Baseball star Bryce Harper and the tired state of the game

by Sam Stockton | 3/27/16 6:16pm

Since appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old high school baseball prodigy, Bryce Harper has been one of the most polarizing figures in American sports. Some, like Tom Verducci, who profiled him for that Sports Illustrated cover, have billed him as a prodigy — “baseball’s Lebron [James].” Others, like Mike Wise of The Washington Post, have referred to him as immature and entitled.

At just 23 years old, Harper has stirred up controversies by blowing kisses at pitchers while playing with the single-A Hagerstown Suns, publicly questioning his manager’s line-up choices, and being choked out by teammate Jonathan Papelbon in the dugout. But despite all that controversy, last year Harper became the third youngest player to take home the National League Most Valuable Player award on the strength of a dominant season with 42 home runs, 99 RBI and a slash line of .330/.460/.649. The latest controversy involving the Nationals’ outfielder stems from comments he made to ESPN The Magazine’s Tim Keown.

“Baseball’s tired,” Harper said in the March 10 feature. “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair.”

From the moment it was released, Keown’s article prompted a referendum on the state of Major League Baseball. Hall-of-Famers and current all-stars alike offered their own take on Harper’s remarks.

Richard “Goose” Gossage, a Hall of Fame pitcher, ridiculed players that are prone to show emotions such as Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, who notably flipped his bat after a three-run shot in a decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers this past season. Gossage referred to Bautista as a “disgrace to the game” in an interview with ESPN, saying Bautista embarrassed “all the Latin players, whoever played before him.” Gossage, representative of an older vein of thought, would like to see a league where pitchers can throw at batters who offend them, batters quietly sprint around the bases after a homer and pitchers act like they’ve been there before after a strikeout, as the old adage goes.

However, more modern players have pushed back against Gossage and the old guard of professional baseball. Both David Ortiz and Derek Jeter, perhaps the two most notable ballplayers of the 21st century, supported Harper’s movement for a more fun MLB. During ESPN’s broadcast of the Tampa Bay Rays’ historic game against the Cuban national team, Jeter pointed out that the game is evolving and encouraged young players to show their personalities. Ortiz, in an interview with The Boston Globe, pointed out that most of the people who criticize home run celebrations, have seldom actually hit one.

“You don’t know that feeling,” he said in a March 20 feature. “You don’t know what it takes to hit a homer off a guy who throws 95 miles per hour. You don’t know anything about it.”

On the other hand, Harper’s biggest rival for the “face of the MLB,” Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Mike Trout, stated that he has always tried to avoid any kind of disrespect towards his opponents.

The fact of the matter is that Harper, however unlikable, is correct. He aptly points to athletes in other sports such as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who boasts a celebrity that exceeds any professional baseball player. While Newton has faced some criticism for his flashy style of play, he has become one of the pre-eminent stars in a league full of them thanks to that flashiness. To watch the Panther’s quarterback is to watch someone who brings something that seems to be in short supply in other sports — fun. Newton plays the game well and enjoys doing it. Trout on the other hand, however well he may play, will never be a superstar in the same way. Trout’s leaping home-run robs may be impressive, but Trout the person is boring.

In recent years, the MLB’s popularity has dwindled. Fans of professional sports are bored with unwritten rules, stoicism and modesty, genuine or otherwise. They show up to stadiums and arenas to see Newton dancing in the end zone, Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin leaping into the glass after scoring a big goal, or Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry draining a buzzer-beater. They don’t come to see Gossage strike someone out and then walk to the dugout as if he didn’t even care. No one wants to watch a press conference in which Trout humbly defers credit to his teammates.

It is time for baseball, and the rest of the world of professional sports, to embrace its new generation and allow for them to turn the game into what they want it to be. Gossage’s era, a great one for the sport, is over. Now it is time for the game’s young and exciting stars, Harper among them, to transform the game.

When Bautista smashes a home run that puts his team on the brink of the World Series, why shouldn’t he celebrate? As Ortiz pointed out, if you don’t want a player showboating after a big hit, don’t let him get the hit in the first place.