The swirl of opinion and controversy crackled and hummed Tuesday afternoon, surfacing on television screens, blaring out of radios, murmuring in clubhouses across the league. While so many were talking about them, Bryce Harper and Matt Williams — the two figures at the center of the attention — sat down at Nationals Park and talked to each other.
The meeting between the Nationals’ rookie manager and their most talented, highest-profile player took place a day after Harper came off the disabled list and shared his dissenting opinion about Williams’s lineup. Their relationship underwent intense external scrutiny in April, when Williams moved Harper down in the batting order and benched him after he failed to run out a groundball. Those questions resurfaced this week after Harper took issue with the first lineup with his name in it following 57 games on the disabled list, recovering from a torn ligament in his left thumb.
Conversations with multiple people familiar with the situation paint a more nuanced picture of the Williams-Harper relationship than the contentiousness that seems to dominate public perception. Rather, the bumps in their partnership have stemmed from fits of public awkwardness between a first-year manager and a 21-year-old still learning major league life. Williams is figuring out the personalities of his players; Harper is at an age when almost all players make their missteps in the anonymity of the minor leagues.
On Wednesday afternoon, after Harper sweltered through batting practice and signed autographs for a pack of kids, he stood in the tunnel next to the Nationals’ dugout and directly addressed his relationship with Williams for the first time, squashing the notion there is a feud between manager and player.
“I’ve got no problem with Matt,” Harper told The Post. “I like Matt a lot. I respect the way he played the game. For people to say that, I think it’s unbelievable. I respect Matt more than anybody. Like I said, the way he played the game, the way he went about his business every single day, how can you not respect a manager like that? Matt’s always going to have your back, tell you how it is and really enjoy coming in here and managing.”
Many observers have connected Harper’s opinions on the lineup to Williams’s benching of him in April. Multiple people familiar with the situation said the episodes had nothing to do with each other. Harper went so far as to say that, in retrospect, he agreed with Williams’s decision to pull him April 19, the day after the manager warned Nationals players that a lack of hustle would be met with removal.
“I think that’s something that’s in the past,” Harper said. “Like I said after that game, I respected the hell out of that. I wasn’t mad at all. He told us the day before, ‘This is what’s going to happen.’ I did what I did, and I would have done the same thing. It was just something that happened, but now I can say that’s in the past. But I respected what he did.”
Both Tuesday and Wednesday, Williams defended Harper. He revealed their meeting and said he did not chastise Harper but instead offered him unconditional support.
“I got Bryce’s back in every way,” Williams said. “That will not change. I want him to play every day, and I want him to play the way Bryce knows how to play.”
After the Nationals hired Williams in November, Williams reached out to Harper over the phone. They shared several conversations before arriving in spring training. Williams wanted Harper to approach the spring with caution coming off knee surgery, and Harper agreed. Harper admired Williams’s all-star playing career and appreciated his openness.
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” Harper said Wednesday. “Him having respect for me, being able to call me and say, ‘Hey, this is what we want from you. This is what we want for the organization.’ Coming in here, having a guy that wants you to work hard for him, that’s the best thing. He really just wants you to work hard and do things the right way. If you do that, he’s going to respect the way you play and the way you are. I think he’s the perfect manager for this team.”
Williams may have miscalculated Harper’s mind-set when he moved Harper down in the lineup to start the season. Williams believed he could take pressure off Harper, but Harper had long ago accepted pressure as part of baseball — he traveled around the country even as a pre-teen, joining teams with players older than him who had parents jealous of his talent. Pressure derived from a prominent spot in the lineup did not compute. Getting dropped in the lineup brought Harper more confusion than relief.
The placement contributed to Harper’s small slump to begin the season. He admitted he felt “lost” at the plate during April’s first week. Shortly thereafter, even through his benching, Harper heated up and broke out only to hurt his thumb April 25.
Harper healed for two months, and when he returned to the majors Monday, he immediately created a stir when he said he thought Ryan Zimmerman should play left field, Anthony Rendon should play third base and Danny Espinosa should play second. In rising to Harper’s defense Wednesday, Williams parsed the statement to claim Harper had not disparaged any teammate. But the implication was clear that Harper wanted to play center field, a move that would relegate Denard Span to the bench.
Harper may not have understood the ramifications. In his mind, he only expressed an opinion on what he felt would be best for the team. Nationals teammates reacted with disappointment and surprise that he had disrespected Span, intentionally or not. (Harper’s comments did not rankle in every corner of the clubhouse: Espinosa actually thanked him for the nod.) For his part, Span said, “In all my years of playing baseball, I’ve never been talked about by another teammate. At the same time, it’s okay. . . . At the end of the day, he’s still one of my teammates.”
The next day, Harper and Williams talked. Williams told reporters he said to Harper that he admired his talent and stands behind him, no matter what. Harper appreciated hearing it from his manager.
“That’s exactly what he told us in spring training,” Harper said. “He told us all in spring training, ‘I’m always going to have your back, no matter what.’ We had a team meeting about that. He said he’s always going to battle for us. Just work hard for him, and he’ll do that. I looked him right in the eye when he told us that. It was nice to know someone had your back, and he was really going to battle for you every single day. I believe that every day we go out there on the field, he’s going to battle . . . for us. That’s going to be good for our team, our organization.”
More on the Nationals:
Nationals Journal: Harper, Rendon swap lineup spots
Thomas Boswell: Here’s to the Nationals’ health
Nationals Journal: Rizzo loves the notebook
D.C. Sports Bog: Desmond’s delayed home run trot lasted more than four minutes
Fancy Stats: Strasburg excels under pressure