The biggest surprise about Bryce Harper’s “play me or trade me” text message to manager Davey Johnson isn’t that he sent it; it’s that so many people (Johnson aside) took it seriously.
Washington Nationals fans have been terrified they will lose Harper since the day he signed his five-year deal. (This must be what it’s like to date George Clooney; it must be torture.) Why the collective self-doubt? Because when Harper was even more of a kid than he is now, he said his favorite teams were the Cowboys and the Yankees (popular and unsurprising picks for a teenager who grew up in a town with no professional sports teams). It’s hard to gauge which of those preferences most upset locals, but in NatsTown, it was the Yankees.
Yes, Harper may end up in New York when his contract is up in 2017. If he does, it’s not going to be because Johnson wanted to sit him for a few days during a weekend home series against the San Diego Padres in 2013. It’s going to be because (1) he wants to play in New York and (2) the Yankees make him a more attractive offer. The Nats made him the highest paid non-pitcher signed out of the draft, but unless something changes, in two years, that $9.9 million will look like monopoly money. But there is no point in borrowing trouble. Pace your angst.
“Play me or trade me” is an old sports saw, older even than “giving 110 percent.” So why did so many people believe Harper meant it? If not for Johnson, no one would have known of its existence, and if Johnson thought Harper was serious, he wouldn’t have shared it with the media. Johnson is far from stupid. He may be giddy as a schoolgirl in his final season as manager, but he’s also savvy enough to move Ian Desmond to the two-hole. Johnson downplayed the decision, but it’s worked out pretty well so far.
And if you’ve paid any attention to Harper, you know that he would never demand a trade for being benched. He might hit himself in the head with a bat. He might sit on the dugout steps and sulk. He might experiment with haircuts. But while I don’t agree with all of Harper’s behavior, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a guy who wants to play.
Amazingly, Harper had to clarify his remarks twice, first to say he was serious about wanting to play, and then again to explain to the very slow that while he was serious about wanting to play, he was not serious about the “trade me” demand.
Johnson may have joked about the text, but despite their age difference, he understands Harper. Johnson frequently mentions the 50-year age gap between him and Harper, which is impressive even in a league in which Cornelius McGillicuddy wrote out a lineup card until age 87. Johnson could be Harper’s grandfather, but they share a genuine passion for baseball. Johnson knows the game, and Harper is no slouch, even at his tender age. (Actually, I think Harper’s “tender age,” if he ever had one, was about 3.) For instance, Harper is smart enough to know that Mike Rizzo, not Johnson, actually makes the “trade me” decisions. Yes, Harper still has a lot to learn and Johnson should be texting him, not the other way around, but they “get” one another.
When Johnson needs to bench Harper — when his bursitis flares up again, for instance, and it might — he’ll do it. Harper won’t be happy. They might even exchange snippy texts — or Harper might send a snippy text and Johnson might tell the media about it, although after this last “reveal” I’m guessing he won’t. But if Harper felt good enough to play over the weekend — and he clearly did — there was no reason to hold him out, especially when the Nats need wins so desperately. July is the month to make hay while the sun shines, and the Nats need enough hay to fill the Augean stable.
Maybe the furor over Harper’s text was a healthy distraction for Nats fans worried about their team’s seeming inability to gain ground on the Atlanta Braves. Maybe it was merely fodder for the “Harper is a spoiled brat” camp, which has been driven to near madness by his selection to the All-Star Game. Whatever. Pause for a moment to consider that in 2013, we are parsing the meaning behind five-word text messages from a 20-year-old. That’s sad. The fact that some people are taking it seriously is even sadder.