Here it is finally, nearly halfway through the season: Bryce Harper is now not only threatening to be a very, very good ballplayer (a potential All Star, no less) — but a kind of franchise icon, a St. Paul of Washington, D.C. And like that same Paul of Tarsus, he is fast becoming all things to all people, a tabula rasa on which people write their every wish.
It can get embarrassing. Columnist Mark Judge, for instance, says that Harper is a symbol of American conservatism, a ballplayer whose throwback ways have “slapped baseball awake, and every time he steps up to the plate, years of crusty baseball routine no longer apply.” For others, those less ideological than Judge, Harper is baseball’s answer to Tim Tebow — while still others predict he’ll be baseball’s first $400 million man.
There are the dissenters (of course): those who think Harper should “grow up,” that he is (and the following adjectives have all been applied to him): “selfish,” “arrogant,” “immature,” and “idiotic.” And why? Because once upon a time, in frustration, he slammed a bat into a wall — an action reserved only, it seems, for the “mature.”
As always, and sadly, the cynics are threatening to capture the narrative. Harper, they would have us believe, is a nasty piece of work who says things not because he believes them, but for political effect. He talks modestly to cover his arrogance; he says that Chipper Jones should go to the All Star game because he knows that’s what he’s supposed to say.
But the cynics have got it wrong: Harper doesn’t sit around trying to play the public, he doesn’t know how. Rather, he does what all nineteen year olds do: he looks over his shoulder, he tries to fit in. Which is to say: Bryce Harper is a kid who happens to be very good at his game — and who is also wide-eyed and probably a little bit nervous. Sure handed on the field, nervous off it.
How can we tell? A fan who has met Harper told me that “the Kid” is, in fact, “a kid.” He’s the kind of guy who thinks “it’s cool” to be on a charter with the guys — headed to the next game — who spices up his sentences with that most insecure of all phrases (“ya know”) and who thinks Chipper Jones deserves to be on the All Star team because he really believes it.
Bryce Harper isn’t slowly or secretly “calculating” how to get rich and famous, or “optimize” his opportunities, or “enhance” his “brand,” or out think baseball reporters, or suck up to the manager, or undermine the fame of others — he’s sitting right over there, on the bench, trying to figure out how to hit Andy Pettitte’s slider. Bryce Harper isn’t arrogant, he’s guileless. He doesn’t need to grow up — we do.
Michael Wise caught some of this in a recent column he wrote on Harper, replacing the words “arrogant” and “idiotic” with far more accurate descriptives. Harper, he wrote, is “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.”
Too true. And then there’s this. Chipper Jones has been to the All Star game seven times, has been an N.L. MVP, wears a World Series ring and is on his way to the Hall Of Fame. He deserved his seven appearances, his MVP vote, and he’ll deserve his first ballot vote into the Hall. But like all players, in every era, he’s come to the end of the line.
So here’s our suggestion. At the All Star game in Kansas City, have Chipper throw out the first pitch, smile and wave to the crowd, and give him the standing ovation he deserves. And when he walks from the field, and into the National League dugout, he can shake Harper’s hand, as a symbol of the passing of baseball excellence from one generation to the next. Our bet is that Bryce Harper would be thrilled.