To Bryce Harper and Davey Johnson, ‘play me or trade me’ is just a healthy joke

Thomas Boswell
Columnist July 7, 2013

One of the better relationships in baseball is between a 70-year-old manager in his last season and a 20-year-old player who was just voted to the starting National League lineup in the All-Star Game.

That open two-way communication is why Bryce Harper could text “play me or trade me” to Davey Johnson on Friday night after hearing that his manager had told the world, but had not informed Bryce, that Harper would ride the bench for the next two games even though he wasn’t injured.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

And the Nationals could react to both the de facto benching and Harper’s put-me-in-coach quip by chuckling, not fretting. An old manager with a young heart and a young player with an old head understood each other. The pair met before Saturday’s game — at Harper’s request, just the way it has to be, the subordinate asking for an audience with the boss. Johnson had his say, mostly Dutch uncle advice for Harper. And Harper played both games.

Harper went 4 for 6 with two walks, four RBI, two stolen bases and a sliding catch in left field in two days as the Nats completed their sweep of the Padres.

“I love playing for Davey. I always show him a lot of respect,” said Harper, earnestly after Sunday’s 11-7 win. “Oh, he loves his young players.”

“Its just a Psych 101 course,” said Johnson before the Nats headed to Philadelphia just four games behind the Braves after four straight wins. “I had to explain to Bryce about his erroneous zones. You can’t let other people make you mad or sad. You’re in control of your own emotions.

“We’ve got to lighten up — all of us. Harp doesn’t have to carry the weight of the world. I wanted to let him know, ‘Just play your way.’ Free him up.”

That’s what Johnson’s good at — finding ways to free up players’ minds so their talent can come out. If he has to call on the wisdom of an old ’70s self-help bestseller like “Your Erroneous Zones,” he’ll whip it out. He’s still got one of the 35 million copies sold.

What the Nats will miss most when ownership nudges Johnson into retirement after this season is his ability to interact easily, humorously but candidly, with smart, opinionated $100 million players as well as rising stars like Harper, who might not be easy for a less-celebrated manager to handle.

Last season, Harper, proud of his arm, overthrew the cutoff man by 10 feet in two different games. After each game, Johnson gave casual, vague explanations for why Harper wouldn’t play the next day.

“Quite a coincidence,” someone said.

“He’s smart. He’ll figure it out,” said Johnson, grinning. Harper has. He knows that Johnson rules by playing time, but never shows up players. Instead, he clucks that “I want him to come sit beside me” in the dugout.

Johnson plays a long game in dealing with players, giving sincere views while keeping critiques in the privacy of his office, the way he wanted to be dealt with as a player, but wasn’t.

Last spring, Johnson lobbied for Harper to be brought to the majors at age 19. No one else with the Nats thought he was ready. Few read Harper better, either. “He’s an intelligent guy. He’s also very sensitive,” Johnson said of Harper. Many see the first, few the second.

Perhaps no one believes in Harper’s greatness more than Johnson either, which gives him power of persuasion. Johnson played with Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh but, by the middle of Harper’s rookie year, Johnson said Harper was his favorite player — ever.

Johnson wants to corral Harper without breaking the stallion in him. That can lead to mistakes. In May, Johnson, foolishly in my view, let Harper talk his way back into the lineup three times, all premature, after he’d run into the Dodger Stadium scoreboard. That resulted in 31 Harper-less games. It was a tricky call. But, with hindsight, how could it have turned out worse? But, by giving Harper so much input, their bond probably tightened.

One reason the Nats are in contact with the Braves, despite playing, in Johnson’s words, “below our potential” for three months, is his gift of casual authority. He handles players firmly, without seeming to do anything. But he is.

On Friday, after Harper had gone 0 for 18, dropped two balls in left field, swung over-anxiously at first pitches and “showed bad body language,” Johnson benched Harper “for the weekend.” That’s not what he called it. Davey peddled some nonsense about Harper’s knee and state of mind, just as he always covers for players. But that’s what it was. Harper’s text was essentially a plea, which might be paraphrased as, “Skip, I just sat out 31 games on the disabled list. Come on, I wanna play. I’ll shape up, honest!”

Yet because Harper knew he could text “play me or trade me” — usually the final ultimatum in a totally broke relationship — everything stayed in good humor, just big-time baseball guys ribbing each other, working things out. Johnson volunteered the text story himself. Harper never mentioned it.

During the meeting, Johnson got to tell Harper that he was listening to too many “extraneous voices” and should ignore all those who wanted him to change his style of play, to play it safe. “He’s going to run into another wall and slide headfirst,” Johnson said. “That’s who he is. He can’t let other people affect how he feels and how he plays. Let all the well-meaning advice go in one ear and out the other, unless he thinks it’ll help him.”

With his points made, the air cleared and Harper reinvigorated, Johnson told the media with a grin, “I can’t trade him so I’m playing him.”

The cold arithmetic that sabermetrics believes and Johnson understands says that the Nats are dumb-lucky that they aren’t about 11 games behind the Braves, who have a plus-76 run differential while the Nats are a lousy minus-10. The Nats should be an inch from dead instead of four games back.

Johnson, who’s had other teams that defied that metric, is part of why the Nats haven’t sunk under their misfortunes and mistakes.

“You have to ride it out and not lose faith,” said Johnson, who has looked so miserable on the bench much of the season that he seems to have internalized the misery for everyone else. “Now we are coming around . . . I feel good going into the second half. We should be ready for it.”

More Psych 101?

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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