Shoe's on other foot when creating stars

MIKE LITTWIN

March 24, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

If Bo Jackson's sporting career is over, that would make him the last of the great baseball stars, and even he didn't exactly qualify. He was a hybrid, a baseball-football freak whose like we hadn't seen since Jim Thorpe. And it took a shoe commercial to make him really famous anyway.

Where are the great baseball stars? I mean real stars, Ruthian stars, where-have-you-gone-Joe-DiMaggio stars? Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hammerin' Hank stars?

As far as I can tell, there aren't any, even though baseball, as a game, is bigger, grander, more popular than ever, or haven't you tried pricing baseball cards lately? And even though we live in an era where anyone -- picture your name here -- can be a celebrity.

It isn't as if the games we play aren't yielding up heroes. Michael Jordan is the only man in America whose popularity rivals Stormin' Norman (take note: he drinks Diet Pepsi) Schwarzkopf. He is On-The-Air Jordan. Talk about hang time, Jordan has true staying power, from your shoes to your breakfast table to your soft drink to who knows where it will end. It doesn't stop with Jordan either. Old people get Nicklaus and Palmer. Young people get Becker and McEnroe. Magic Johnson, Mr. Robinson. And Joe Montana, he's everywhere now. Even Mike Tyson. Greg Lemond -- who rides a bicycle -- gets Taco Bell. Basketball, football, boxing, cycling, golf, tennis.

Baseball, anyone?

Maybe it's the criteria we set for stardom these days. In the modern era, stardom has come to mean endorsements, commercials, TV time. Nike made Bo; Bo didn't make Nike. Nike did as much for Bo as Miller Lite did for Marv Throneberry. It's all an advertising game.

Let's take the case of David Robinson, who is a fine basketball player but no better than Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon. Somebody in advertising picked out Robinson, who is bright and articulate, but the ad boys didn't trade on that either. They made Robinson into the stereotypical 7-foot mean guy whose path you had better cross only with caution, in comic juxtaposition with the numbing calmness of Mr. Rogers. It's a media creation, and Mr. Robinson, although he performs in a small market, is now a media star.

Why didn't somebody pick Rickey Henderson instead?

There is one easy explanation, and that's shoes. Basketball players wear shoes that people buy by the millions, pumping up the volume. People don't kick back in cleats, if only for safety reasons. The shoe industry and the NBA have fed nicely on each other in classic economic symbiosis, and they've both grown apace. And there's the crossover effect. Minute Maid is coming out with a commercial starring Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins and Ewing, who are hot because basketball is hot because Nike commercials are hot.

But Boomer Esiason just got a Reebok commercial. Why not Don Mattingly? Why not Eric Davis? Why not Ryne Sandberg? Why not Dwight Gooden?

Nolan Ryan is getting work these days, but, gosh, is there a better story anywhere in sports? This guy is a biological phenomenon who, by any logic, ought to be a megastar -- but who isn't, at least on Madison Avenue.

Even the experts are stumped. If the time is ripe for anti-heroes -- McEnroe, Jim McMahon, Brian Bosworth, Barkley -- why not Jose Canseco, who has fame, personality and all the bad, bad boy you could ask for? Go figure.

There are actually more stars, in the old sense, in baseball than in any other sport. There are names that people who follow baseball know. But as it was explained to me, baseball, in advertising jargon, is an "old reliable brand" and therefore possessing limited sex appeal. And it's a regional brand. Cal Ripken is big in Baltimore, Andre Dawson in Chicago and Michael Jordan everywhere.

But could there be more to it? Has baseball somehow become a faceless sport? Or is it that the real heroes, say Pete Rose, have shown themselves to be flawed? I have a friend, who, in citing Rose and Steinbrenner and Clemens, suggests there is something about baseball that causes sociopathic behavior. I don't think you can make that case, but I do think the baseball mythology is changing. The poets now write about the game, about the symmetry and the changing seasons, and less and less about the actual participants. And then there are the statistics, which, thanks in part to Rotisserie leagues, seem to have become more important than the people who create the numbers.

Could it be this: that when everyone makes $3 million, it's hard for any individual to excite the imagination? Or maybe in a game where history is so important, the stars of today are competing with, and losing out to, the stars of yesterday.

In basketball, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan are probably the greatest players ever, and most people have never even heard of Oscar Robertson, much less Bob Cousy. In football, our own poor Johnny U. fades from memory as people rush to anoint Joe Montana. In baseball, conversely, who would dare say that Canseco compares favorably to Babe Ruth or even to Stan Musial? Roger Clemens is no Walter Johnson, or even a Bob Gibson. Until he retired, for that matter, Willie Mays was no DiMaggio.

Over the last decade, the sports personality has been in great demand. The shoe wars have made that possible. The answer to this riddle could be that someone important at Nike just doesn't like baseball. Who knows? Does Bo?

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