Bryce Harper has picked a baseball scab and, aside from mashing fastballs, that’s what he’s best at. The Nats superstar speaks brashly and carries a big stick. He has challenged conventional wisdom in a very conventional sport from the moment he broke in.
The early hype immediately put a target on his back. Peyton Manning can be labeled a franchise savior the moment he walks onto a college campus. Lebron James graced Sports Illustrated still in high school. Even Sidney Crosby was tabbed as The Next Great One while still clearing acne. But baseball? Nah, kids aren’t supposed to get that treatment.
Except for Harper. He was just 16 years old, the same age he could apply for a driver’s permit in his home state of Nevada, and already titled The Chosen One on the cover of SI. So yeah, when he walked into a big league clubhouse for the first time or stepped to the dish against a 30-year-old vet, there was little love for the phenom, and even less patience for his act. That act being a self-assured, swag-happy slugger who didn’t quite care what anyone thought.
Now he’s clearly one of the best players in the game and he’s challenging the sport’s entire culture publicly. People don’t want to listen because they don’t like the source, but he has a point. Harper told ESPN, “Baseball’s tired. It’s a tired sport because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do.” Even though seam heads don’t want to hear it, The Bryce is Right. Baseball is protected by the old guard and institutes a set of “unwritten rules” that prevents any player from bringing too much personality to the diamond.
Harper was quick to point out he doesn’t think his sport is a bad product. “I’m not saying baseball, you know, is boring, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair.” Baseball doesn’t suck. While football and basketball have eaten into baseball’s dominance over the last forty years, MLB is doing quite fine, thank you. The league is flush with cash, dollar bills sticking out of all 30 owners’ pockets. One-hundred-and-sixty-two nights of content over the spring and summer are some of the most valuable television commodities available, so team, regional, and local networks are cutting checks usually reserved for Warren Buffett’s airplane shopping.
Head to any baseball stadium in America, big or small, city or country, and you’ll find kids. Young people are bringing their glove, dropping their ice cream cones, and counting clouds at the ballpark every night. But are they playing? If you want to shimmy like Steph, dab like Cam, or flex like J.J. Watt, baseball doesn’t have a place for you. “You want kids to play the game, right?,” asks Harper. “What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players – Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton – I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic.”
Personally, I love baseball. I could go out to the park on any night and find myself entranced for three hours. It’s still a beautiful, melodic rhythm to me. But I’m also closer to 40 than 30, my first email address was in college, and I find extensive celebration to be a tad exhausting. The whole point is to make sure it’s not just old heads who enjoy the game. MLB has the demographics of a bocce court. You need young people playing so that the geezers have someone to watch in our khakis and JC Penny sweaters.
Critics tend to shred Bud Selig at every turn for being dated and stuck in the past. However, that’s a very superficial narrative. Selg looked old, with his sloppy hair, librarian glasses, and wrinkled suits. But he actually pushed forward some of the game’s biggest modernizations. Interleague, Wild Card, the stadium boom, and revenue sharing all happened with his elbow grease.
Those are not the things pushing kids away from playing. It’s the players’ coda and the punishment meted out once you show some personality. Jose Bautista flipped his bat in one of the most dramatic playoff moments in recent baseball memory, and he may as well have banned puppy videos from Instagram. Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage called him a “(bleep)ing disgrace to the game” this week.
The problem is baseball’s line is too hypocritical, arbitrary and gray. Joe Carter can rightfully dance around the bases. Carlton Fisk can excitedly wave his ball fair. But flip the bat? Sorry, a bridge too far. Is a brush back pitch, like 20-year-old Noah Syndergaard used in the World Series, bush league or old school? The Royals felt it was the former, even though their very own Yordani Ventura utilized it all season. The line is forever blurred in baseball.
Michael Jordan can hold his hand up after beating the Jazz and it’s art. Jared Allen’s cattle-rope sack dance is fun. Drew Stanton’s freak out and Monmouth’s orchestrated Bench Mob dances are Vine videos played on loop forever. But slowly enjoying a homerun trot? Pump your first after a strikeout? You’re getting a hot one in the earhole next time up, son.
Harper is right. The game is still incredible. The players more gifted than ever. The sport is financially robust. But the archaic and capricious way its unwritten rules are governed keeps it stuck glumly in the past, like a dusty Walkman in a Goodwill store. You may not like his approach, but Harper’s message is accurate. Baseball should be more fun, less business. No one wants a party to end, but we all can’t wait to get out of work.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY