Faceless of the Game: Where have all the MLB superstars gone?

Can a game with no face really call itself the national pastime?

We raise this question because, as a new baseball season begins this week, there is no answer to the once-simple question: Who is the Face of Baseball?

The NBA is the LeBron and Steph Show. The NFL has Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and an army of rock-star quarterbacks. But baseball? On one level, it seems to be overflowing with dynamic young stars. Once it steps outside its own comfort zone, however, it’s as “Faceless” as it has been in decades.

And how do we know? It’s right there in the new polling data compiled by our friends at Luker on Trends, the company that runs the ESPN Sports Poll.

Between November and February, that firm surveyed more than 6,000 American sports fans, age 12 and older. If you don’t count Tim Tebow (please don’t) or Bo Jackson, guess the only three baseball players who showed up among America’s 50 favorite pro athletes?

There was Derek Jeter, at No. 13. He hasn’t played a game in 2½ years. Next came Babe Ruth, at No. 30. He’s the only name on the list — in any sport — who hasn’t appeared in a game for more than eight decades. And finally, you get to Pete Rose, at No. 50. The Hit King last played in the big leagues 31 years ago — and he has been suspended from his sport for the last 28.

So there you have it. America’s three favorite baseball figures: Guys who have been dodging the box scores for a combined 116 years.

The first active player who shows up on this list is Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo at No. 51. He can thank that raging epidemic of Cubs Fever.

In baseball’s defense, respondents were invited to name either active or retired athletes. So the still totally retired Michael Jordan ranked as America’s favorite basketball player (and favorite any kind of player, for that matter). And the no-longer-playing Peyton Manning was our nation’s second-favorite football player (behind Brady).

But 15 active NFL-ers, six active hoopsters, two soccer stars (Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo), two tennis legends (Serena Williams and Roger Federer), one swimmer (Michael Phelps), one hockey player (Sidney Crosby), one sprinter (Usain Bolt), one race car driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), one mixed martial artist (Conor McGregor) and one Tiger (Woods) all make appearances on this list before a single active baseball player.

Oh, and one more thing: In polling 17,908 American sports fans on the same question between January and December 2016, the response was pretty much identical. The only significant variation: David Ortiz (at No. 23) was the one other baseball player to crack the top 50. But Jeter, who was just as retired last year as he is this year, was still the top baseball name on the list at No. 12.

So what should we conclude from this data?

“We’ve got to tell Derek, ‘You’ve got to get the uniform back on,’ ” jokes New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi. “It’s time to tell him, ‘You’ve got to get in shape.’ “

No, that won’t be happening. But what is happening? What has brought baseball to this point? And what should it do about it? Let’s answer those critical questions:

Could any baseball player be LeBron?

We begin with a fact from the same polling data: Nearly one in four people who consider themselves “avid” NBA fans (23 percent) say LeBron James is their favorite player. That is how you define the face of your sport.

Now contrast that with baseball — in which no one even remotely approaches the star power of a LeBron. There isn’t a single player in the sport who ranks as the favorite of even 3 percent of all “avid” baseball fans. At the top of that list is the Cubs’ Kris Bryant at 2.9 percent. For comparison, in the NFL, Brady checks in at 9.3 percent.

“That 2.9 percent for MLB is a mixed blessing,” says Rich Luker, the founder of Luker on Trends. “It means the favorites are distributed more evenly across all teams compared to the NBA or NFL — giving all teams a rooting interest. But no one athlete is big enough to draw national attention.”

So what is it about baseball, or LeBron, or the NBA’s star-making machinery, that produces that dramatic a disparity? Arn Tellem thinks he knows. For more than 30 years, he was a high-powered agent for players in both sports. But in 2015 he crossed over to the other side, to work for the Detroit Pistons as a vice chairman for Palace Sports & Entertainment.

“In basketball, compared to baseball, the best player usually wins the last game of the year,” Tellem says. “If you look at the modern NBA, it was Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird, leading into Isiah [Thomas] and Jordan … and now Steph Curry, along with LeBron. And the best player usually wins the last game of the season, or is in the last game of the season. So the NBA playoffs and Finals are a tremendous showcase for the greatest players and the greatest athletes in this country.”

There is no arguing with that, but this just in: The 2016 NBA Finals, featuring that LeBron and Steph Show, still got clobbered in the ratings by the World Series. As did Game 7 of those finals, by Game 7 of the World Series. So while LeBron might have six consecutive appearances in the Finals going for him, that’s not all he has.

For more than three decades, dating to the arrival of Bird and Magic, the NBA has embraced star power as the secret sauce for How To Sell Your League. And baseball? Not so much.

“Baseball has always promoted the game,” Tellem says. “But it’s been more about the game and its history. And it’s been less about the individual players.”

Tellem sees that approach beginning to change. Finally. But in a star-driven society, he said, it can’t shift gears fast enough.

“Baseball is at a point now where they have to reach the youth of America,” he says. “And clearly, [promoting] the game is important. But it’s about using stars and developing stars and helping them become bigger names, as a way of reaching the youth. And baseball has to see that convincing [those stars] and having them participate will serve the game.”

Are the stars just too young?

Let’s take a step back and recognize that at least part of this is cyclical. The most popular active player in the NFL is Tom Brady. He’s 39 years old. The most popular player in the NBA is LeBron. He’s only 32, but this is his 14th season.

They occupy a space in their sport that Jeter and Big Papi once occupied in baseball — megastars who have been around forever, won their rings and transcended not just their market but their entire sport. But once Jeter and Ortiz (and even Alex Rodriguez) spun out the revolving door, was there any baseball player ready to take their place?

Mike Trout is 25. Bryce Harper is 24. Bryant, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Noah Syndergaard and Kyle Schwarber are all 26 or younger. They’re among the brightest stars in baseball. But they’re all still writing their stories. We can recite LeBron’s and Brady’s sagas by heart.

“Think about this,” says one longtime agent. “Tom Brady is [39] years old. He’s won five Super Bowls. He might be considered the greatest football player ever. And LeBron might be the pinnacle for every athlete, in terms of how much coverage he gets. Name things Albert Pujols did or A-Rod did that approach that. Even Jeter didn’t look to get everything he could. There’s a camera in LeBron’s face every minute of every game. Unless you’re a pitcher, how much is the camera on any baseball player? A couple of minutes a game?”

The point is that the faces of football and basketball have built-in star power that no active baseball player has right now. In baseball, you hear that phrase “period of transition” a lot. With time, with enough October glory, with the right star-making moments, any of those names above could be the next Face of Baseball. But that’s not all it will take.