Baseball is losing its face

Late last August, here at ESPN.com, we took a poll. It turned out to be just the latest, greatest window into the true legacy of Derek Jeter.

We commissioned our friends at Turnkey Intelligence, one of America's most prominent sports polling firms, to ask people a question that the sport of baseball needs to pay close attention to -- now more than ever:

Who's the Face of Baseball?

Guess who won?


When Turnkey gave 1,028 baseball fans a list of players that did not include Alex Rodriguez, who had somehow wriggled his way into a few "SportsCenter" segments at the time, and told those fans they could pick up to three players they'd identify as the Face of Baseball, Jeter pretty much squashed the rest of the field.

He was chosen by 38 percent of those polled. As opposed to 25 percent for the runner-up, Miguel Cabrera. And once you got past those two, nobody was really even in the same solar system.

Jeter was picked by more than double the number of folks who named David Ortiz (17 percent) or Mike Trout (16) or Mariano Rivera (12). He quadrupled Bryce Harper (9 percent) -- and got more than seven times as many votes as your other official Bright Young Stars of the Game, Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey (5 percent each).

What was interesting about that, of course, was: You couldn't even find Derek Jeter on the field at the time. He'd played five games all season at that point. He'd wind up playing 17 games all year.

And the baseball fans of the United States of America still thought he was the Face of Baseball.

Wow. Digest that for a minute.

So what does that tell us about him? And about the sport he's about to wave adios to at the end of this season?

It tells us this sport has another monstrous challenge on its hands, doesn't it? How does any sport replicate what Derek Jeter has meant to baseball over the last decade and a half -- and still does? Is that even possible?

Oh, the Yankees will find another shortstop. There's a 100 percent probability of that. And Jeter will find stuff to do that probably doesn't involve spending 14 hours a day curled up in a chair playing Sudoku.

But where does baseball find the next Derek Jeter? Good luck on that.

"First of all, he's an ambassador for the game," said Steve Seiferheld, the senior vice president at Turnkey. "If you had to pick one person in the sport of baseball to represent the sport at, like, a presidential dinner, it would be Jeter. And with him announcing he won't be that guy next year, they have to figure out who it's going to be."

Seiferheld added, "Face it, the sport has gotten lucky. They're fortunate they've had someone like that in a big market, who did the publicizing for them, and who played his whole career for one franchise. But now that he's about to go away, they need to identify someone who can play that role and probably offer him some support to help him get there."

Now your first reaction is undoubtedly to say: What about Mike Trout? Excellent answer. But let's think about the road Trout would need to travel to become the next Derek Jeter.

Is Mike Trout going to show up on your flat-screen in 16 of the next 18 postseasons? Is he going to play in seven World Series? Is he going to make 13 All-Star teams in the next 15 years? Is he going to win a World Series MVP Award and an All-Star Game MVP trophy? Derek Jeter can say he did all of that.

And is Trout going to find himself in the middle of every Big Moment in his sport, for pretty much his entire career -- and be as comfortable in those moments as Jeter? Really?

That's a lot to dream on for this sport -- isn't it? -- particularly in an age when the same old teams aren't showing up in October anymore, when 20 have played in the postseason in just the last five years. Heck, even the Yankees have played in only one of the last 10 World Series.

"That [stage] is just not there anymore," Seiferheld said. "Maybe it's the cycle of the sport. But you're now getting a pretty good circulation of teams in the postseason. So there hasn't been that opportunity for one player to be continuously associated with the big moments."

We have to remember, too, that Derek Jeter has become a walking history museum. It'll be kind of tough for anyone to pull that off, you'd think.

Jeter played with Wade Boggs and Tim Raines, with Dwight Gooden and Randy Johnson, with Roger Clemens and David Cone. He played practically his whole career with Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, with Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams.

We're talking about a man who has stepped into the box against Orel Hershiser and Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux and Dennis Eckersley, Ron Darling and Jesse Orosco.

Not to mention, by the time Jeter is finished, it's possible that the only names we'll find above Jeter's, on the all-time hit list, will be Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker. That's all.

And with a big year, The Captain could jump to eighth on the all-time runs scored list, right behind Babe Ruth, Rose and Willie Mays. Whoever they are.

Oh, one more thing: It's still totally mind-warping that this man has gotten more hits for the New York Yankees than any man who ever buttoned up those pinstripes. Wouldn't you say?

Seiferheld told a story about going recently to see the new Broadway show "Bronx Bombers." He was struck by a dream-sequence scene in which Jeter finds himself surrounded by the likes of Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, and comes off as "very comfortable being among that crowd."

"So who," Seiferheld wondered, "will be the next player who would be comfortable in that role? Is there anyone?"

And the honest answer is: not really.

We've used that word, "comfortable," several times in this opus already. And it's the perfect word to describe this guy. Comfortable inside his own skin. Comfortable in any moment, big or small, or humongous.

But "comfortable" works on another level, too, because what our polling told us last summer is that baseball fans are also exceptionally comfortable with him.

When Turnkey told those fans to imagine they were in charge of baseball's marketing operation and they could pick one player to turn into the Face of Baseball, is there even any doubt which player they chose?

Jeter got nearly twice as many votes as any other player -- and more than Trout, Harper and McCutchen put together.

Those fans were also asked if they thought Jeter represented baseball in a positive manner -- and 87 percent of them said yes. Just for comparison's sake, 8 percent said the same about A-Rod. Says it all, doesn't it?

So here's a serious question, one that everyone inside Major League Baseball should be asking themselves today:

Is Derek Jeter irreplaceable?

Good question.

Forget for a moment whether you think he's overrated or underrated, or what the defensive metrics say about him, or whether he's a product of East Coast bias or any other hype machine you'd like to dream up.

However he reached this stature isn't important anymore. What's important is whether it's possible to find someone, anyone, capable of being That Guy after Derek Jeter waves to the crowd for the final time.

"You really can't say 'irreplaceable,'" Seiferheld hedged, "because there's always someone who will come along who has got some of these attributes, on and off the field. But I will say this: He'll be very, very tough to follow."

Very. Baseball can throw all its marketing muscle behind any player you name -- Trout, Harper, Cabrera, McCutchen, Justin Verlander, Yasiel Puig, Clayton Kershaw, whoever. But it will take more than marketing to produce someone like this. Way more.

"You can create the image," Seiferheld said. "But you can't create the authenticity."

Precisely. So we're 100 percent confident that baseball will still be played after Derek Jeter slides down the exit ramps. Life went on after Ruth, Mays, Mantle and Aaron. It will go on after this man leaves, too.

But it's worth reminding ourselves that it isn't just a Yankees icon who's calling it a career this autumn. It's the single most important player in the entire sport. So if we were Bud Selig, here's what we would be wondering right now:

When Derek Jeter is gone, where will baseball find its face?