At the start of the 2013 MLB season, Men's Health magazine whiffed on its cover story about the game's young stars. It put Bryce Harper on one cover, Buster Posey on another, Mike Trout on another, and the three of them together on a fourth version. They represented California, south and north, and the nation's capital. Baseball's best selling point was missing, lost somewhere in its Bermuda Triangle.
Then the season started, and the intersection of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers returned to the MLB map after 20 years, bringing Andrew McCutchen into high-def focus, where he belonged.
If anyone in the sport right now can become the kind of crossover star that brings marketing gurus to their knees, it's the Pittsburgh center fielder. He's won the NL MVP award at 27. He does spot-on impersonations of everyone from Tom Cruise to Albert Pujols, and drawing cartoon figures like a pro. He outfitted a girls' softball team that had been ripped off after raising money for new uniforms. His mother sings the national anthem before games.
Suffice it to say if all the things that defined McCutchen before Wednesday weren't enough to send his Q rating into the stratosphere, the proposal on "Ellen'' pushed him over the top. It wasn't just that he asked his girlfriend of four years, Maria Hanslovan, to marry him on national TV, or even that he did it with DeGeneres as his wingman.
That's all significant, no doubt. When a guy sporting dreads and earrings makes a declaration of love with help from a female accomplice who is famously married to another woman, and it all plays out as the Wonder Bread of afternoon entertainment, you know you're in 2013. As baseball seeks connections to modern culture, this knocks the hide off "That's a clown question, bro.''
His proposal could easily have turned cheesy, even for someone from the generation that lives perpetually on digital stages. But charisma derives from small gestures more than the grand variety, and McCutchen's a master of detail. Just look at the way he handles the goofy Pirates top hat that Ellen offers as a wedding gift. He knows it won't fit and says so, but he gamely balances it on his head anyway, standing awkwardly to make the hat stay put and avoid even a hint of rudeness toward his host. There are few things more endearing than watching a famous person decline the chance to take himself too seriously. The effort called to mind this little shimmy away from embarrassment on the basepaths, after McCutchen initially bit on a pickoff bluff to second base. He just had some fun with it.
Does he have the stuff to draw people to their TV screens, to grab national endorsements and become a brand unto himself? Baseball has been looking for such a player since about the time Simon and Garfunkel started asking where Joe DiMaggio had gone. Ken Griffey Jr. could have been a contender, but he was held back by location and a strike that alienated the public in his prime. Derek Jeter had the credentials: He is as strong-and-silent cool as Tom Brady, and he has more rings than the Patriots' quarterback. But fame comes more easily to football players these days, especially the guys behind center.
How do we know, aside from relying on gut instinct? A quantification known as the Power 100, with the formal and exasperatingly un-streamlined name of Bloomberg ''Sportfolio''/Horrow Sports Ventures Power 100, tells us so. (Click here for an explanation of the methodology.) On the 2013 list of pros, quarterbacks occupied four of the top 10 spots. The first baseball player, Miguel Cabrera, doesn't show up until No. 16, behind three tennis players, two golfers, a swimmer, a golfer and a soccer player. At least he made it before the first defensive football player.
Overall, the NFL claimed 24 spots, the NBA 17 and MLB 14, one fewer than the number of women on the list. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, there's a lot that's very good about it. But for baseball's place in the demography of fame, it's not a positive sign. McCutchen may halt the slippage, if the Pirates stay relevant and if he is (mostly) as he appears, if the charming image isn't another of his perfect impersonations.
The Power 100 forecast some of this, placing McCutchen in 64th place at the beginning of this year, before the Pirates soared and before McCutchen became the MVP. He had come close the year before, yet somehow the winner, Buster Posey, didn't appear on the list at all. Posey is a baseball fan's star, not a crossover celebrity. Trout was the only one of the three Men's Health cover boys on the list, landing a space ahead of McCutchen.
The new list should be out next month, and McCutchen should have a shot at the top 20. (If Cabrera hadn't just won the first Triple Crown in 45 years, he might have sunk as low as 27, the spot occupied by the first ballplayer cited in 2012, Albert Pujols.) MLB's leaders clearly understand the possibilities embodied in McCutchen. They recently appointed him and David Ortiz as the executive producers for a new show that will appear on MTV2, part of the sport's effort to reach the next generation of potential fans.
Ten years ago, another young star won his first MVP award. He was 28, stunningly handsome and ready to rewrite baseball's record books. Like McCutchen, he could have been the one, the post-millennial Mantle or Mays. He ended up dating movie stars, but only because his marriage broke up. The most significant record in his sights now is the longest PED suspension in the game.
The best hope for McCutchen right now might be that his proposal yields an unbreakable bond with his fiancée, transcendent celebrity be damned. The idea that he can be something greater than a baseball MVP really flits over the complications of being a public figure. All evidence of lasting star quality in anyone under 60 amounts to a small sample size. But if we're looking for cautionary tales, A-Rod doesn't suit the purpose. His sense of humor never strayed into matters of self. That goofy top hat? He would have taken it off in a second.