TEMPE, Ariz. --The best pitcher and the best player on the planet spent an afternoon orbiting each other while filming a few TV commercials for Subway the other day in Arizona.
Mike Trout got there by 10:30 a.m. and left around 10 p.m., spending some of his down time in a trailer with his agent, Craig Landis, and visitors.
Clayton Kershaw, who finished a morning workout across town in Los Angeles Dodgers camp, arrived at about 1:45 p.m. and was on site for about five hours, then went to meet his wife Ellen and newborn daughter, Cali Ann, who flew in that evening from Dallas.
Over a long afternoon, Trout and Kershaw patiently took turns doing their voice-overs, still shots and social media obligations for the company, then were driven on golf carts to nearby Tempe Diablo Stadium for their on-field shoots.
Inside the Los Angeles Angels' minor-league weight room, baseball’s most transcendent talents greeted one another.
“I’m going to crash your photo shoot,” Kershaw said as he walked into the room.
Trout, gripping a bat, extended his hand to offer Kershaw congratulations on winning the National League MVP award. Kershaw seemed genuinely touched.
“Thanks dude,” he said.
They chatted for a few minutes, joking about the long, sometimes boring process of shooting advertisements. Trout joked that Kershaw could look forward to eating about 15 sandwiches over multiple takes. “You’re gonna eat,” Trout said. There was none of the tension one might expect from two of the game’s fiercest competitors, paid lavishly to make the other look bad. Then again, Opening Day was still months away, the earliest they could possibly face one another in a game that counts still five months out.
So, on a crystal clear, cool Arizona afternoon, they could let down their competitive guards.
“We both play baseball, so it’s not too awkward territory for us,” Kershaw said.
One of baseball’s narratives this spring is to wonder who becomes the face of baseball now that Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees’ iconic shortstop, has retired. Baseball is thriving at the local and regional levels while struggling to keep up with other leagues on the national stage, so it’s a fairly pressing issue for the game. World Series ratings have been in decline since the early 1990s. Last year’s series had the third-worst ratings on record, just beating 2012 and 2008. Yet some teams, including the Dodgers and Angels, are living large on 10-figure local media revenues.
MLB.com crowd-sourced the “Face of Baseball” question on Twitter and the winner was San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey. One could just as easily make an argument for Trout or Kershaw. The Subway commercials in and of themselves are proof of that since national TV advertising campaigns are rare for major-league players. Trout grew up watching the sandwich commercials of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.
Baseball’s star power hasn’t exactly migrated westward since Jeter’s retirement. It has taken a jet. According to the largest online retailer of officially licensed gear, Fanatics.com, the five best-selling names in baseball so far this year are all from California. In order, they are World Series hero Madison Bumgarner, Trout, Posey, Kershaw and Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig.
In 2013, the Dodgers finished with the highest road attendance in baseball. The Giants were second. Last year, the Dodgers were second to the New York Yankees. The influx of star power is benefiting West Coast teams.
“There’s a benefit when our players are popular,” Dodgers vice president for marketing Lon Rosen said. “Rivalries help baseball, high quality baseball helps. All of the things, you sort of put in a pot, you stir it around, it helps us and it’s good for baseball in general when the players become more high-profile.”
It could be that way for a while. Posey, 27, is signed through 2021. Kershaw, 26, is signed through 2020, as is Trout, 23. Kershaw and Trout are the reigning MVPs of their leagues. Posey won the award in 2012. Of course, there’s no saying that the nexus of star power doesn’t shift east again, perhaps to Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton if his team contends or to Jon Lester if the Chicago Cubs make their long-anticipated big move.
“Yeah, I mean it just depends on the next year. It’s always, ‘What have you done for me lately?’" Kershaw said. “You’ve got to take all these things one year at a time with a grain of salt, because the second you become mediocre all this stuff goes away. You try and take advantage of the opportunities you have, at the same time realizing baseball’s obviously the most important thing.”
Kershaw is coming off one of the best seasons for a pitcher of all time, the primary reason he became the first NL pitcher in 36 years to capture an MVP. He has won four straight major-league ERA titles. Trout finished runner-up to Miguel Cabrera for the award in 2012 and 2013 and won it last year, when he finished third in the league in OPS and first in wins above replacement. He led the Angels to 98 wins, most in the majors. Both teams lost in the first round of the playoffs.
“It was tough. Everywhere I went, people would bring it up,” Trout said. “It’s still in the back of my mind, but it’s a new season and you try to flip the switch. It’s tough. You work hard the whole year, having the best record, knowing you have some momentum going in the playoffs.”
The confluence of two talents like Kershaw and Trout are rare enough that their first regular-season meeting last Aug. 5 garnered a lot of attention in Southern California. Trout had two hits in three at-bats off Kershaw. He beat out an infield single, hooked a double down the line and struck out on three pitches, all looking.
Kershaw wanted no part of playing into the media’s story line that night, refusing to talk about his individual matchup with Trout. Then again, Kershaw often can be testy in post-game interviews, particularly when he doesn’t perform up to his demanding standards. Seven months later, he was asked if the attention on his matchup with Trout was annoying.
“There is obviously a little bit of hype the first time and he got the better of me that day and, hopefully, I get him out more than I did that day,” Kershaw said. “I don’t think, ‘Annoy,’ is the right word, but if I get him out four times but don’t get anybody else out, it’s not going to be a very good day, so for him getting hits off me is the main focus for that day. For me, it’s a little different. I’ve got to focus on the whole lineup. It’s a little different mindset I think.”
Trout remembered his three at-bats off Kershaw as if they happened the day before.
“My first at-bat, I just ran as fast as I could to first, beat that one out. Then, my second at-bat I had a little different approach. I don’t really swing first pitch a lot and I tried to jump on a fastball and I hit a double down the line,” he said. “My third at-bat against him, he painted three pitches and, I mean I just looked at three of them. It’s just always fun to face the top guys. it’s always a challenge to rise to the occasion.”
Each player faces considerable challenges to stay at the pinnacle of the game. Kershaw needs to stay healthy above all. Another dominant season would give him a five-year run to rival the greatest of all-time, including Sandy Koufax’s 1962-1966 stretch and Randy Johnson’s run of dominance from 1998 to 2002. Trout would like improve his contact rate – he led the league with 184 strikeouts -- and staunch the decline in his stolen base totals. It’s hard to nit-pick with a career .945 OPS and 98 home runs for a player before his 23rd birthday.
“I’m going to have to face him and he’s one of the best hitters in the game, so that’s really all I make about that,” Kershaw said.
With luck, we’ll get to watch two of the fastest-starting careers in history blossom within 30 miles of one another. We’ll get to glimpse their yearly clashes, even if they mean more to us than they do to them.