Picture this: You're a sports fan, even a casual one. You're walking down the street, and someone accidentally bumps into your shoulder. You turn. Holy s---, it's LeBron James! You're stunned, speechless, almost breathless. Or it's Peyton Manning. Maybe it's Rafael Nadal. It's an iconic face, someone who's on top of his sport and instantly recognizable.
Now picture this: the current best player in baseball a guy who has hit an outlandish 73 home runs since the start of last season, a guy who has already hit 19 home runs in his first 41 games of this 2011 season, which puts him on pace for 71 home runs, at a time when power is down across the game likewise stumbles into you.
You turn. "Hey, man, watch where you're going." You then continue your walk to the grocery store.
Because really, if you bumped into Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays on the street, would you have any clue who he was? (Toronto fans, hard-core baseball nuts and citizens of the Dominican Republic excluded.)
Well, let me introduce you to him: Bautista, a right fielder, is the best baseball player, and maybe best professional athlete, you've never heard of.
Which is sad, because Bautista is putting on quite a show. His swing in particular is worth watching. He holds his hands high, near his helmet, and exaggerates his leg kick to generate power. He gets his hips out in front of the ball and turns on it, thanks to his superior bat speed. And now he can also hit for average: he's batting .342, second in the American League.
Bautista's lack of recognition doesn't bode well for baseball, a sport that is already coping with attendance lags early in the season. How unfamous is baseball's best player? In March, a marketing firm compiled the Q scores (general measures of likability that are well respected within the sports industry) for 500 active and retired athletes, coaches and sports-media personalities. Subscribers to the Q-score service, who include player representatives, companies seeking sports endorsers and other industry insiders, ask for specific names to be evaluated. Bautista is so irrelevant to sports marketing that no one even requested him.
(And maybe even more disturbing, from baseball's perspective, is that the active player with the highest Q score, Derek Jeter, finished 64th overall; by contrast, the most likable active athletes in other sports ranked significantly higher. Tiger Woods finished third a bit of a shocker Peyton Manning eighth, Sidney Crosby 19th, Shaquille O'Neal 20th and Serena Williams 35th.
Bautista also hasn't generated much Internet buzz. According to Yahoo!, over the past 12 months, James got 100 times as many searches as Bautista, Williams 59 times as many searches and Tom Brady 46 times as many. No, Bautista hasn't achieved a long history of success like these other athletes. Before he broke out with 54 homers last season, his career high had been 16 (Bautista was first called up to the majors in 2004). But compare him with, say, Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward who, like Bautista, has emerged as a true superstar in the past year. Durant gets 11 times as many Yahoo! searches as Bautista.
To be fair, Bautista is a hard sell. First off, he plays in a city outside the U.S., for a team that has finished above third place only once in the past 17 seasons, in a division dominated by the big-market rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who seem to be on national television a thousand times a year. Though he speaks clear English a challenge for some ballplayers from Latin America Bautista is not overtly charismatic. And since he grew up in the Dominican Republic, he doesn't have that Americana tale that connects with U.S. fans. "You don't have that Mickey, Babe, Stan 'the Man' Musial or Willie Mays all-American story," says Kenneth Shropshire, a sports-marketing expert who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.