On a sticky New York City afternoon one July I found my 16-year-old self in an elevator with Bryce Harper.
It was shortly after the 2013 All Star Parade, and jeeps carrying players and their families rolled slowly down the avenues. And though everyone was wearing sunglasses, tailored pants and tight-fitting t-shirts, none could match the intangible aura of swag surrounding Bryce Harper — he could have been a movie star or a member of Maroon 5 just as easily as a young baseball sensation. And he knew that everyone in that elevator was staring at him, whether they knew he was a ballplayer or not.
Everyone knew he was somebody.
Anyone following sports media has witnessed the way Bryce Harper brings his elevator swagger to the baseball field — and how he has been equally scolded and praised for doing so. Most notably, on Opening Day this year Harper informally launched the “Make Baseball Fun Again” campaign, a rather self-explanatory movement to combat the stifling seriousness Harper believes has overshadowed the MLB in previous generations.
And baseball, as pointed out by sports writers, fans and players alike, is in need of an upgrade. Shortening playing time and encouraging offense may not be enough. If baseball is to survive, it must channel the Cam Newton mentality — the outrageously raw demonstrations that show how much players truly love the game.
But like Newton’s attitude, Harper’s movement risks crossing the thin line between entertaining banter and a lack of sportsmanship. Harper does so frequently — which makes the harmlessness of his banter come across as malicious rather than playful.
If Harper can earn back a little benefit of the doubt among the baseball community, his pranks and comments would be construed less as immature and more as comical and inoffensive.
Harper’s main problem is that his intentions don’t hold much credibility with the baseball community. Between his explosive displays of emotion and his many questionable on-field decisions, it is easy to see why Harper’s playful, harmless banter is often misconstrued.
He could start to gain credibility by reacquainting himself with a few quintessential but unwritten laws of baseball. It takes a lot, for example, to commit such a controversial act that writers take former Nats closer Jonathan Papelbon’s side over yours, as Papelbon is hated by media and clubhouses alike.
But when Papelbon publicly reprimanded Harper for not hustling out of the batters box last Sunday during a pop-out to left field, it was Harper’s disrespect for the game that came into question rather than Papelbon’s harsh disciplinary actions.
Its little things like these that paint Harper as a guy whose ego is bigger than his hair (and believe me, that is quite a feat to accomplish), and therefore cause the public to misinterpret certain actions that are, in fact, just in the spirit of good old competition.
Take Harper’s most recent controversy, in which he taunted Mets fans on Monday by pretending to throw a ball into the stands at the end of the first inning. Twitter exploded with attacks on Harper’s character, and many sportswriters denounced his rudeness to innocent fans.
One tweet even accused Harper of being worse than a woman who ripped a foul ball out of a child’s hands; a huge no-no in the baseball community.
Reds’ first baseman Joey Votto, however, has been taunting fans with souvenir balls all season, and almost no one has complained. In fact, it is customary for the fans themselves to throw an opposing players’ homerun ball back onto the outfield in protest of their success.
But because he’s Bryce Harper, that egocentric, classless young star, Harper’s most recent attempt to make baseball fun again was vehemently criticized. Because he sometimes doesn’t run hard, sometimes puts teammate disputes on display, sometimes throws equipment in anger, his lesser baseball transgressions add fuel to the hate-on-Harper fire.
And at that point, all attempts to make baseball fun again are lost.
Harper will never be a totally uncontroversial figure. There will always be baseball fans who believe complete and utter seriousness and humility is the only way for a ballplayer to carry himself. And Harper will never be that guy.
Bryce Harper can change baseball for the better. He just needs to figure out which unwritten rules should and shouldn’t be broken first.
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