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Why John Cena doesn’t play baseball

How baseball holds our attention without megastars.

Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The ballplayer Tony Lupien almost certainly reached the zenith of his fame in June of 1942. In a particularly amusing twist, he wasn’t even known as Tony at the time. His rather grandiose given name, Ulysses Lupien, was the moniker emblazoned across the front of the Boston Herald sports section on June 3.

“It’s Up to Him,” the headline decreed.

After years of semi-pro ball and time in the Pacific Coast League, the Massachusetts-bred, Harvard-educated Lupien got the call from the Red Sox. The club had sold the legendary Jimmie Foxx to Chicago and charged Lupien with the unenviable task of following a member of the 500 Home Run Club.

As you perhaps gleaned from the facts presented thus far — many thanks to the indispensable SABR Bio Project — Lupien did not make much headway in the fight to escape Foxx’s shadow. That was mostly attributable to his lack of power. Although his OPS+ topped 100 in two of his four full seasons, Lupien didn’t fit the image of a dinger-mashing first baseman, instead relying on doubles and triples. After stints with the Phillies and White Sox, he bowed out of the game in the spring of 1949 and began a distinguished career as a coach, spending 21 years at Dartmouth.

Lupien raised several children, and his daughter Carol would eventually marry a man named John, settle in Massachusetts and give birth to five boys. The second of those brothers would be born on his grandfather’s birthday, April 23, and given his father’s name. Blessed with a frame that would be overkill even for a slugging first baseman, he would grow to become a professional athlete, of sorts. And, more importantly for our purposes, he would become exponentially more famous than Tony Lupien, who died in 2004. More famous than Jimmie Foxx, for that matter.

He is John Cena.

I’d like to pause for a second here and just imagine Cena hitting a home run, trotting around the bases and then pausing at home in front of — oh, I don’t know — Brian McCann, and doing this.

See, Cena is not so much a case study as an image to boggle the mind. We could ask the question of any number of athletic talents: Why not baseball? But the answers won’t get us anywhere, and there’s no use in begrudging anyone for finding the sport they're passionate about. Hell, if we were to ask him (the thought!), Cena might even have a good answer for why he didn’t follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.

More likely, though, he and the many other stars of other athletic pursuits made choices based on what called out to them as kids, which daydream seemed most appealing. Wanting baseball players to have bigger, brighter roles in our culture is an understandable goal, as is wanting a big personality to draw in young fans, but it can’t be achieved entirely outside the lines of the game. So going all Inception on our hulking subject isn’t the way forward.

Instead, if we are serious about turning baseball stars into stars, we should first attempt to envision it as a worthy competitor in the battle for an ambitious youngster’s dreams. Will we still like what we see?

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Before diving into our hypothetical “solutions,” we need to identify the hypothetical barriers to global superstardom. Let’s try to do that quickly.

  • Time in the spotlight is restricted.
  • The gap between exceptional players and OK players isn’t apparent in a 10-second clip.
  • Anticipation, controversy and drama don’t have enough time to build between games.
  • Any single player rarely gets the opportunity to take a game in his hands. When this moment does arise, sometimes the player chosen by the odds is Michael Martinez.
  • Exuberance is, um, generally frowned upon. See Puig, Yasiel.

These aren't easy problems to solve! And thinking about them reminds you that the people in baseball aren’t predisposed against fame, probably. There are probably three to five living baseball players who remain more famous than Cena, for instance, but trying to make a case for an active player is … a reach. It’s simply difficult to build a persona when baseball players aren’t on the screen for very long, often aren’t doing anything particularly important when they are, and appear on so many days that any star turn they take is unlikely to be viewed as a shared national experience (a la an NFL Sunday or NBA primetime game).

So let’s make correcting these issues our top priority and see what happens.

First, we’ll strike a huge blow to the spotlight problem. Instead of having a set batting order, we’ll allow each team to choose its next hitter freely every inning, with the only restriction being that a man on base can’t be brought back to the dugout, and thus into the pool of potential hitters, by any means other than scoring, being thrown out or being removed permanently from the game. The effects of this are both impossible to imagine and fairly easy to understand — Fernando Tatis may finally lose his crown as the only person to hit two grand slams in an inning.

Next, we’ll move the fences back — making home runs more impressive feats when they happen, and making speed a far more important quality both for hitters and the players charged with roaming the outfield on defense.

To meet the demands for these skills and ensure offenses don’t overrun the game, we’ll reduce the league to 20 teams that play three games a week. We’ll put huge electronic boards on each side of the backstop behind home plate — one with a velocity reading for the pitch, the other with an exit velocity reading for the hitter.

The exuberance is tough to legislate — but with so many more situations intensified by the other rule changes, we’ll hope that emotion ticks up along with the average skill level of the players involved in each play.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Oy, the unintended consequences. Where to begin?

The obvious one is financial: Whatever gains are made in popularity seem likely to be lost in the trimming of markets, games and players. The others would be less apparent to the accountants, but perhaps more damaging to the rest of us who enjoy following baseball with some assistance from spreadsheets. Specialties would deepen until there were simply distinct categories for pitchers, fielders and hitters. All manner of statistical norms would be completely altered. Paul Goldschmidts, Lorenzo Cains and Matt Shoemakers would cease to exist.

There’s something bigger, here, though. If you stop thinking of these as changes and just think of this as if it were the original iteration of the game, do you still want to follow this game? What is to distinguish it from the character drama of the NBA or the competence test that is the NFL (aside from the lack of head trauma)?

Part of baseball’s appeal, perhaps a larger part than I’d realized, is its breadth. What it lacks in global icons who can parlay their names into successful rap careers, movie roles, philanthropic efforts or gubernatorial posts in Minnesota, it arguably makes up for in baseballs signed in Toledo or Orem, Utah.

By being vast and ripe for discovery, it feels somehow closer and more reachable. It’s a difficult (or impossible) effect to measure in the target-market-du-jour, but an easy one to grasp in practice. How many of us would love to be Tony Lupien? How many will actually be John Cena? How long do you care to stare at the sun? How long could you study the night sky?

. . .

Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.