When the Nationals began play Monday against the Yankees, it was apparent that there was something very unusual about the goings-on. It wasn’t so much that the game started in the bottom of the sixth inning, resuming a contest that was put on hold more than a month ago, or that the teams got going just after 5 p.m., all the better to fit in a second game that evening.
No, the oddest thing about Monday’s action at Nationals Park had to do with Bryce Harper’s face. The outfielder’s beard, a signature element of his even in an era of hirsute baseball players, was nowhere to be found.
Yes, that was Harper, fully revealing the slight cleft in his chin, give or take some stubble, for the first time since May 2013, when a face-first collision with an outfield wall forced him to break out a razor. Since then, he’s always had some kind of beard — until Monday.
So why the new look? Following the quasi-doubleheader, in which the Nats and Yankees each got a win, Harper wasn’t saying, but the obvious thought that came to mind was an attempt to just try anything different amid a two-month-long slump.
Harper came into Monday batting just .188 since April 17, with 11 home runs, 26 RBI and a .700 OPS in that span. Unfortunately, the lack of facial hair didn’t help at all, at least not right away. He went 0-for-7 in the two contests, dropping his batting average on the season to .212.
As Harper, who entered this season a career .285 batter, makes out after out, speculation has increased that he’s feeling the pressure of his impending free agency. The 2015 National League MVP, who won’t turn 26 until October, was expected to look for a pact worth upward of $350 million, but he could be, ahem, shaving some major dollars off his contract offers if the struggles continue.
Which brings us to Monday’s opponent. The Yankees have long been suggested to be Harper’s likely destination as soon as he could hit the open market. That expectation has lessened of late, given the team’s offseason addition of expensive outfielder Giancarlo Stanton to a stable of young sluggers, but that most certainly did not stop people from connecting a few dots. Even the Yankees’ announcing crew reportedly joined the fun.
The Yankees, as baseball fans are well aware, have traditionally forbidden their players from having facial hair or long hair of any kind, for that matter. Thus, the logic went, Harper was using the occasion to directly signal to New York’s management that his long-standing preference for a beard would be no impediment to coming aboard.
However, if Harper has been wanting to send that message, he passed up chances to do so earlier in the season, including, of course, in the mostly rained-out May series that Monday’s games were completing. More recently, the Nats played two games last week at Yankee Stadium, which would seem to have been the ideal locale to help that team envision him in pinstripes.
Then there was Monday’s weather, which could safely be described as “sweltering.” With heat index values peaking in the triple digits, Harper could hardly have chosen a better time to shed a furry layer.
In the short term, we’ll just have to see if Harper sticks with the cleaner look or if he immediately starts growing a beard again, as he did in 2013. If nothing else, the lack of facial hair could make him just a bit more aerodynamic and thus better able to beat out throws to first base, or at least make him feel that way. Hey, anything to help break a slump, right?
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