MINNEAPOLIS – The new face of baseball sat in front of five people at a time, maybe 10 when it got really crowded, answering questions in the same manner as the old face. Baseball doesn't manufacture celebrities like the NBA or the NFL, and it rewards stoicism and humility above all, so of course Mike Trout would offer answers like Derek Jeter, which is to say ones about as boring as the Home Run Derby.
For two decades, Jeter rode the milquetoast train to superstardom on account of the city in which he played (New York), the championship rings on his fingers (a fistful) and his remarkable ability never to offend (a streak still intact). It is why the nebulous face-of-baseball title went to him more by default than his earning it. He was never the best player. He was just the coolest.
With Jeter set to take his savoir faire off to retirement this season, it leaves baseball, already a sport with a cog or two missing from its star-making machine, in search of someone to fill the role for now – or, better yet, for good.
"Mike Trout would be a good candidate," Tim Hudson said.
"I've got to go Mike Trout," David Price said.
"Look at Mike Trout," Andrew McCutchen said.
"Trout," Clayton Kershaw said.
"My vote's Mike Trout," Zack Greinke said.
"We all know it's Trout," Adam Jones said.
So, that's a four-time All-Star, a Cy Young winner, the reigning National League MVP, a two-time Cy Young winner, another Cy Young winner and another four-time All-Star. All agree: When the All-Star Game kicks off Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET from Target Field, and Jeter hits first for the American League with Trout batting second, it will be a symbolic torch-passing, Jeter handing off the mantel of the sport to the 22-year-old Trout and hoping he runs with it.
His game is ready. Trout is the best player in baseball, an absolute force in center field for the Los Angeles Angels something each of the other players used to reinforce the choice of him as the new face. And that's enough for now, even if another candidate – a completely different one – plays just up the freeway.
Yasiel Puig sat in front of 20 people, maybe 30 when it got really crowded, answering questions with animation, amusement, annoyance, petulance, hilarity. He is straight out of the NBA or the NFL, someone for whom stoicism and humility are but impediments. He does not traffic in boring. Ever.
Now, it's certainly not fair to say Mike Trout and Yasiel Puig are complete opposites. They share characteristics beyond their incredible ability to play baseball – Trout's better than the 23-year-old Puig, for now, but Puig's talent is at least in the same ZIP code. Trout has a personality. He likes playing jokes. When his roommate, Angels teammate Garrett Richards, went out of town, Trout started feeding Richards' dog every bit of delicious leftovers he could from dinner. Richards' dog to this day refuses dog food. And Puig is not all hubris and pomposity, some spoiled derelict out of Cuba. He's got a warm heart, a soft spot for fans and kids and those who gravitate to him, which is, more or less, everyone.
It's why Puig at least belongs in the conversation. There is a magnetism to him, to everything he does, and it radiates. Some of this is self-fulfilling; Puig does something – anything, really – and the media flocks to it, causing the cycle to begin anew and reinforcing and rehashing all of the old events. He is the closest baseball gets to the other professional sports that thrive on playing up those who are different, owning their annoyances in exchange for the positives that come with them.
Puig is a face for the 2010s, representative of baseball taking by far the greatest leap into a truly multicultural league. It's a huge part of his appeal, one he recognizes. Puig spent the offseason taking English lessons from a private tutor, and he understands the language well enough. He's not ready to speak it without a translator, not yet, but that's coming, and so long as the maturation of his game accompanies it, suddenly baseball could find itself with its most dynamic star since Ken Griffey Jr., a headliner the likes of which the Los Angeles Dodgers haven't seen in generations.
"I don't see myself that way," Puig said Monday afternoon, and that's only a half-truth: part of being seen that way is saying you don't see yourself that way. Puig is the guy who shaves a star into the side of his hair, the guy whose bat flips often defy gravity, the guy who plays a sport that relishes control with a doesn't-give-a-damn reckless abandon. He teeters between the incredible and the disastrous on the same play. He is must-see TV. If he doesn't see himself that way, he lacks self-awareness. And Puig may be a lot of things. Oblivious is not one of them.
"Not me," he said, and he's right. Not now. Not yet. Puig needs to wrest the title from the anointed.
Mike Trout is a better player than Derek Jeter ever was, and Jeter is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer who fetches at least 95 percent of the vote. Trout is hitting .310/.400/.606. His offensive numbers are better than his first two years, which was the greatest start of a career in baseball history.
"When I played with him," Greinke said, "he was the perfect player."
That was 2012, Greinke's one year with the Angels and Trout's first full season. He was just beginning to show off his superpowers.
"The reason why Trout is perfect," Greinke said, "is not only does he hit good and field good, he runs bases good, he takes pitches when he should be taking pitches, he steals when he should be stealing, he throws the ball where he should throw the ball, he plays shallow when he should play shallow, he plays deep when he should play deep. He does everything perfect."
Ideally, the face is the game's best player. It's wishful thinking, though Trout recognizes he is the heir. It could have been plenty of others. Bryce Harper got injured and regressed. McCutchen is in the wrong city. Kershaw plays every five days. Miguel Cabrera is too old to serve for the first time. And Puig?
"I play a little bit more controlled," Trout said. "But he's having fun. I'm having fun. He's definitely fun to watch. The way he plays, it's fun to watch for sure. He's always running out balls hard and playing the game."
Classic Jeter answer: plenty of words, doesn't say a whole lot. Trout plays the role well, and perhaps baseball demands as much. Puig's antics – missing the cutoff man, chucking his bat, running like a Pac-Man ghost on the bases – don't sit well with players. The baseball culture frowns on it. Even Kershaw, Puig's teammate, looks at Trout and sees the classic baseball ideal: "It's definitely not boring to watch, but there isn't anything you see in his game anyone can take offense to. There's no showboat. He just plays the game the right way. Aggressive, hard-nosed. And he's the best player."
Which is why the marketing machine is kicking up and starting to groom Trout. Nike has given signature shoes to three players in the last 25 years. Junior was the first. Jeter was the second. Trout is the third. Between that, and the massive record contract, and the smashing of windows for a mediocre sandwich, Trout is getting the sort of push befitting the face.
The transition is nigh, and Jones is right when he says: "It's hard to fill the role Jeter's done. He personifies everything that's good with baseball." Jeter's greatest asset is his harmlessness, his relatability despite the greatest dating résumé of all time, the Everyman vibe he emanates even if he's anything but. It has served baseball well enough, and Trout is missing only a few signature moments to cement his place as the rightful successor.
Right there, lurking, hungry as always, will be Puig, his peer in many ways, his opposite in others. Perhaps baseball has room for multiple faces, a Brady-Manning situation instead of a LeBron monopoly, and if they're that dissimilar, all the better. On the day of its summer showcase, and well beyond, baseball could use every bit of star power it can get.
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