Does it really matter if Bryce Harper runs hard to first base?

In last night’s 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals (a must-win game if ever there was one), Washington Nationals’ superstar Bryce Harper left the game after popping out to second base in the fourth inning. He jogged slightly disgustedly up the first base line, not making it very far before the ball settled into Kolten Wong‘s glove. Harper returned to the batter’s box, picked up his bat, and returned to the dugout. He said something in passing to his manager Matt Williams before heading off to the clubhouse. Matt den Dekker replaced Harper in the field the next inning.

Take a look at the play here:

This series of events, of course, set off a firestorm of speculation on the Twittersphere. On Twitter, it is always better to dive right in with a hot take. Why wait for the facts to emerge when you can tweet now and ask questions later? Most assuredly, Harper had been removed for failure to make a strong effort to run to first base on a lazy popup. This was the type of knee-jerk reaction that would spell an end to Williams’ tenure as Nationals’ manager. At least, that’s how Twitter told the story.

The Nationals, to their credit, cut this story off before it could really spread. Washington’s policy is typically not to discuss player injuries in the middle of the game, but the team came to the defense of Harper and Williams by confirming that Harper had left the game with a glute injury (insert generic “Tiger Woods glutes not activating joke” here). It was an injury that Harper had been dealing with after landing awkwardly on first base in the seventh inning during Wednesday’s 8-5 loss. He was trying to play through the injury, but could not shake its effects.

That the situation even turned into a debate of whether Harper’s manager elected to bench him for not running out an infield fly is one of the more ludicrous things in baseball. Running every single ball out remains seen as a mandatory duty for Major League players, even when that ball has been hit roughly 90 feet and directly at a fielder. Please, spare me the argument that anything can happen. I have a better chance of winning the lottery than Kolten Wong had dropping the popup.

Part of me has never really had a problem with players disgustedly jogging out weak popouts or tappers back to the mound. I was once removed from a Little League game for making a left turn straight for the dugout after grounding out to the pitcher. I also threw my fair share of helmets and bats after poor at-bats. I did not do this because I saw a Major League player do it on TV, though they do it often. I would not have been more compelled to sprint to first base because my heroes in the big league did it. No, baseball is a frustrating game, and sometimes human emotion takes over. That frustration is the same whether or not you are a ten-year veteran in the Majors being paid $5 million a year or a ten-year-old Little Leaguer motivated only by the post-game slushie.

This debate could not have centered around a bigger lightning rod for debate than Harper. The Internet lies in wait, ready to pounce on the slightest misstep from the boy-wonder. It’s been that way since Harper debuted as a 19-year-old with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Harper has been booed, ridiculed, voted the most overrated player by his peers, and yes, removed from a game for not hustling on more than one occasion. He’s also been called out for “false” hustle. Can he do anything right? Play too hard, and Harper is deemed to be putting on a show. Show a little frustration and emotion, and the world is ready to label him a lazy, immature, entitled brat who can’t be bothered to run to first base.

I chose the cover image for this post for a reason. In the photo, Harper rounds third, and approaches the plate, sans helmet. On the play, Harper had scored from first base on a Ryan Zimmerman double. He just barely beat the throw with a headfirst dive (still without helmet).

There are a lot of things to question about Bryce Harper. Maybe he does chirp at the umpires too much or run his mouth, but there is one thing that can never be questioned about him — his effort. Bryce Harper plays the game the right way. He is willing at all times to crash into a wall. He runs with reckless abandon on the basepaths. He shows passion and raw emotion on the field, something that would likely make him loved had he not been labeled a hot-head from the moment he was drafted. The Harper hate will likely never end, and there is little he can do about it. At this point, you either like him or you don’t. For many reasons, Harper is a polarizing figure, but an abbreviated run to first base on a popup should never be one of them.

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