The Branding of Melky Cabrera

On Melky being "Melky"
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If Melky Cabrera were a real celebrity—as opposed to a baseball celebrity, which is the level of famous where you are known to 40% of sports fans and 85% of baseball fans—things would be different. The talk surrounding last week’s 50-game PED suspension that occurred in the dark corners of the non-sports internet—the shady netherworld where discussions about the non-sports equivalents of WAR happen—would be about the potential damage the Giants outfielder and reigning All-Star Game MVP had incurred to his “brand.” Or to put it in an more internet-y way, the damage Melky Cabrera had done to “Melky Cabrera”.

It doesn't even really bear mentioning that all this branding talk is pretty terrible in that way that only the intersection of human beings and commerce can be. That's because the branding of an individual is exactly what it sounds like, right down to the searing-a-cow's-flesh cruelty-notes: creating an identifiable persona and building up the value of “you” in the eyes of important people who will then pay you to do the things they believe, validly or not, that only you are capable of doing the way you do them. The goal being to make yourself the personification of  a Tide Pen, or some such bleak thing. For Melky Cabrera, the means to creating such a brand is playing baseball. And, after years on the margins, it was working: before his recent testosterone-related indiscretion, he was likely on his way to the sort of lucrative contract that guys who play well in contract years get, after putting together years that fall somewhere on the Adrian Beltre-to-Danny Tartabull spectrum. In this marketplace and day and age, that meant securing somewhere in the vicinity of $85-100 million over 6 or 7 years—depending on whether or not he’d give a “discount” to the team that picked him off the scrap heap, which would likely have been the Giants but was more accurately the Royals, who took a shot on him last year and were rewarded with the best season of his career before this one. The Royals, who were likely priced out on Cabrera by the All-Star break. That's the market, and that's the sort of season he was having.

Instead, Melky's misstep likely cost him between 70 and 100 million dollars, as his uptick in production—which was on an northbound trend after last year's stop in Kansas City, but nowhere near the MVP-flavored numbers (.354/.390/.516) he was cooking up in this season—will likely be seen by many teams as directly correlated to his intake of synthetic testosterone during this past offseason. That positive test casts some retroactive doubt on what looked like a legitimate breakout: last season was far and away the best of his career to that point, as he obliterated previous career bests in hits (201 to 149), doubles (44:28), total bases (309:213), batting average (.305: .280) and runs (102:75) and finished in the top 10 in the AL in each of those categories. This type of production could be the product of products not allowed by the MLB drug policy, or it might not. Assume that Cabrera was clean all of last season, and it seems more likely that Cabrera's subpar performances before last season were likely a combination of youth, inexperience and sore muscles from the constant fist-bumping and secret handshakes with best friend Robinson Cano. Assume that Cabrera was just waiting to get dirty, then all those middling pre-breakout years were due to an inability to get his hands on the steroids all the cool kids were taking. It's in how you see it, and "it's" is roughly the same thing, in this thought exercise, as "tens of millions of dollars."

There is a case for the former, to be sure: a seemingly upward progression in his career and the batting statistics of last season; the fact that Melky is (relatively) young, as evidenced by next season only being his "age-28" year and his seventh full year in the league (which likely gives him another 3-4 years in his notional prime); that Melky is (extraordinarily) likable, as evidenced by the insane support that San Francisco fans, including a personal cheering section known as "The Melk Men," showered upon him before his unexpected suspension and his All-Star voting victory. Given all that, it's not impossible that a guy as (seemingly) talented, (relatively) young,  and (extraordinarily) likable as Melky Cabrera might get through this debacle (almost) unscathed. And, thankfully for Melky, there is precedent for this sort of thing. Kind of.

***

We all remember a similarly beloved slugger with a similarly detached disposition in the NL West who was banned for a similar transgression. Of course, one of them was known as one of the 10-best right handed hitters of all time, while the other is, in his better moments, the second best big league hitter whose name can be abbreviated as "M. Cabrera." But there are definitely some parallels to be drawn between Manny and Melky. More importantly, at least for Melky, there are some things that Ramirez went through that Cabrera can learn from as he attempts to rebuild his brand. Or, less the buzzword, his career.

