10:04pm: Trout himself has added a statement regarding the commissioner’s comments. Here’s the full text of his response.
“I have received lots of questions about Commissioner Manfred’s recent statement. I am not a petty guy and would really encourage everyone to just move forward. Everything is cool between the commissioner and myself. End of story. I am ready to just play some baseball!”
While most of the statement seems lighthearded and passive, perhaps the most interesting part is the inclusion of the phrase “End of story”, which rhetorically serves to completely shut down any invitation of further questions on the subject. It’s of course a crystal clear sign that Trout wants to stay as far away from any controversy as possible, and certainly doesn’t wish to perpetuate any conflict between Manfred and the Angels.
8:59pm: The Angels issued a statement today regarding outfielder Mike Trout. Out of context, the statement offers praise for the two-time AL MVP (both for his on-field accomplishments and his off-field character), while simultaneously congratulating him for another excellent performance in the All-Star game. While you can read the statement in its entirety at the above link, the excerpt below helps to capture its essence succinctly.
“Mike Trout is an exceptional ambassador for the game. Combined with his talent, his solid character creates a perfect role model for young people everywhere. Each year, Mike devotes a tremendous amount of his time and effort contributing to our Organization, and marketing Major League Baseball… In addition, Mike spends quality time as a husband, son, brother, uncle and friend. We applaud him for prioritizing his personal values over commercial self-promotion. That is rare in today’s society and stands out as much as his extraordinary talent.”
There is, however, important additional context to consider in this situation. As Ronald Blum laid out in a piece for AP News, commissioner Rob Manfred recently criticized Trout for lack of engagement in actively marketing himself. Manfred at one point went so far as to comment on how Trout spends his free time. Below are some of Manfred’s most interesting words on the subject.
“Player marketing requires one thing for sure — the player. You cannot market a player passively. You can’t market anything passively. You need people to engage with those to whom you are trying to market in order to have effective marketing. We are very interested in having our players more engaged and having higher profile players and helping our players develop their individual brand. But that involves the player being actively engaged.
Mike’s a great, great player and a really nice person, but he’s made certain decisions about what he wants to do and what he doesn’t want to do, and how he wants to spend his free time and how he doesn’t want to spend his free time. That’s up to him. If he wants to engage and be more active in that area, I think we could help him make his brand really, really big. But he has to make a decision that he’s prepared to engage in that area. It takes time and effort.”
While the comments seem mostly harmless, it’s hard to recall a time in recent memory when the commissioner offered such a direct criticism of a player’s effort to build his brand. The fact that Trout’s shown such exceptional talent while never accruing so much as a blemish on his reputation makes this criticism all the more peculiar. That Trout’s not a bigger name outside of baseball circles probably speaks as much to the league’s efforts to market their players (and overall popularity) as it does to Trout’s own individual endeavors.
Although the subject of marketing Trout has never taken this much spotlight before, this is far from the first time it’s been broached- Fangraphs’ Effectively Wild podcast is just one outlet to have examined it in detail. It’s often been suggested that while Trout’s baseball talent is extraordinary, his personality doesn’t particularly invite the same fascination. The Angels outfielder’s most widely-known hobbies include fishing, crabbing, with an interest in meteorology perhaps being his most unusual one. Some reporters have actually tried to exploit that latter item; Ken Rosenthal in particular put a weather map in front of Trout at one point during the All-Star Game and asked him to tell his audience whether they might see any rain during the course of the exhibition. Nonetheless, there’s been little success in eliciting the same kind of extroverted passion seen in players like Francisco Lindor, humor shown by players like Brandon McCarthy, or any of the bizarre and noteworthy comments given by players like Bryce Harper.
That said, it’s not as though Trout has stayed entirely out of the spotlight. As Angels ownership noted in the aforementioned statement, he’s been involved in plenty of community outreach. The seven-time All-Star has visited schools, hospitals and plenty of other charities, signing autographs for children and other fans while exhibiting class and humility. That Trout’s been a great husband, brother and friend to many while accomplishing such unimaginable feats in the game of baseball does plenty to establish a brand in its own right.
One could argue that Trout’s somewhat simple personality has allowed for plenty of humor by of contrast. Comedy is created by opposition, after all, and Trout delivering lines somewhat dryly with a monochromatic expression has created some brilliant humor in commercials for products like BodyArmor Sports Drink, Subway, and even MLB itself. While successful deadpan humor amidst heightened situations is far from the only ingredient in the recipe for a strong brand, it certainly isn’t nothing, and it’s proof in and of itself of how knowing the personality you’re working with is a key component of a successful marketing campaign.
Then again, it’s important to examine whether it’s any sort of obligation for Trout to actively market himself if he doesn’t want to. Certainly the league would benefit greatly if its consensus best player were as prominent of a celebrity as LeBron James or Tom Brady, but it would be hard to argue that Trout “owes” the league anything additional in that regard. After all, he’s fulfilled all his contractual obligations with the Angels since the moment he set foot in The Show, and his level of play certainly suggests he puts 110% effort into his game. Manfred’s comments seem to imply that it’s Trout’s responsibility as a top MLB talent to put more free into building his brand, when in reality the very use of the phrase “free time” illustrates that such a suggestion is at most up for debate. Trout certainly has significant obligations to his family, and there’s of course significant drawbacks to being more recognizable in public.
All that said, there’s no denying that it would benefit Trout’s legacy if he were to devote more time and resources to promoting himself and building his brand. Even considering only his accomplishments to date, Trout is a surefire bet to land in the Hall of Fame, and he’s not even to the age that most would consider to be a player’s “prime”. If he stays healthy and ages at least gracefully, he stands a reasonable chance to break Babe Ruth’s records for fWAR and bWAR and go down as the greatest baseball player of all time. A bigger brand could mean more public notoriety, a greater estate for his descendants, and a greater impact on the community he devotes so much time to helping.
Though it’s fair to assume that Manfred’s comments were made largely in his own self-interest, noteworthy is the fact that the Angels themselves would be among the most lavish beneficiaries of a greater Trout presence, considering they directly benefit from the increased sales they’d likely draw from ticket sales and player merchandise (though one would hope the products would be better than this shirt). That Angels ownership stood in such obvious opposition to Manfred’s comments perhaps speaks to their relationship with Trout, and perhaps even a contrasting assessment to that of the commissioner. For their part, many players, including former teammate Huston Street, certainly seem to believe that Trout is exactly what a player ought to be.
It will be interesting to see how Trout and his agent, Craig Landis, respond to this drama, or indeed whether they choose to at all. Furthermore, it’s easy to wonder if this will lead to a further exchange between the commissioner’s office and Angels ownership. And of course it’s also possible that Tony Clark of the MLBPA could even get involved. Speculation aside, though, one thing is certain… the subject is unlikely to simply disappear over the long remainder of Trout’s career. Perhaps the most intriguing concern is whether this controversy will reach a point at which it causes unnecessary tension between the league and its best player… for the sake of the game, I hope that seemingly far fetched outcome doesn’t come to fruition.