At the age of 16, Bryce Harper graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. He wowed us with moonshots launched out of Tropicana Field. We christened him the LeBron James of baseball, and that is what he was. Even as a teenager, it was evident that Harper had been groomed for superstardom in baseball, much like James was in basketball. Very rarely do these childhood phenoms live up to the hype, but Harper, like James, has. Entering the world of professional sports with outsized expectations and an equally outsized teenage personality, however, makes it very difficult for athletes like these two to go about their business without having every single movement, behavior, or decision torn apart viciously in the court of public opinion.
When Harper took center stage, he was an eye-black-wearing, whirling dervish with a Mohawk. His behavior was perfectly in line with that of the average American teenager. He played the game of baseball in an out-of-control fashion not uncommon to most high school athletes. He had yet to grow into his 6’3″ frame, but we still expected him to be the second coming of Mickey Mantle with a little bit of Barry Bonds thrown in for good measure. All of this came before he graduated high school.
Four years into his Major League Baseball career, we still don’t know what to make of Harper. In the minor leagues, Harper was knocked for playing too hard. He was mocked by some for “false hustle.” Harper’s intensity was somehow questioned after he went first-to-third on an infield groundball. On a hit-and-run, Harper kept right on going after rounding second, but somehow, this would become an example of an overly exuberant kid not playing the game the right way. Harper has injured himself multiple times running into the fence in pursuit of a fly ball. He’s been told to dial back his efforts in the field in order to preserve his body. The people who are willing to give this advice, however, are the same voices slamming him for not running out a pop-up to the shallow outfield. When Harper’s career began, he sprinted to first base on nearly every single ball. It was not uncommon to see his helmet laying in the basepath as he ran out an infield grounder. At the time, he was chided by many for it. Save your body, kid, they all said.
Bryce Harper cannot win. Eighteen-year-old Harper’s efforts were labeled “false hustle.” Now, when 22-year-old Bryce Harper jogs to first base in frustration the day after his team is eliminated from playoff contention, he’s not playing the game the right way. How hard should Harper run to first base? There does not seem to be a correct answer. Just a vague understanding that he should not run too fast or too slow, somewhere between full speed and jogging. Is 75.3-percent effort good enough for you folks? He should play hard in the outfield, but not so hard as to risk injury. There is not a single Major League player who runs out every fly ball or pop-up. If they did, most would be close to second base before the ball settled into the fielder’s mitt. There is a half-hearted jog to first base that is terminated after rounding the bag slightly and pointing oneself back to the dugout. The “playing the game the right way” crowd points to Harper, but could easily find someone else to pick on nearly every single night of the baseball season.
Harper and James are similar in many ways. Both are quietly charitable and have never even sniffed running afoul of the law. Yet, they are our favorite whipping boys whenever it is time to give a hot take. James became a villain after deciding to leave Cleveland for Miami despite the fact that his live announcement generated millions of dollars for charity. Even after leaving his hometown, James returned every summer and performed numerous charitable acts in Akron. That didn’t matter. He was still persona non grata and we delighted in his playoff failures. Most still wait eagerly for LeBron to choke every postseason. Harper hasn’t quite reached that level because he does not play a sport in which one player can impact the game so significantly. Still, Harper is labeled a punk in the minds of many people, and anonymous players sided with Jonathan Papelbon after the choking incident. Prior to this year, Harper would easily claim the title of most overrated player in the league despite doing things prior to the age of 22 that most players can barely dream of doing. With two 20-home run seasons by the age of 20, Harper was overrated. Harper leads the league in home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and walks. Somehow, we would like to give the MVP award to someone else because Harper did not do enough to elevate his teammates. How much more was Harper supposed to do? The entire Washington roster has been good for 19.7 oWAR this season. Harper is responsible for 8.9 of that number.
Harper will never be able to shake the label that followed him into baseball. He was christened a punk the moment he was drafted, for of all things, playing really, really hard and daring to be really, really good at a young age. Now, he’s a punk because he doesn’t always run really, really hard and he’s still really, really good at a young age. I’m oversimplifying things, of course. There are plenty of reasons Harper is labeled a punk. He is brash and says what is on his mind. He expects a lot from himself, and does not hide his disappointment when things don’t go his way. Harper wears his heart on his sleeve at all times. What’s so wrong with that? In a different era, Paul O’Neill‘s temper and perfectionist attitude were celebrated. Harper is a punk and a hothead, however, because he has the audacity to behave this way at the age of 22 instead of 32.
We supposedly want to connect with professional athletes and hear them utter more than the same recycled platitudes when a microphone is pushed in front of their face. Bryce Harper gives us that on a nearly nightly basis, but we don’t know how to handle it. We’ve always wanted our athletes to be raw, unfiltered people, but now that we’ve finally got one, we don’t know how to accept him.