Following last summer’s breathless tributes to a retiring Derek Jeter—present company included–it made sense to consider who would take the baton from the 14-time All-Star as baseball’s preeminent icon. The no-brainer answer was Mike Trout, who at 23 has already cemented himself as the best all-around player in the game.
In a short amount of time, Trout has become known for quote unquote playing the game the right way. He’s clean-cut, he works hard, and he alternates between consistent and spectacular.
But might we be getting ahead of ourselves? Never mind the next Jeter; I’ve been waiting quite some time for the next Ken Griffey Jr., and Trout checks a lot of the same boxes.
If you’re perpetually stuck in the ’90s (ahem), you remember exactly what it felt like the first time you laid eyes on that beautiful Upper Deck Griffey rookie card. It was originally presented to me by Rocco, the proprietor of my local baseball card store, who swore Griffey was the next big thing. He was on the money with Griffey–and Frank Thomas, for that matter–though he did miss the mark somewhat on the immortal Todd Van Poppel.
Thanks to an impossibly sweet swing and his dynamic center field defense, Griffey quickly lived up to the hype, making his first All-Star Game at age 20. His zenith was the 1993 Home Run Derby, when he donned his trademark backwards cap and slammed a ball off the distant right field warehouse at Camden Yards. Though a Mets fan, I eagerly added a Mariners cap to my collection and frequently wore it backwards, though I lacked any semblance of Griffey’s sports talent or inherent coolness.
Not surprisingly, Junior Griffey became one of Nike’s biggest standard-bearers. While not on the classic level of Michael Jordan’s ads, commercials in which he ran for President and sprinted coast to coast to catch a Don Mattingly bomb were awesome in their own right. In terms of footwear, with a great logo gracing classic models like the Air Griffey Max, he established a legacy that still maintains a significant presence. (No less than LeBron James has expressed his affinity.)
“It was a little weird, because I kept telling my mom as a kid that I was going to have my own shoe after Jordan had his,” Griffey told Sole Collector in 2010. “I was like 14, ‘I’m going to have my own shoe!’ She was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ … When [Nike] finally came to Seattle and they talked about it, the first thing I did was call my mom and say, ‘Well mom, I got my own shoe.’ She just started laughing.
“It happened, and I was pretty excited about it happening.”
Last summer, my wife and I went to an A’s-Angels game in Oakland, primarily to watch Trout. We left after six innings–it was chilly for August, and Fisherman’s Wharf beckoned–but not before he hit a long home run off Sonny Gray, one of the best pitchers in the league. He just made everything look so easy, and as he glided around the bases, I couldn’t help but marvel at his future potential for Griffey-esque ubiquity.
Since Griffey and Bo Jackson–who transcended any sport he happened to be playing at the time–we haven’t had a baseball player break through into the sneaker mainstream. Jeter had the Jordan endorsement, which is obviously nothing to sneeze at. But nobody really clamored for his dozen signature sneakers, and as accomplished and respected as he was, he never dominated the entire sport like Griffey did for a time.
That’s where Trout comes in. Rivaled in talent only by Nationals antihero Bryce Harper, Trout has an easygoing, likable demeanor. And much like his center field antecedent Griffey, Trout possesses a certain it factor that can’t be manufactured. I named him to Champs Sports’ list of the most influential sneaker personalities in sports primarily on speculation, but there’s so much to work with here–if Nike plays its cards right.
One potential stumbling block is that like NBA phenom counterpart Andrew Wiggins, Trout is far from a self promoter. While Jeter generally played it close to the vest, he cultivated quite the mystique from playing in New York and dating Miss Universe types. Trout, conversely, retreats to the basement of his parents’ South Jersey home in the offseason.
This can be overcome. If I’m Nike, I play it like with Penny Hardaway, a soft-spoken kid from Memphis who became a marketing icon thanks to creative advertisements. Start with something like Griffey’s “Hit It Here” spot to highlight his prodigious talent, and then transition to something relatively whimsical to make him more relatable.
Footwear-wise, Trout has a head start in that he already has a signature model under his belt, last year’s sharp-looking Lunar Vapor Trout. The problem? It was only released as a cleat and not a more accessible turf shoe. If Nike does go all in, future editions can rectify that.
“Having a shoe and only wearing it for baseball didn’t really work,” Griffey told Sole Collector. “I don’t think it would’ve worked for me or for Nike. They put a turf bottom for me to work out and be able to take batting practice, and that was really the most important thing. It just went on to retail, and to be able to do other things in it and be fashionable wearing them with jeans — I was really adamant about that.”
And I’m adamant about this: It might require a few leaps of faith on Nike’s part, but I can picture Trout breaking through on Madison Avenue as the nominal face of the national pastime. After all, for anyone who remembers the dizzying heights of Junior’s heyday, it’s absolutely a shot worth taking.
Follow Bryan on Twitter at @sportsangle