When Bryce Harper rounds second base, trying for a triple, his batting helmet rises off his head, and his spiky hair appears to push it up, until it pops off as he reaches escape velocity, and his hair flies free, and he becomes . . . Pete Rose. Then, like a 230-pound Charlie Hustle, Harper throws himself headfirst into third base, arriving amid dirt and photos.
But there’s a difference. From the age of 22 to 42, Rose never went on the 15-day disabled list, not even once, and in only one season did Rose ever miss 15 games. Rose had average speed, power, arm strength and battled many a groundball to a draw. But he could hit and was built like a Humvee. The game whispered in his ear, “There’s a lot that you can’t do. But you’re never going to get hurt playing this game with your hair on fire. So, give ’em hell.”
In my lifetime, there has been only one Rose. No one else could play like he did and come out a net winner vs. the risk of injury he welcomed and sometimes dealt out to others. He was made for it.
The game tells you how you can play it. You listen, and learn as you go. You don’t tell the game.
On Monday, two years to the day after Harper’s major league debut, news broke that the Nats outfielder needs surgery on his left thumb and will miss the next two months. The cause: Last Friday, Harper did the showy, risk-be-damned, headfirst Rose slide into third base, his triple driving in three runs for a 5-0 lead. That is reminiscent of last year, when he ran into the Dodger Stadium wall with a 6-0 lead, and akin to the way he needed two concussion tests on opening day after an over-amped takeout slide. So, the pattern continues. When does Harper learn? Will he learn too late? Is it just his baseball fate to be Bamm-Bamm, the guy with a bloody face because he hit himself in the head with his own bat in a dugout tantrum?
As kids we dream of how our heroes play their games and imagine ourselves as them, imitating their batting stances, their mannerisms. Harper wanted to be Mickey Mantle, George Brett or Rose with five tools. That’s all good and proper. But when we grow up, we learn that we must be ourselves. We don’t get to tell the world our fantasies, then live them precisely as we dream. The world tells us what’s possible and we adapt. For some of the most gifted, like Harper, maybe not much adaptation is needed. But you don’t get to tell the game what you’ll be. The game tells you. And you better listen.
In high school, Harper slid headfirst into a base and injured his left thumb. It still has “laxity.” Perhaps the game was whispering to him even then. Baseball hasn’t just been talking into Harper’s ear since he reached the big leagues. It’s been screaming about the level of eye-catching play that in his case is consistent with staying in one piece and having an outstanding career.
You can’t escape injury in pro sports. It finds you. If you don’t play hard, it seems to seek you out even more. But if you play too hard — too hard for you, not too hard for Rose or any other standard of measurement — you pay a relentless and rising price. This applies in every game. Robert Griffin III is going through his own variation of this education in the NFL: when to run, how to slide. But there is a difference. Griffin knows game situations, and no longer risks his body when it’s unnecessary. Harper’s just 21. He doesn’t know every baseball subtlety yet. But the first game situation is “know the score.”
“Bryce is out of control,” one veteran Nat said last weekend, with more concern than criticism.
How do you learn what risks to take and which to avoid? You pay attention. There will be countless times when Harper needs to score a vital run or break up a double play. And he’ll have injuries. But don’t invite them.
Ten days ago Harper was pulled from a game for “inability to run 90 feet” to first base. This is not a “hustle” issue. It’s just a demand for minimum professional effort whether you feel like it or not. Hustle is about giving more than a merely satisfactory effort. Fans can be excused for sounding silly when they say, “Well, should he run hard or shouldn’t he?” Anybody can run out a grounder, though not always at Olympic dash speed. And every player needs to figure out how to manage risk so he can stay on the field. Some, like Pete Reiser long ago, just can’t or won’t. They can be romantic figures. But they have short careers.
The Nationals are aiding and abetting this young-stud-hoss act. “I think it’s bad luck,” said Manager Matt Williams. “Guys slide headfirst all the time. You can’t question that. You can’t question the way the kid plays the game.”
Of course you can.
Nobody should be patted on the back for a headfirst slide in a 5-0 game. It’s not “wrong.” Plenty of players do it. (Not many of them weigh 230 pounds.) But it’s risky. It wasn’t risky for Rose. It is for Harper. He’s not indestructible. Just the opposite. That’s not up for discussion anymore. Last May he tried to come back too soon from injury three times and hurt himself more each time. This April, he’s missed time because of three different injuries already. Case closed.
In every way — but two — Harper is an exemplary young player. Sometimes he gets in a funk when he fails and doesn’t give a big-league effort. For a 21-year-old, that’s a pimple-sized problem. However, Harper’s other problem is potentially enormous. He has built his brand, his image, his own self-image and his outsize fame on a style of hell-bent play as well as on his actual ability to play.
And that style, especially employed indiscriminately, does not work for him.
Harper is going to play hard and he’ll have more injuries. But how hard and when? How many more injuries and at what price? Baseball is speaking. Or, perhaps, just say that life experience is trying to get a young man’s attention. How long will he continue to ignore it?
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.