The free scorecard handed to fans this weekend at Nationals Park has a picture of Bryce Harper on the cover, running full speed, hat off and hair standing straight up. The headline: “Nothing But Hustle.”
Inside is one of those tough-guy, watch-out-world posed photos of Harper that you see in team promotions, but also in TV ads where he’s presented as some iconic established brand. The caption reads, “To be one of the most gifted athletes on the planet, he only knows one gear: Full Throttle.”
Yes, Harper was benched for lack of hustle on Saturday. Washington Nationals Manager Matt Williams cited the outfielder’s “inability to run 90 feet.” When Harper’s spot in the batting order came around in the ninth inning of a close game, it was Kevin Frandsen grounding out while Harper watched from the dugout. “That’s a shame for his teammates,” said Williams, making it clear that Harper had forced the move and failed the team.
This is far more than a full-snicker moment. No player is so publicly shamed before a sellout home crowd — with a full explanation of the mid-game exodus given during the postgame news conference — unless there is plenty of backstory and an understanding within the organization that an issue needs to be addressed.
The problem of Harper’s lack of hustle when he’s sulking extends back to last year at least. In fact, several days ago the entire team was warned that the next man who didn’t run out a ball was coming out of the game. Teammates like Harper, but they back Williams.
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 Sunday and forget about the incident.
Now we’ll see if Harper can do the right things, too. First, learn an old baseball lesson: Run through the bag. It shows both teams that you have some control of your emotions, even when you fail, and that, perhaps, your mind isn’t centered on your individual performance. Running out routine grounders doesn’t prove either point. But not running them out has always raised serious questions about both.
Second, don’t hold a grudge toward a manager who is simply demanding that his team play correctly, especially after a sloppy, poorly focused 2013 season. Harper grew up respecting authority, especially his father Ron’s. But authority must be asserted toward Harper to get his attention, not just assumed. That’s one small part of why Williams was hired. Bryce was ushered into the big leagues by Davey Johnson, who knew how to manage him without shaming him publicly. But that gifted-child handling seldom lasts for any player. This was going to be Harper’s grow-up year. It just started early.
Third, and most important for Harper’s development, he needs to start the process of seeing himself accurately — as a raw player who gets far more attention, and calls more attention to himself, than his play deserves. He’s made two all-star teams. If he were Joe Smith, drafted No. 10 overall, not No. 1, and never on a Sports Illustrated cover at 16, he might not have made either, even with identical production.
Harper has not driven in 60 runs in either of his two seasons. He has only five RBI this year. He’s never had more than 157 runs-plus-RBI. Ryan Zimmerman has had between 163 and 216 six times. Adam LaRoche, no big star, has had 175 or more three times. Fourth outfielder Nate McLouth once had 207. Can we get a grip? Counting their three top starting pitchers, Harper may be the Nats’ seventh-best player. If forced to choose whether Harper or Anthony Rendon would have the better career, I’d think twice. Harper is in a self-conscious, fierce scowl-off with baseball. Rendon dances with it and grins. Baseball loves relaxed.
Yet Harper has an ownership stake in an eye-black company, WarriorBlack. It’s not his fault. But it’s ridiculous. And that notoriety, that constant spotlight, leads him into believing — or perhaps unconsciously acting out the part of — someone who should never fail, whose outs didn’t quite really happen.
On Thursday, Adam Wainwright pitched an overwhelming two-hit shutout. With the Nats trailing 8-0, Harper hit a fly to right field, then gave it the full helmet-grab disbelief reaction like he should have hit it 450 feet. You can’t yank him out of a game for acting all-about-me down eight runs. It’s not in the code. Wish it were.
In person, Harper is smart, likable and appreciated by teammates as a fanatical hard worker and student-fan of the game. His offensive marks at age 19 and 20 proclaim that he could become one of the game’s better hitters. But, in his third major league season, it’s time for him to be part of the team, not an attention-magnet symbol of it before he’s earned that distinction.
In spring training a veteran National discussed where Harper might bat this season. “Maybe fifth or sixth,” he said. “Bryce needs to get out of the spotlight a little, relax and just produce.” On opening day he hit fifth and has batted seventh with no explanation. Mickey Mantle didn’t hit seventh by his third full season in the majors. Williams, with the Nats’ front office fully behind him, is folding Harper into the context of the team, not letting him be mistaken as its leader or superstar savior.
Put in his place? No. Seen in his appropriate place — no better than 24 others? Yes.
And that’s very new for the Nats.
It’s okay for Harper to take his favorite bats on a road trip, shining like so many Stradivarius violins, in a gigantic case with each one protected from touching any of the others. That’s not the style of too many other Nats, most of whom are understated “we” types. But the Nats know they need his spark and energy, even his charisma when he’s hot.
But that whole package, complete with fabu-deluxe hairdo, needs to run all 90 feet to first base, too. Baseball has an ancient expression that each new generation must learn. There are only two types of ballplayers. Those that are humble. And those that are about to be humbled.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.