what I’m saying. He should be on everyone’s television.
Not even just those weird interstitials promoting MLB Network on MLBtv either. He should be the face of, I don’t know, cereal? Candy? Subway? Whatever it is that athletes hawk, who knows? Insurance, maybe. Because you can be SURE that he’ll come through in the end, since he’s so clutch, right? Maybe he needs a better agent, but the league should push him, too.
And even leaving aside for a second the on-field performance — which is excellent so far this year and has such huge moments — he’s just such a cool guy. He gave an interview to Bally Sports Northeast Ohio the other week just talking about how much he loves playing baseball. He calls it something like “the coolest sport in the world”, and seeing a young guy with big silly hair, an easy smile, kind eyes, and the energy of a sweet Canadian boy say things like that about America’s Pastime has a special kind of magic to it.
I’m reminded in some way of Steve Nash, of all people. Like Naylor, he is Canadian, a really cool, soft-spoken guy who also happened to be a demon when it came time to play. And play amazingly at that. Two MVPs and probably could have gotten a third, and on one of the most fun teams to watch in the last 20 or so years, and yet he was miles behind the Kobes and LeBrons and the Celtics of the world in terms of cultural cachet. It was one of the greatest marketing failures — or malpractices, perhaps — in American sports that I’ve ever seen, was to push good and fun teams on us instead of the plodding Lakers and Celtics. Like with the NBA then, the MLB now just doesn’t want to promote fun teams with cool players that are doing neat things, because of the market or whatever isn’t “sexy”.
I ask you, who wouldn’t love a guy who literally demands to beef with his opponent, headbutts his own manager, wears a hockey jersey just to hang out in, and probably helps kittens from trees and calls his grandma every Sunday? Plus he’s got a little brother in the system, who’s good too! This is marketing just writing itself, how can baseball not see that? There is not a single demographic in baseballdom that wouldn’t like him, from casuals to the nutjobs, little kids to old heads. Aside from perhaps his occasional outburst (which demonstrates passion) even fans stuck in the past would love that he plays the game so hard and looks like he hasn’t lifted a non-12 ounce weight in his life. There’s a certain grubby, gritty timelessness to the way Naylor plays the game, like it would work in any era.
Look, I don’t actually know what it would mean for Naylor to be the face of anything. And there’s a good likelihood that Cleveland is going to do the hard work to make sure that those damn coastal elites learn his name, whether this year or next. His short postseason resume is absurd — 5-for-7 with three doubles and a dinger — and that was two years ago. He’s better, stronger, and wiser now, and has already proven that when things tighten up he’s at his best. He’s got a 1.084 OPS in high leverage situations, .982 in the final three innings, and plays better against winning teams than losing this year, too.
This talent, combined with this odd mix of intensity, friendliness, and an ineffable coolness, paints a picture of a guy who should (and could) transcend the game and be a true superstar in America. He can be that, baseball, just has to make it happen.