There doesn’t seem to be a standard for temper in sports. The reaction seems to depend on the athlete, the sport, the setting, the severity of the incident, and the potential cost of to the team, if applicable.
Before the Washington Nationals season began, I would have looked disapprovingly at helmet-beating and bat-busting and helmet-throwing and all the little things Bryce Harper has done to express his disappointment — with Bryce Harper.
Therein lies the rub: Harper’s outbursts occur when he’s angry at himself. When he’s angry with others, he’s cool as a cucumber. When Cole Hamels plunked him back in May? Your standard hot-head would have charged the mound and the rest of the Nats would have followed, and the Nats would not have the fewest ejections in baseball. Instead, Harper calmly took his base, and wound up stealing home.
(And just so we’re clear: That was a plunking, not a beaning. A beaning involves the bean — that is to say, the noggin, the hat rack, the melon. Any other body part, it’s a plunking.)
While some Nats fans are concerned about Harper’s temper, most are willing to give him time to grow out of it. He’s a teenager, they say — although that excuse ends in six weeks. But it’s true that he plays hard, that he wants to play all the time, that he gets mad only at himself. (Well, and probably at Davey Johnson, on occasion.) And that’s all true. His temper hasn’t cost the team a game. His self-inflicted head wound didn’t even seem to faze him; he looked like a hockey player, standing there with blood running down his face.
He already is a “SportsCenter” darling, which means all of his fits — and even some of his actual highlights — are distributed and dissected nationally. Nats fans know that he has the two fastest home run trots in the majors this year, that he runs out fly balls, that he never concedes an out. Non-Nats fans know he likes to break bats on the plate. He is making himself a reputation that will stick. But who cares, as long as he’s in Washington, right?
Tiger Woods has a reputation as well. He was a polarizing golfer even before all that adultery, because golf is a sport that doesn’t tolerate shows of temper. It’s in the rules. Woods cursed, he tossed clubs, he behaved poorly on some of golf’s Valhallas, and because everything he did — and does — on the course is filmed, we got to see and hear it all.
Some people love Woods’s game — I’m one of them — and overlook the temper, though with difficulty. Others chafe at the way he talks of his great respect for golf and its greats — Jack Nicklaus in particular — and then displays a lack of respect on the course by violating the game’s etiquette rules. Woods has made an effort, announcing several times that he’s going to clean up his act, but each time he has reverted to form.
Unlike golf, NASCAR embraces the bad boy. Tony Stewart is perfect for the sport. When Stewart hurled his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s windshield, it made for great viewing, but no one thought Stewart would face anything more than a fine. He didn’t even get that, a signal that NASCAR is backing away from earlier attempts to police the sport. That’s a good plan, because Americans seem to like a little skirmish with their sport these days.
Maybe I’m empathetic of the quick-tempered because I have a bad one myself. In a previous job, I used to do to telephones, and sometimes furniture, what Harper does to helmets, but without a bat. I apparently was the terror of the office on Saturday nights (big paper, bad deadlines, 14-hour shifts). I didn’t realize until much later how much my temper affected other people. And when I realized it, I stopped. It was the second-hardest behavior I’ve quit, after smoking. I still long for a Marlboro and a good telephone toss at times, but I don’t do either, because I’m a grown-up with a job in the real world. Alas.
Maybe that’s why I can’t bring myself to scold Harper, why I look past Woods’s temper and just see the golf, why I’ve always loved NASCAR. I know how hard it is to control that inner Hulk. Kermit had it wrong: It’s incredibly easy, being green.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.