You know what should put Bryce Harper over the top for MVP this season? It’s not his National League-best batting average through Tuesday night. It’s not his NL-co-leading 41 home runs. It’s not even that his 2015 campaign is rivaling the greatest seasons ever produced from Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
What should put Harper over the top aren’t statistics of staggering proportions but, instead, what he dared to do for baseball with the audacity of his words. Specifically: “Manny freakin’ hit a homer, walked it off and somebody drilled him. It’s pretty tired.”
That truth that Harper uttered a week ago was aimed in particular at his new — and hopefully short-lived — teammate, veteran reliever and rabble-rouser Jonathan Papelbon, after Papelbon hurled a baseball upward of 90 mph quite purposefully near Orioles slugger Manny Machado’s head.
But Harper’s phraseology blanketed the rest of baseball, too.
Papelbon turned a baseball into a projectile weapon against Machado as retribution for Machado having done his job in a previous at-bat, hitting a home run, and then admiring his handiwork in a manner Papelbon deemed a violation of baseball code. In other words, Papelbon instigated what the rest of us would consider wherever we toil as workplace violence, punishable certainly by firing and possibly by law. But not in baseball.
Maybe this is why baseball has unwritten rules in the first place. Who would want to take blame of authorship for so much foolishness if it was recorded for perpetuity with ink on paper?
It’s about time a star baseball player stood up to it and said enough, as Harper did, no matter that it was his teammate who invoked the rule. With teammates like that, Harper doesn’t need opponents. As he further observed after Papelbon’s attempted beaning of Machado, “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”
This is the most inane of baseball’s unwritten rules, an oral catalogue of do’s and don’ts that are at best nonsensical and at worst, as in this case, life-threatening. (And in the past, at least one was racist, baseball’s six-decades-old unwritten rule not to allow the progeny of enslaved Africans to play its game.) Indeed, it was 10 years ago this month when a pitch from Julian Tavarez struck Mike Piazza in the head, shattering his helmet and leaving him concussed. Twenty years ago this week, pitcher Dennis Martinez hit the late Twins Hall of Fame center fielder Kirby Puckett in the cheek with a fastball that broke Puckett’s jaw and effectively ended his career.
That Cleveland’s Ray Chapman in 1920, long before the advent of helmets, remains the only major leaguer killed by a pitched ball, which struck him in the head, is really the game’s most remarkable streak. Why the bigger, stronger pitcher in today’s game would want to flaunt that dumb luck is beyond me — and Harper, apparently. It’s admirable that he dared to challenge it.
What Harper proved in the past week was that he’s more mature at 22 than all the players much older than him who support ridiculous restrictions and punishments for how success can be celebrated in the field of play or at what age one can celebrate at all. Take, for example, popular 42-year-old Toronto relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins. After reading retired pitcher C.J. Nitkowski’s “Just a Bit Outside” column for Fox defending Papelbon and chastising Harper, Hawkins tweeted in response to Nitkowski: “loved the article CJ, Pap will take a beating for this from everyone who doesn’t play the game. #EntitlementGeneration”
Well, Harper is playing the game at a level Hawkins and Nitkowski can only imagine. But he earned his right to his opinion the moment he autographed his first major league contract.
This wasn’t about entitlement. This was about enlightenment.
Harper doesn’t look like a ballplayer who would so overtly reject such terrible tenets of the game. When he seemed to be most on top of his game this season, he sported high socks that harkened back to 19th century baseball or stirrups that were popularized in the 1940s. His coiffure of choice over the summer looked like a barber from the prohibition-era HBO drama “Boardwalk Empire” cut it.
His father, Ron, emphatically claimed to The Washington Post a few springs ago, as Bryce prepared to break into the big leagues as a teenager, that his son was “ an old-school player. Damn right he is.”
But that doesn’t mean he has to be stupid and tacitly endorse a way of playing that includes elements that threaten his livelihood, if not more. He has a fearless way of thinking for himself and implementing reason where unreasonableness has been the norm. He doesn’t demonstrate a need to valorize his masculinity by basebrawling or hiding the fact he loves to eat avocado-and-cucumber sandwiches.
Let us not forget that Harper was baptized by fire — being struck on purpose as a 19-year-old by veteran Cole Hamels. Why? “That’s something I grew up watching. That’s kind of what happened,” Hamels explained in the aftermath of that moment three seasons ago. “I’m just trying to continue the old baseball because I think some people are kind of getting away from it.”
Harper all but said he would like the game to evolve from beanbrawl after only 135 years. So, too, one would suspect, would fellow under-25 stars such as Mike Trout and Kris Bryant, who are also everyday position players who run the risk of suffering the consequences of hotheaded pitchers or those who blindly accept the game’s old testament. And what do pitchers care anyway? They’re in the clear because either they don’t bat because of the designated hitter or maintain a particularly cowardly unwritten rule of their own (excused by the idea that pitchers are near automatic outs) not to throw at each other.
What Harper did was call beanballing what it is, trite and pointless. That’s brave in a sport so steeped in tradition for tradition’s sake that confuses masculinity with firing baseballs at guys with the intent of inflicting pain. It’s not unlike Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden more than 30 years ago in his book, “The Game,” pointing out how unnecessary and gratuitous fighting was in pro hockey and calling for its end.
But baseball still has too few Harpers and too many Papelbons, the latter of whom mustered the unmitigated gall to perch himself on the dugout stoop like a manager on Sunday to demonstrate his exception to Harper’s criticism of his hardheadedness in “plunking,” as baseball parlance says, Machado. Papelbon barked at Harper — in the penultimate week of a lost season — for not running out a pop fly, another unwritten rule.
Harper took exception, as well he should, after what was his 148th game of the season. Papelbon then attempted to pull Harper’s head out of his torso.
The Nationals on Monday effectively kicked Papelbon off the team for the rest of the season. But the club also sat Harper for Monday afternoon’s game as punishment, claiming he had some role in Papelbon’s outrageous outburst.
If the Whistleblower Protection Act doesn’t protect Harper, good sense should.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.
More on the Nationals:
Destiny Denied, Part I: With expectations high, the Nats stumble early
Destiny Denied, Part II: Harper breaks out, teammates break down
Destiny Denied, Part III: Nats get their closer — and then they fall apart