First of all, Cabrera should really milk—pardon the pun, please—the idea of him being a goofball for as long as is humanly possible. There's a reason the fans in San Francisco fans were so smitten with him, and while all those hits certainly help, it also helped that Melky projects the chilled-out demeanor of a talented guy who doesn't take himself too seriously, but can turn it on when it mattered. Manny, of course, defined this archetype, but Melky's devil-may-care-goofball-who-still-gets-it-done move of trying to get a pound from Robinson Cano during his home run trot in this year's All-Star Game was a maneuver that surely had Manny nodding delightedly in a rec room somewhere. Players who have the skill and goofy panache for such theatrical heroics generally don't fade into obscurity, if only because they have too much value as entertainment products and baseball players to let mistakes made off the field—even when those mistakes have an effect on their on-field performance—prevent them from making big paydays. Baseball is a business, but it's an entertainment business; anyone that entertaining won't stay unemployed for long, provided he can still play.

If we learned anything from Ramirez's adventures in Boston and Mannywood, it's that he could get away with never seeming to care too much if he was also able to seem as if he cared just enough at the plate to warrant the distractions. For every time he accidentally cutoff a throw from centerfield for no reason, or left his position in left field to hang out with the guys in the Green Monster, Red Sox fans knew he'd continue hitting balls over that larger-than-average wall in left and provide protection for Boston's biggest bopper, David Ortiz. As long as he kept doing that, and in a manner that showed he was just "Manny being Manny," he was beloved wherever he went, quickly becoming the most popular player in Los Angeles following his trade in the 2009 season to the Dodgers. It did help that his first 53 games with the Dodgers were among the most dominant stretches of that length in league history. It didn't hurt that he did it while seeming like a particularly sweet-natured savant.

Melky is not Manny: he was never that good, or that transcendently, gleefully weird. But, "brand"-wise, if Melky can establish that this transgression was just "Melky being Melky" he'll likely be fine. That said, he's not off to a very good start.

On Sunday, the New York Daily News reported that Cabrera had paid a member of his "team"—more specifically, a consultant who works with the agency who represents him —$10,000 to develop a fake website as an attempt to create a "digital paper trail" for a fake supplement. This is a lot of work for a pretty bad idea, but the specific bad idea here is at least Manny-grade whimsical. Cabrera was seeking to create an imaginary supplement that he could use as a cover for his elevated levels of testosterone. While relatively harmless—especially because the website itself never saw the light of day—and undeniably hilarious, this sort of Machiavellianism is poison for Cabrera's nascent, irreverent brand. It's not even the perception that he lied (although he did, to MLB and others) so much as it's the perception that Cabrera was clever enough to come up with such a seemingly (though in hindsight, decidedly not) surreptitious maneuver.

When you are perceived as goofy, you, much like Will Ferrell and Jim Carrey, create certain expectations. These can help or hurt, depending. For actors like Ferrell and Carrey, it means that when you make a movie like Stranger than Fiction or The Number 23, people start talking behind your back. For athletes, it's usually something more like not being allowed to be a part of postseason press conferences (see: World Peace, Metta) or named team captain. The basic principle remains, however: as long as you stay goofy, stay that character that we fell in love with in the first place, we'll keep you around, provided you continue to produce. This is a lesson Manny Ramirez learned early on and repeatedly cashed in on. He earned over $200 million over his career, and as embarrassing as his White Sox/Rays endgame was, it's no The Number 23.

There is, of course, another lesson that Melky could learn from Manny: it's okay to be known as a steroid "user." That is, your more enlightened fans can put themselves in your shoes and think about what they would have done given the same opportunities, and with the same potential rewards. The problem occurs, as Manny can attest, with what happens the second time you are caught, and the attendant bursting of the bubble. Ramirez went from signing a two-year, $45 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers to asking for his release from a $500,000 contract with the Oakland Athletics before the beginning of this season. He is not currently employed in baseball.

This is about branding, and it's not. But after being labelled a PED-abuser, the brand is set. Some stains are just too stubborn, even for a Tide Pen. Melky will be Melky, just as surely as Manny will be Manny. What and who Melky will be is, for the moment, still his story to write.


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