When is Bryce Harper going to learn to shut up?
Get accustomed to Harper elaborating on his comments, not walking them back. This past week, he said he stands by his quips — just good-natured, confident fun — in a Sports Illustrated story. He shared the cover with $210 million free agent Max Scherzer, who, to Harper, looks like the perfect World Series ring bearer.
In his seventh year in the national public eye, in his fourth season in the big leagues and past his 22nd birthday, Harper isn’t going to change and shouldn’t. Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty nails it when he says, “The individual makes the player. Your personality is how you play. So, you have to be yourself.”
“The days of ‘he’s only 19, 20, 21,’ are about over now,” says reliever Craig Stammen. “This is who Harp is. I’m good with it. He’s one person who isn’t afraid of the lights. Even for a national TV game in midseason, he’s extra amped. He wants the big stage. We need that, because it sure seems like he enjoys October.”
Nine playoff games: one double, one triple, four home runs. Looks that way.
Baseball has been home to huge personalities, some stars, some flops, for 150 years. It’s that wonderful contradiction in terms: the individual team game. You needn’t trim your sails much. Young Dizzy Dean made up a different life story for every writer. But he was the star in all of them.
If Harper produces, he’ll light up the sport. He’ll be loved — and hated, too — as all of baseball’s outsized personalities have always been. Take the 18 best everyday players in history by wins above replacement. Eight of them are Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Alex Rodriguez, Rickey Henderson and Frank Robinson.
What a bunch of obsessives, look-at-me narcissists, hedonists, cheaters, flamboyant stylists and men ready to throw a right cross. Since age 16, Harper has said publicly he wants to join them. He might.
His slash line (.272/.351/.465) resembles another football-physiqued, light-tower-powered controversial outfielder: Reggie Jackson (.262/.356/.490). Harper has 55 homers. At the same age, “The Straw That Stirs the Drink” had one.
There’s a much longer list of would-be Babes and Mr. Octobers. We just don’t remember their names. If Harper doesn’t produce, he’ll merely have a brighter spotlight when he’s exposed. No sport is as relentlessly reality-tested as baseball. You don’t need anybody to protect your blind side or feed you the ball. It’s on you.
From GM Mike Rizzo through Manager Matt Williams to players in the clubhouse, there has been a general lining-up behind Harper this spring. Certainly in public. After his three playoff homers, when no other Nat except Anthony Rendon produced anything, there’s a rewrite of the Harper script: This year is Bryce’s coming-out party. Get on board.
Twice, Williams, who benched him last year for not running to first base, volunteered that Harper is headed to Cooperstown. And he didn’t mean by bus.
Long ago, when Harper gave the impression that he would not be at a certain minor league way station for long, a team authority figure explained to him the value of behavior modification in teenagers: By MLB rule, he could be kept in the minors for many years. Such days of chastising are barely remembered now.
The better the Nats get, the more they’re resented inside the game. Harper is the symbol of their supposed bravado and entitlement. So they can embrace him or reject themselves.
“Funny how that works — the more you win, the less other teams like you,” Stammen says. “And we probably don’t like the teams that have beaten us.”
Harper is the lightning rod for all nattering at the Nats. So, whether wonderful or traumatic, their fates are tied now. In past years, a few teammates muttered (anonymously) that Harper lost focus at times and that, even though he’s missed 102 games with injuries the past two years, he kept talking as though he’d never been marked absent. After his NLDS performance against the Giants, that seems to have submerged.
“This game has always been loaded with men with big personalities. Some actually were bad guys,” says McCatty. “Cobb went into the stands and beat the hell out of a [heckler]. . . . Think Ty had a character flaw?
“But most of ’em are exuberant, harmless. Inside the clubhouse, they aren’t a problem. Bryce is a fine young man. I’ve never heard him brag — except about his team. He’s confident of his talent, but as a person, he’s modest.”
Then the coach shakes his head. “But, sometimes, Harp just says things. Like that stuff about the ring — it’s not really bad. But he does have flair.”
Team mantra: He’s our hot dog. Stop grousing and pass the ketchup.
“This is a big year for Harp,” says clubhouse thermostat Ryan Zimmerman. “It’s time for him to stay healthy and do the things he can do. He says so himself. The standards he and everybody sets sights on — hit .300, 30 homers, 100 RBI, those things are hard,” adds Zimmerman, who has done them. “I think he can do it.”
Harper is always going to be an acquired taste. Enjoy him, if you want. I grew up on Muhammad Ali and loved it when Reggie said, “It was an insurance run, so I hit it halfway to the Prudential Building.” Who’d dislike Pete Rose for saying he’d just signed a contract for “so much money a show horse couldn’t jump over it.” I cringed, but also laughed, when Dave Parker explained that he was wearing a Star of David because “my name is David and I’m a star.” It’s part of baseball’s grain.
Hate Harper, and “the ring” that he definitely hasn’t gotten yet, if you want. This is an era that relishes roasting young athletes who adopt the tone of superstars, or champions, before they actually are — even talents as big as LeBron James. Robert Griffin III lives with that backlash every day.
How will the Harper story end? There’s certainly a Nats-preferred version.
“There’s a line in an old TV show — ‘The Guns of Will Sonnett’ — that makes me think of Harper,” says McCatty. “Somebody asks [actor] Walter Brennan if Sonnett is really as fast on the draw as his reputation.”
And what does Brennan reply?
“No brag, just fact.”
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.