•Only one player older than 25, Toronto's Paul Molitor, 37, finished among the top five vote getters in the AL Most Valuable Player balloting. Thomas, Olerud, Gonzalez and Griffey finished, in order, 1-3-4-5.
•Only six players have hit more than 120 home runs before their 24th birthday. Two reached that mark last year: Griffey (132) and Gonzalez (121). The other four are in the Hall of Fame: Mel Ott and Mathews (153), Robinson (130) and Mantle (121).
•The simultaneous impact of Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez is unique. Though they became the sixth threesome to reach 40 home runs, 100 runs batted in and a .300 batting average in the same league in the same season, they are the first to do so before their 26th birthday. In fact, in none of the previous five trios were all three players younger than 29.
In the inaugural season of The Baseball Network, the joint television venture designed not only to broadcast the game but also to sell it to advertisers, guess who Major League Baseball expects to drive the promotional engine? "Every time we talk to an advertiser," says Ken Schanzer, the network's president and CEO, "we talk about the young players in the game and the excitement they're generating. We're encouraging clients to take a look at these guys." The new network is less interested in trying to sell the game itself—the Catch the Fever campaign used by baseball in recent years is on its way out—and more focused on selling the players, especially the young ones.
During the recent NFL playoffs, ABC and NBC, which are both partners with Major League Baseball in the new network, aired three different promos, each of which highlighted an individual star—Griffey, Gonzalez and National League MVP Barry Bonds of the Giants, "The first phone call I made when I took this job was to Don Fehr [Players Association executive director]," says Schanzer. "I told him our operating principle is this: The players are the game. We will do everything we can to promote our stars front and center. And they're there."
Players such as Griffey, who has already played in four All-Star Games and yet is younger than both 1993 Rookies of the Year, are the best advertisements for the game, especially at a time when advertisers are concerned that baseball attracts an older demographic audience than other sports. What's more, multisport high school athletes facing career choices need no longer be scared off by the prospect of a lengthy minor league apprenticeship spent riding buses between truck-stop towns. Today's young stars have hung out this enticing possibility: play baseball, get rich quick. "There's a lot to be said for the number of 21-year-old players making it to the big leagues," Klein says. "Kids tend to emulate success."
The arrival of so many good young players is a fortunate happenstance for baseball. Except for this group, what does the game have to sell? The impact of the young players is more pronounced because of an enormous vacuum left by older players who should be the game's flag bearers. What players dominate the game into their 30's anymore? Very few. Of the 22 players who hit 30 home runs last season, only five were older than 29: Bobby Bonilla, Joe Carter, Cecil Fielder, Danny Tartabull and Mickey Tettleton. Of the 12 pitchers who won at least 18 games last season, only four were older than 29: Randy Johnson, Jimmy Key, Mark Portugal and Billy Swift.
In the era of the disposable hero, the generation of players 30 and older includes a wasteland of broken-down, faded and forgotten stars. Look at the guys who were the established 25-and-younger stars entering the 1987 season: Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens, Eric Davis, Dwight Gooden, Wally Joyner, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry and Tartabull. None of them made it to the All-Star Game last year. Many of them have been sidetracked by injuries. All of them, with the exception of Clemens, have been derailed on the way to Cooperstown.
"That was the first wave of players who got the really big money," says Cincinnati Red manager Davey Johnson. "I'm talking about them being financially set into the next generation. It's human nature to be less motivated when you are that secure. Now everybody has the money. Maybe now it's the performance of the player, and not the money, that sets him apart from the crowd. I hope we're back to the point of 15, 20 years ago, when the players were after the MVP awards, home run crowns, batting titles and things like that. That would be a big and welcome change."
Thomas, the AL's unanimous MVP last season, is just that sort of player. He became only the fifth player in major league history to hit .300 with 20 home runs, 100 RBIs, 100 walks and 100 runs scored in three consecutive seasons. The other four all are in the Hall of Fame: Gehrig, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth. Only Gehrig and Williams did it four straight seasons.