New York Giants Manager John McGraw was once asked why he didn’t let Mel Ott earn his way to the major leagues instead of bringing the kid up to the Polo Grounds just a month after his 17th birthday.
“Cause I didn’t want some hack ruinin’ his swing,” McGraw replied. “No minor league manager is gonna ruin the talent that this kid has.”
Be it 1926 with Ott, 1951 with Mickey Mantle or 1989 with Ken Griffey, Jr., baseball has always had different rules for transcendent teenagers. And Bryce Harper is this generation’s transcendent teenager.
More for baseball’s sake than his own, Harper needs to represent the Washington Nationals at the Midsummer Classic. If he’s not a National League all-star this season, neither baseball nor its loyalists get it.
If the players did not vote Harper in, if Tony La Russa sticks to his crusty traditions and makes a nostalgia pick like Chipper Jones on Sunday instead of Harper — if the kid isn’t put on a left-off list and plucked by fans as a last-ditch effort — the grand, old game has no chance of attracting and keeping a contemporary fan base.
The argument is not whether Harper’s .274 batting average, eight home runs and 22 runs batted in are statistically deserving among baseball’s best players at the break.
The argument is why would anyone deprive viewers at home or fans attending the All-Star Game — who, let’s be clear, are taking in a showcase exhibition game — of the most exciting young talent in baseball during his breakout maiden season?
In this sports-is-entertainment world, that’s plain foolish. That’s letting Bill James and his numbers-crunching disciples dictate all-star worthiness by box score. If Harper doesn’t get in, baseball wasn’t celebrated; it was calibrated.
Really, who better exemplifies the “star” in all-star than Harper? Mike Trout, who doesn’t turn 21 until August, may well end up the American League MVP with his incredible debut season with the Angels. But does he have a puppy named “Swag”?
Baseball needs more swag. Bryce Harper is swag. He possesses that rare combination of grit and glam, of fire and flair.
In the most memorable play of this sublime and surprising Washington season, Harper stole home on Cole Hamels after the Phillies’ pitcher purposely plunked him. His mistakes — from running through hold signs, to guessing at pitches and on to his anger that equated to facial stitches — are born out of aggression and hustle.
In a league of so many automaton respondents, Harper is also refreshingly candid and authentic, unafraid to wear hairstyles belonging to bad punk bands that played before he was born, comfortable enough with his masculinity to have Justin Bieber croon his intro music at the plate. The kid just oozes charisma and star power. Born and reared in Las Vegas, it’s a wonder rhinestones aren’t affixed to his batting helmet.
Oh, and then there’s the player. Harper has already had the season that Ott, who grew up and hit more home runs than any NL player at the time, Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. had at 19.
Davey Johnson has used Harper at all three outfield positions for the Nationals and batted him in four different places in the lineup. Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond notwithstanding, he’s probably been the best everyday position player for a team that has flirted with the best record in baseball and has been driving the bus all season in the NL East.
His adrenaline and exuberance has been contagious in the clubhouse, a big reason why the Nats finally matter.
If he doesn’t show up in Kansas City, it’s a worse loss for baseball than Bryce Harper. If anyone even deigns to ask whether he should be there, there is only one worthy reply:
That’s a clown question, bro.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.