On Monday at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Giants reliever Hunter Strickland felt he needed to teach Nationals superstar Bryce Harper that exact lesson, which he undertook by drilling Harper in the hip with a 98-mph fastball, touching off a brawl that included an exchange of punches. Both players were suspended.
Inside the mind of Strickland must be a scary and confusing place to be, what with all those three-year-old grudges and revenge fantasies, and we won’t be staying there for long. But it isn’t difficult to discern his motivation, and it was all representative of a larger divide in baseball’s evolving culture, one that seems to create more contentiousness as the divide grows.
We’re only guessing here – because Strickland, of course, claimed the pitch was meant to be inside and simply got away from him – but the reason he decided to drill Harper was not because the latter homered twice off him in the 2014 National League Division Series, as many have suggested. Homers happen, and even a less-evolved player such as Strickland knows he has to wear them.
No, what almost certainly burrowed its way into a recess of Strickland’s brain, back in October 2014, and festered there for almost three years, until the next time he was fortunate enough to face Harper, was Harper’s reaction to those homers. Rather than lay his bat down and take a sober sprint around the bases – the right way to play the game, according to folks of Strickland’s ilk – Harper stood and watched them for a few moments before making his way around the bases. In the first instance, in Game 1, Strickland appeared to glare at Harper. In the second, in Game 4, Harper appeared to glare back.
That, son, is not playing the game the right way.
But it is worth pointing out two things here: First, both home runs were pulled down the line in right field, so Harper’s delayed trots may have had less to do with posing and preening than with seeing if the balls would remain inside the foul pole.
Second, and more importantly, the Giants won both of those 2014 playoff games, as well as the series, then went on to win the World Series. Strickland, in other words, got the ultimate revenge, had he possessed the awareness to see it. Game over. This was Harper’s exact point after the game, when he said, “They won the World Series that year. I don’t even think he should be thinking about what happened in the first round. He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night.”
Certain players arouse the ire of the play-the-game-the-right-way crowd more than others. They are usually younger and/or foreign-born, meaning they have grown up in an era and/or culture where personal expression on the field is more accepted. They play the game with more flair than their predecessors. They are also usually great, or else their exploits would not matter.
Harper is one of these players. Strickland, in using the old “pitch-got-away-from-me” defense, wasn’t willing to articulate what it was about Harper, or one of Harper’s specific actions, that made him go to such great lengths to exact his small measure of revenge. But luckily, Cole Hamels articulated it for him. In 2012, when Harper was a 19-year-old rookie making his way around the league for the first time, Hamels, then pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies, drilled him in the back the first time he faced him. The reason? Basically: Just because he didn’t like the way Harper played the game.
“That’s something I grew up watching,” Hamels said after that game. “I’m just trying to continue the old baseball, because I think some people are kind of getting away from it.”
These are difficult times for the play-the-game-the-right-way crowd. Every year, another crop of rookies arrives who came of age in the era of bat-flips and pumped fists, and every year the ranks of the old-school, self-appointed baseball-decorum police grow thinner. (Where is Jonathan Papelbon these days, anyway?) This, in turn, makes that group even more desperate to rescue the old values. It’s not dissimilar from the way American society itself has grown more tolerant and more multicultural, to the chagrin of others, and we can all see where that has left our national politics.
There is only one direction where this is heading, and it would be better for all involved if we simply acknowledged the cultural shift going on within baseball, one that is not going away. It is quite telling that in the two most significant on-field incidents this season – the Strickland/Harper confrontation, and the one last month in which Boston Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes threw behind the head of Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado – the most prominent position player on both of the offending teams made no effort to hide their disgust at their own teammates’ actions.
In Boston, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia essentially disavowed Barnes’s purpose pitch, calling it a “mishandled situation.” And in San Francisco on Monday, Giants catcher Buster Posey stood behind home plate for a good five seconds as Harper charged the mound, rather than rush in between Harper and Strickland, as is expected of a catcher in that situation.
Pedroia and Posey apparently have grasped what Machado and Harper already innately know, and that the old-school holdouts will eventually need to acknowledge: It’s no longer necessary to define for younger players the right way to play the game. Their way, anymore, is the right way.
Steinberg: Bryce Harper started it
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