All-Star Week showed baseball is blessed with some of the most brightest young stars in the history of the game. Now is the time to market them so baseball can recapture its popularity among young fans.
By Chris Umpierre
MIAMI — With my black Mizuno mitt in tow, I took my spot next to dozens of baseball-gloved strangers behind Marlins Park’s left centerfield wall. Some 427 feet from home plate, we had the best position to catch legit memorabilia from the 2017 Home Run Derby.
There was just one problem: I should have been standing further back.
As ball after ball flew to our area, our tightly-packed group moved as one. We pushed. We elbowed. We boxed out. We reached high into the air. But most balls flew over us and hit Marlins Park’s glass back wall. The 470-foot-plus homers bounced high off the wall and into our mass of humanity, setting off chaotic chases for $27 balls.
The mammoth shots at the 2017 MLB Home Run Derby — the furthest traveled a mind-boggling 513 feet, or 87 feet shorter than the length of TWO football fields — gave me a new appreciation for baseball’s young talent. Unfortunately, most of America doesn’t know players such as New York’s Aaron Judge, Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton or Los Angeles’ Cody Bellinger.
Baseball needs to better market its players. Whether it’s more national telecasts, more national award shows or more opportunities to meet today’s young stars, baseball should do more. The NBA, which is popular with millennials, is the best example of how a sport should market its top players.
There are obstacles in the way — baseball players can’t sell everyday shoes like NBA players and baseball has fewer national telecasts than the NBA — but something has to be done. It’s significant because young fans are leaving baseball. Baseball has the oldest viewers of the top major sports, with 50% of its audience 55 or older (up from 41% a decade ago), according to Nielsen ratings. The average age of baseball viewers is 53, compared with 47 for the NFL and 37 for the NBA.
This was my first time attending MLB FanFest or what I call, “Baseball’s version of Disney World.” While I loved Fanfest (it features interactive exhibits, batting cages and more), it came off a little corporate. FanFest is held for six days in the host city before every All-Star Game.
Oxi-clean, Scott’s Miracle-Gro, Coca-Cola and others had exhibits. While I understand you need sponsors to put on an event of this scale, there should have been more opportunities for fans to get to know baseball’s top young stars.
FanFest had a Diamond Clinic area where kids learned baseball’s fundamentals. Former players visited but I don’t believe current All-Stars attended. If they are in town, why not send a couple to FanFest?
There were dozens of exhibits and booths at the Miami Beach Convention Center at FanFest, but few mentioned the game’s young stars such as Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper or Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager.
Could baseball create a FanFest experience where fans could meet current All-Stars?
At FanFest, we did find a mannequin that looked like Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton.
Futures Game/Celebrity Softball
As I attended by first week of All-Star festivities, I thought the Futures Game/Celebrity Softball game on Sunday night would fill the park.
It didn’t. The 37,000-seat Marlins Park wasn’t full.
The Futures Game featured baseball’s top young prospects. The No. 1 prospect in the world — Chicago White Sox’ Yoan Moncada — hit leadoff for the World team.
White Sox right-hander Michael Kopech, who played for Team USA, also played. Kopech, who came over from the Red Sox in the Chris Sale trade, is the hardest thrower in the minor leagues. He regularly tops 100 mph and has thrown as hard as 110 mph with a crow hop.
Kopech did not disappoint during the Futures Game. He threw a 100.7 mph heater to strike out Moncada, his fellow White Sox prospect and Chris Sale trade-mate.
— All-Star Game (@AllStarGame) July 9, 2017
A matchup like that — Kopech vs. Moncada — would be a national story if it happened in college basketball or in the Final Four. I’m not sure if the Sunday matchup made a blip on the national spotlight. These days, even big matchups in high school basketball get time on ESPN.
At All-Star Sunday, more fans seemed to be more excited about the celebrity game. And I do have to say Jamie Foxx did put on a show worth the price of admission. Everything Foxx does is hilarious.
Home Run Derby
Watching from the centerfield Budweiser bar section, all we saw was home run after home run going over our heads.
A look at the Internet recap afterward detailed a more significant derby than I thought. It was one of the best shows in Home Run Derby history.
Judge won the derby with ease. In one round, he hit home runs of 513 feet, 507 feet and 504 feet. Judge is the first rookie to win the competition in its 32-year history.
Before the derby, I was lucky to get a Judge outfit for my wife. The Judge outfit came with a white wig and a judge’s robe. The woman handing out the Judge outfits originally wasn’t going to give it to me.
“These are for Yankee fans,” she told me, looking at my Dodger shirt.
She eventually relented and gave it to me. I gave the outfit to my wife and Christina wore it with pride. Dozens of fans asked for pictures with her.
This was a wonderful idea by baseball as dozens of fans wore the white wig and judge’s robes. Some fans held up signs that read: “All Rise!” It was the type of marketing baseball needs.
While there were many fans with Judge outfits, there was only one in the third level of the park.
Christina Umpierre wore the Judge outfit through the entire derby in the third level of Marlins Park. A peanut-chomping fan shuddered when he saw “The Judge” sitting in his row. The fan later took a fan of Christina. Christina even kept the outfit on as she left the stadium and walked the streets of Little Havana.
“Why is your hair white?” someone asked from a car as we walked down a sidewalk.
“I’m the Judge!!!!!” Christina retorted.
I looked back and said, “Oh my gosh, what happened to my wife?” Baseball had won her over that night with that costume and now she’s an Aaron Judge fan for life.
As a kid, I’ve always wanted to attend a Major League All-Star Game. It took me nearly four decades but I finally got to one and it was worth it.
There’s just something about seeing all of the game’s best players on one field at the same time.
We got to the game early to see batting practice and all of the pre-game festivities. We saw Alex Rodriguez, Harold Reynolds and others up close.
The game was a pitchers’ battle, won by the American League 2-1 thanks to a home run by Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano in the 10th inning.
It was fitting Cano hit the home run as baseball honored its new Latin Hall of Fame before the game.
Cano’s homer came exactly 50 years after the previous All-Star extra-inning homer, when Tony Pérez hit a tiebreaking 15th-inning shot off Catfish Hunter in the NL’s 2-1 win in Anaheim, California. Pérez, now a Marlins executive, was among eight Latin-born Hall of Famers who threw out ceremonial first pitches.
Fans came to the 2017 game and All-Star weekend from all over the world.
We saw dozens of Venezuela fans proudly wearing the nation’s cap. I met an Asian reporter beyond the centerfield wall who was documenting the game on his iPhone. We met another Asian fan who asked for a picture with Christina “The Judge” Umpierre. After taking the photo, the fan shook our hands like we had just won the Home Run Derby.
Smiling Yankee fans jumped at the chance to take selfies with Christina “The Judge” Umpierre.
We met a Chicago Cubs fan who made the drive from Bradenton. Her brother-in-law had gotten the tickets for her and a friend and she was so excited to go to her first Midsummer Classic.
We met a 10-year-old Tampa boy who moved down to sit next to us during the Celebrity game. He was wearing an Atlanta Braves jersey with a New York Yankees hat. He was rooting for both the American and National League in the 88th All-Star Game.
“I’m going to catch a foul ball,” he told us. “Look at that kid over there. I can’t believe he caught one.”
Baseball is still America’s national pastime. The game is still a part of our culture. The home run is still one of the most majestic feats in sports. Baseball needs to make improvements to catch up with the NFL and the NBA. That entails speeding up the game and marketing its young stars, which by the way might be the best the sport has had in decades.
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