What if I told you that a young baseball star would appear prominently in ESPN the Magazine’s upcoming MLB preview edition, touting flair and self-expression, praising Cam Newton, discussing his aspirations to reinvigorate his sport, and also — in the words of the piece’s author — his aspirations “to become a single-name icon like LeBron and Beckham and Cam.”
Would you be able to guess the subject? I think you might.
Which is to say that Bryce Harper is already pumping some of that galvanizing single-name elixir — and some of that flair — into his chosen sport.
This, remember, is a player who spent the Super Bowl hanging out with Steph Curry; who has one of the best-selling jerseys in the sport; who switched to an all-juice diet and ate raw potatoes to make his naked torso pop on the cover of ESPN the Magazine; who has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated at least three times, including last year at this time, when he said ” I’d rather [tick] people off playing hard than [tick] people off playing soft.”
So it’s hard to be surprised when Harper now tells ESPN the Magazine’s Tim Keown that, for example, he loves the way Cam Newton carries himself.
“Baseball’s tired,” Harper says in the lengthy piece, which was posted online on Thursday and will be on newsstands next week. “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig – there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.”
If that word, “tired,” sounds familiar, it should. That’s how Harper described some of baseball’s old-school enforcement codes last September, after Manny Machado appeared to be the target of a Jonathan Papelbon pitch.
“Manny freakin’ hit a homer, walked it off and somebody drilled him,” Harper said then. “It’s pretty tired.”
Now see this, from the ESPN the Magazine piece:
“If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot … I mean — sorry.”
He stops, looks around. The hell with it, he’s all in.
“If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I’m going to go, ‘Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.’ That’s what makes the game fun. You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players — Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton — I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic.”
Many young sports fans and writers — and virtually all Nats fans that I know — love Harper’s approach. They want most of baseball’s unwritten rules to go up in smoke, and they’re thrilled that Harper might be the one dropping the match. And they point to demographic numbers when praising that approach: that the average age of baseball viewers is higher than that for the NFL and NBA; that the percentage of postseason viewers under the age of 17 is shrinking; that “50 percent of baseball viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent 10 years ago,” according to Nielsen numbers Marc Fisher cited last spring. If Harper wants to promote fun and flair, while also winning MVP awards, his supporters are on board.
And this, of course, is nothing new. Here’s how Harper described his goals to our Barry Svrluga last summer — while also talking about his obsession with winning:
In some ways, baseball players have to force their way into the public discourse, because none of 162 games is more important than the next, because the best hitters have their moment only four or five times a night, and even then they fail 70 percent of the time. Harper wants to overcome all that and make the game’s stars as recognizable as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
“Before I got into the game, I always thought to myself I want to change that aspect of baseball,” he said. “I want to change the nobody being with Gatorade or nobody being with high-profile companies like Under Armour or Nike or something like that, or being with a big brand in fashion or something like that. You look at all the other sports — football, basketball, soccer — they all have it. Baseball didn’t have that.”
The ads and the brands and the A-list names he cites have also made him an occasional target; of other fanbases, of traditionalists, of writers who would rather chug Metamucil than embrace youthful flair and change.
Bryce Harper exhales youthful flair with every breath. And like it or not, when the MVP is pushing a popular form of change, that change is probably coming.