Bryce Harper’s supernova start is full of “firsts” and “youngests” — as in, youngest National League player to start an all-star game and youngest to hit two home runs on his first opening day. Let’s also not forget: first 19-year-old to hit himself in the face with a bat he caromed off a dugout wall in anger, first 20-and-under to unsuccessfully slam-dance with two outfield walls, youngest to text his manager “play me or trade me” and, yes, youngest and most churlish to be thrown out of three games before 21, once per 66 games.
This isn’t a get-off-my-damn-lawn sermon to an uppity faux-hawked rebel without respect for his elders or authority; indeed, Harper has the exact amount of brash and cocksureness needed not to cross into arrogant-young-jerk territory.
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But it is a way of saying that the same mayhem that makes Bryce Hustle impossible not to watch on a baseball diamond also has consequences.
Those consequences include lingering knee issues from inexplicably running into those walls; prolonged damage control to assure everyone you were “kidding” during your little frustrated-in-the-moment ultimatum to the manager; thick sarcasm after getting tossed in the eighth inning of a one-run game your team eventually lost in the 10th. Add all that up, and you’re not the only one suffering growing
The Nationals are 31-26 when Harper plays and is not ejected. They are 17-22 when he is hurt or told to sit. During the remaining 66 games of this underachieving season, what they need more than even their young star’s unbridled aggression is his discipline.
Harper’s live bat, his discerning eye at the plate amid some of the free-swinging, undisciplined older guys on the club, his bolt-of-adrenaline demeanor from the dugout steps to the outfield — all of it makes Washington a much better team suited to catching the Atlanta Braves in the National League East the second half of the season.
But some of the rash judgment chasing after balls well hit; the I-know-I’m-right stubbornness that occasionally oozes out in the batter’s box when a pitch is framed just right or, in some cases, a flat-out strike; the defiant ’tude that takes over when things aren’t going right — that part of Harper’s game has to check itself before it wrecks all the good things he brings.
Part of Harper’s success certainly has to do with his hotheadedness, that vestige of a hand grenade in a batting helmet, topped off by that spiked, gelled ’do. The intensity is part of the package, what has so endeared him to Nationals fans. He doesn’t play as much as he ticks. He’s Kelly Leak from the original “Bad News Bears,” sans cigarettes and a motorcycle, a hellion whose force of personality and purpose really feels like he’s 20 going on 35 — especially when he’s got the playoff beard of a grizzled NHL third-liner working.
That fierce drive, Harper’s ability to put so much force and fire into his swing or his dead sprints in right field, is also one of the qualities that triggers historical comparisons to Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. at the same age.