Lately, I've been thinking about the "stars" of our game. It really came up after reading Buzz Bissinger's apparent objection to the lack of heroes in today's sports world and Craig Calcaterra's standard heady response to the whole thing, reminding us that maybe having less larger-than-life heroes in the realm of sports isn't such a bad thing.
As I said before, the whole discussion got me thinking about what exactly a "star" is in today's game, and more specifically, when do we place the "star" label on a given player. Obviously, the most simplistic way of categorizing stars would be based on performance- you play extremely well, you're a star; if you don't, then you're not. Even though we're talking about stars, it's not exactly rocket science. But then again, isn't Derek Jeter a star? Wouldn't you call players like Torii Hunter, Chipper Jones and Ichiro stars?
We're entering an era where the term "star" can have more meaning than ever, because you have the statheads espousing the virtues of Player A, while the talking heads on the radio condition their listeners to view Player B as a star, and all the while we're all trying to figure out exactly what to call Jeff Francoeur (Is he a dwarf planet, maybe?). You can be a star by the numbers, or you can just "feel" like a star, because you walk onto the field and people immediately gravitate towards you. Admit it, Derek Jeter has that buzz around him even when he's batting .260- blame the New York media if you want, but it's there.
Getting back to my larger point, though, when do we feel comfortable thinking about a player as a star? You'd have to say that on-field performance is the ultimate marker for that kind of title, but for how long does one need to play at a given level? At what point do we begin to expect star-caliber performance from a player?
For me, that's really the defining point of a star. The guys who show up big here and there aren't stars- they're merely role players within a far bigger scene. The stars are the guys that you expect to perform; in order to be a star, greatness is a necessity simply to meet the expectations around you. Sounds like a pretty tall order, eh? But I think that's kind of the point. For stars, failure comes from not being brilliant, from not leaving people in awe.
And that's what I've been wondering: how great does one need to be, and for how long, before those expectations exist? Take the great Jose Bautista. He's ridiculously awesome. He's like an underwater roller coaster powered by fireworks. He's my current pick for mid-season AL MVP, he leads the majors in WAR, and he received more All-Star votes this year than any other baseball player in the entire world. He's clearly a star now. But when the hell did that happen?
Bautista has been playing like a man possessed since September of 2009, when he belted 4 doubles, 1 triple and 10 homers in a 26-game span. In August of 2009, Bautista may have been the star of Toronto's bench, but he certainly wasn't anybody's version of The Next Big Thing. Now, Bautista's the biggest thing around. But when did people start to think of him that way? Even over the winter, after his monster 2010 season, people still tried to put his numbers into context, suggesting that his future may only be as a solid regular.
And frankly, at the time, it all seemed entirely reasonable. Here we had this journeyman utility player blow up into a homer-bashing, walk-taking beast practically overnight, and nobody really knew exactly what to make of it all. (Well, except for Jays GM Alex Anthopolous, who handed Bautista a five-year deal over the winter. That guy's good at his job.)
But really, it was just hard to go into this season expecting even more greatness from Bautista. There were the constant chirps from smart people that nobody could play that well for an entire season without carrying at least some of it over to the next season, but it felt ridiculous because of how little this guy accomplished in the preceding, oh, eight years or so. But now, who the hell is going to question Jose Bautista? He's a star now; there's no shame in admitting that you expect pretty great things from the former Bucs castoff these days.
So what really just happened here? How did Bautista go from journeyman to huge bloated pulsating question mark to arguably the game's biggest star within the course of 18 months? It's almost like the public has a little system in place, checks to ensure that we don't cast the star crown prematurely. The process begins with roughly a year of meet-and-greet time, where everyone begins to get comfortable with seeing "2-for-4 with a double, a home run and 3 RBI" from a given player fairly often. And then after that, he gets his make-it-or-break-it chance to show the public that he's actually a star. Some guys show up on that stage with sparklers, twirlers and a tiger, almost mocking you for questioning their brilliance. But sometimes, Chris Shelton shows up and just kind of hangs out.
Ultimately, though, it's all about expectation. From the stars, we expect greatness. And this is in any realm, really. We expect greatness from Albert Pujols, just like we expect greatness from Robert De Niro. It's no different than the greatness we anticipate from Rafael Nadal in tennis, or Thom Yorke in music, or Joe Posnanski in writing. One of the beautiful things about baseball, though, is the speed with which a star can be born.