Juan Soto will play the 2021 MLB regular season at the age of 22, and hopefully the World Series at 23. He’s already a bona fide superstar. The hope and expectation in Washington is that he will remain at the pinnacle of the game and become the best player in franchise history — a feat that, provided good health, seems well within his reach. What we’re exploring in this piece, however, is what Soto can do to reach even higher, and become the face of baseball in America.
This is in some ways a difficult topic to explore, because it involves discussing the disadvantage that many Latino players are at when it comes to popularity, recognition, and media treatment, but maybe Fernando Tatis, Jr. has changed that. But maybe not. Yet this disadvantage was made clear when ex-Mariners President and CEO Kevin Mather made his feelings heard very publicly on players who were not born in the U.S. Mather resigned a day after the video surfaced of him disparaging foreign-born players on the team.
Who has worked harder than Soto to give interviews in English? Soto’s first language is Spanish and he was giving in-depth interviews in English as a teenager. Even in Washington, there was a significant difference in the hype that surrounded Bryce Harper and that which is attached to Soto even though they share the same agent. Madison Avenue certainly picks its darlings, but there has to be more to it, right? Maybe times are changing with Tatis as the young face of baseball. We will see.
Some would debate that Mike Trout does not get the national recognition he deserves, and some say that he is a reluctant star who does not crave the limelight like Harper did when they broke into the league at about the same time.
The simple explanation is that the MLB — from fans, to American players, to media — finds it easier to relate to native English speakers. To his credit, former Nat infielder Brian Dozier had confronted this issue head-on. A 2019 piece on The Washington Post (which used a photo of Soto with Dozier) quoted Dozier suggesting that there’s an unfair expectation that Latin players will learn English, and not the other way around. Dozier raised the idea that more English-speaking players should strive to learn Spanish for the sake of the many Latin players in the league, and that may be a start. It would certainly make for a more equal and inclusive environment.
Who can forget Dozier singing Calma in Spanish. He was a big reason for the cohesive 2019 clubhouse in Washington as he brought the Latino and American players together.
Setting big solutions aside though, Juan Soto still faces an all-too-common challenge. He’s a player with all the skill and likability to become the face of the MLB. But simply put, will he reach that level if he continues to play like the best young player in baseball? So what could he do to beat the odds and become the next Ken Griffey Jr., or Derek Jeter, or Clayton Kershaw? Some would say Max Scherzer is an example of being possibly the best pitcher of his generation and he never appeared in any national advertising. This is why it sometimes comes down to it in baseball where they one pick one and Tatis seems to be that guy for the moment.
We have a few ideas that are much simpler and more fun than solving baseball’s language gap….
Develop His Own Mobile Game
We’re used to athletes being on the covers of video games in their respective sports. But over the years, a few face-of-the-sport type of athletes have essentially branded their own side games as well. Ken Griffey Jr. did it for some old Super Nintendo games years ago; Tiger Woods has been associated with any number of golf games; and currently in mobile app stores there’s a game entirely about Cristiano Ronaldo kicking a soccer ball around cities. Juan Soto can’t necessarily control whether or not he gets the cover of MLB: The Show. But it does seem likely that he (or his agent) could get in touch with a mobile development team to put together something akin to the Ronaldo game — a just-for-fun mobile arcade experience that would keep Soto on baseball fans’ (and some random gamers’) minds.
Engage with Other Sports and Crossover
It’s always fun to see major athletes engage with other sports. Fans like to learn that Stephen Curry is a pro-caliber golfer. We enjoy seeing NFL and NBA players give each other props on social media. We have noticed that Soto is now doing that on Instagram. He has also done some crossover with some Latino musicians.
And when athletes like David Beckham or Tiger Woods attend U.S. Open tennis matches, the camera always finds them. It’s enjoyable to see these things, but it’s also brilliant publicity on the part of the athletes. Any sort of crossover like this can get a whole new fan base talking about a given athlete. Accordingly, it would be wise (and easy) for Soto to make himself a presence with regard to another sport. Whether that means bumping elbows with Curry at a celebrity golf event, sitting courtside at the occasional Wizards game, or whatever else, it would quickly expand his visibility beyond baseball. Nobody in baseball did more of this than Harper who was at the Super Bowl, suites at hockey games, and hanging out with other athletes.
Hit the Poker Tables
This might not fit Soto’s personality, but athletes are getting into the poker scene. Just as engaging with other sports can raise an athlete’s public profile, so too can regular appearances at high-stakes and/or charity poker tournaments. It’s something we’ve seen a number of celebrities do over the years, including baseball players specifically. In fact, a Poker.org article profiling successful athletes who play poker, lists two prominent MLB players from eras past: Orel Hershiser and Alex Rodriguez. Bryce Harper, too, has been seen at celebrity poker events now and then. These types of events tend to generate a good amount of publicity and lead to numerous online write-ups, which again makes for easy exposure beyond MLB spheres. Soto could undoubtedly become more of a “celebrity” by hitting the tables now and then.
Explore Personal Branding
Soto might be a little bit young for this step, but many if not most of the best athletes of the last decade or two have ultimately become their own personal brands. Roger Federer’s “RF” logo is as recognizable in the tennis world as a Nike swoosh. The same can be said of Tiger Woods’s “TW” in golf. NBA superstars have their own shoe lines, and even in baseball, Derek Jeter established a sort of sub-brand within the Jordan line. We assume this is an option Soto will pursue as soon as it’s available to him, but it goes without saying that it would help to raise his profile.
Win With Moments
Finally there’s the really hard part. Above all else, Soto has to keep the Nats winning, and he has to do so with moments. Iconic athletes accumulate countless records and achievements, but are often associated with a handful of legendary moments as well. To his credit, Soto already has a few of these. But if he can pull off some real how-did-he-do-that highlights — plays like the over-the-head catch from Willie Mays, or Jeter’s out-of-place flip to home — he’ll grow his own legend.
The good news is that Soto is well on his way to face-of-the-game status even without taking all of these steps. We should note that he got the Topps cover for 2021 already. And according to CBSSports.com he ranked fifth in the league in jersey sales as recently as 2020. Both of these almost literally position Soto as the face of baseball.
If he keeps doing what he’s been doing, he may simply be good enough to achieve that kind of status in a lasting way, despite his aforementioned disadvantage. But if he takes some of the steps above to grow his own persona and reputation, he may be well on his way to a type of status rarely seen in the MLB.