The gap between the reality of Harper — the good but miles-from-great player, the very good but immature young man — and the five-year-long hype of Harper as a two-time all-star and a future face of baseball needs to narrow considerably, for both the good of the Nationals and the 21-year-old Harper. His sixth-inning quick hook was the first step. No one knows if more will be needed.
The universe of disconnect in which Harper moves, with national Gatorade commercials and a power agent who scoffed last month at Harper signing a six-year, $145 million contract (like Mike Trout), is one of many reasons Williams, the Big Marine, was hired as a reality-check manager.
Williams was right to yank Harper, who barely reached jogging speed Saturday on a sixth-inning grounder to the pitcher, then veered back to the dugout halfway to first base. Williams also did the right thing to put Harper back in the lineup Sundayand forget about the incident.
And while some former baseball men lined up on Boswell’s side, others took a different stance. Like Jim Bowden, the team’s former GM, and now an analyst for SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio. Bowden described his unease upon watching an ESPN panel featuring Barry Larkin, Eric Wedge and Alex Cora unanimously side with Williams.
“And I’m sitting there listening to this, going ‘NO. NO. STOP. NO.’ As a former GM, NO, you all are wrong,” Bowden said. “I obviously am in the vast minority in this position, because everywhere I turn, everyone’s just praising and loving Matt Williams. My opinion is, Matt Williams is paid to win baseball games, not just to manage people. His job isn’t just to teach lessons. His job isn’t just to develop Bryce Harper. His overall job description is to win as many games as he possibly can as manager of the Washington Nationals. That’s what I’m paying him to do. That’s the bottom line job, at the end of the day.
“I pay the AAA people and the AA people and the A ball people to develop [players],” Bowden went on. “And certainly at this level lessons have to be taught. But there’s ways to do it without having it be at the expense of an organization, without having it be at the expense of Jordan Zimmermann, or at the expense of Jayson Werth, or at the expense of the scouts and development people that work their butts off. If the Washington Nationals miss the playoffs by one game, what do you think I’m going to be doing at the end of the season? I’m gonna point back to this game and I’m gonna rant for 30 minutes, just like I ranted when they didn’t throw Strasburg.
“Because I get teaching lessons, and I’m all for it,” Bowden said. “What Bryce Harper did: wrong. But what Bryce Harper did is the same thing I’ve seen Robinson Cano do, it’s the same thing I’ve seen Albert Pujols do. And this wasn’t even like he cost you anything….Now I understand Matt doesn’t want to put up with that, and I get it. But there are other ways to discipline [him] without costing the Nationals that baseball game, which that move did.”
Bowden’s co-host Jim Duquette, another former GM, then chimed in.
“It makes me sick to see the fact that Kevin Frandsen came up in that spot,” Duquette said. “Would I have wanted [Williams] to take [Harper] out of the game at that particular moment? No. Would I have wanted him to not play him [Sunday]? Yes….But once your manager does it, I’ve got to support my manager. If I’m Mike Rizzo, I have to support my manager in this situation, even though I’m going ‘God, I wish he didn’t take him out of the ballgame right there.’ ”
And for one more dissenting opinion, here’s former Nats utility man Mark DeRosa, now an analyst on MLB Network.
“Bryce Harper should run and touch first base,” DeRosa began. “There’s no doubt about it. I’ve never run and peeled off in my entire career. But at the same time, do I agree with the way Matt Williams handled it? Absolutely not. I just don’t. You don’t want to make an example out of Bryce Harper right there. I think there’s different ways to go about it. As soon as he came in the dugout – hey listen, that’s not gonna happen again, or I WILL do that. Or maybe after the game you pull him aside in the office before the media gets on him and you address it and you kind of say ‘Hey, we can downplay this as much as we want.’
“I just think you’re making mountains out of molehills here,” DeRosa continued. “Not everybody’s David Eckstein. And God bless David Eckstein, God bless Mike Piazza, guys who flew through first base every time. The makeup of every player’s different. I was a guy, when I tapped balls back to the pitcher, or when I popped balls up, there were moments that I wasn’t giving ’100 percent’ down the line. So for a guy that’s bashed into as many walls as Bryce Harper….
“And I get it from Matt Willaims’s point of view as well,” DeRosa said. “It’s his first year there, he’s got 17 games under his belt, he wants to make an example that he’s not gonna put up with this. But I think it could have been handled differently.”