Over at ESPN today, they published a feature on Bryce Harper. It’s really good, and you should read the whole thing, but there’s one section that stands out; the part where the story shifts from the view of Harper as a person or a player, and to his view of baseball needs to evolve.
He wants to change the game. He wants to change the perception of baseball players, to become a single-name icon like LeBron and Beckham and Cam. “I don’t know much about Bryce,” says his new manager, Dusty Baker, “but I know he’s one of the hippest kids around.” Harper wants to elevate his sport’s profile through his play, through his fashion, through the charisma of his personality, maybe even through the fascination with the size of the first free agent contract ($400 million? $500 million?) that he’ll sign shortly after his 26th birthday. Is this a prodigy’s natural urge to innovate or a sign of youthful hubris?
“Endorsements, fashion — it’s something baseball doesn’t see,” he says. “In soccer, it’s Beckham or Ronaldo. In basketball, it’s Curry and LeBron. In football, it’s Cam. Football and basketball have such good fashion.”
There are impediments endemic to the sport. Everyone knows about Russell Westbrook’s unique couture because he’s wearing it in an interview room. The baseball player, on the other hand, is interviewed at his locker, often shirtless and sporting a hat head that can ruin even Harper’s unique follicle landscaping. As Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman says, “We’re uniformed personnel.”
And then there’s the larger obstacle: the game’s stern code. Case in point: Papelbon vs. Harper. It started when Orioles third baseman Manny Machado hit a home run against the Nationals last September and reacted with too much excitement, so Jonathan Papelbon drilled him the next time Machado came to bat, which caused Harper to suggest to reporters that baseball’s code is “tired,” which led to Papelbon berating and then choking Harper four days later after the closer found his teammate’s hustle lacking — a Rube Goldberg display of baseball’s grim underside.
Harper has admitted fault in going to reporters instead of speaking to Papelbon directly (“If I had a problem with Pap, I should have gone up to Pap,” he says), and both men say it didn’t last beyond that day. But that’s not what Harper wants to talk about now.
“Baseball’s tired,” he says. “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. If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.
“Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn’t care. Because you got him. That’s part of the game. It’s not the old feeling — hoorah … if you pimp a homer, I’m going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot … I mean — sorry.”
He stops, looks around. The hell with it, he’s all in.
“If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I’m going to go, ‘Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.’ That’s what makes the game fun. You want kids to play the game, right? 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.”
Harper is right. You know what is probably the most enduring memory of the 2015 season?
The Blue Jays didn’t win the World Series, but that memory endures in a way that the final out of the season and the ensuing celebration does not. Bautista’s home run was about as high-energy as baseball gets, as close to the raucous celebrations we see at football games around the world. It was an explosion of energy, and Bautista’s flair only added to the moment. Would we have remembered that home run the same way had he simply put his head down and jogged around the bases? Maybe, though there were a bunch of other home runs hit in the postseason, and that’s the only one I can easily recall off the top of my head.
Of course, there were a lot of people who didn’t like Bautista’s actions, and there will be a lot of people who don’t like Harper’s comments. The long-held beliefs about respecting the game and not showing up your opponents aren’t going to cede their positions easily, and it’s not so easy for one guy to simply inject flair into baseball. Even if we agree that baseball would be better off promoting charisma instead of enforcing a lack of emotion, the system isn’t setup to change easily.
But perhaps Harper has a chance to influence the game’s culture in a way that others have not. Harper specifically referenced Jose Fernandez, who has no problem showing his emotions on the field, and even does stuff like this.
Others name-checked by Harper as being fun and good for the game include Manny Machado (Dominican-American), Andrew McCutchen (African-American), and Yasiel Puig (Cuban). When he mentions the players in other sports whom he wants to emulate, he rattles off a list of guys who are mostly not white. While I’m reticent to generalized based on skin color, I do think it’s fair to say that the culture of baseball Harper is critiquing is driven mostly by Caucasians, and other cultures around the world don’t share the same social norms when it comes to the sport.
And we get a great look at this every few years, when the World Baseball Classic is held on U.S. soil, only the atmospheres at the game are very different than what you see in most regular season MLB games.
The game of baseball itself isn’t inherently stodgy, and when played by people raised in other cultures, it is often raucous. But when those players come to the U.S., they are expected to act like their white teammates and are discouraged from showing emotion in the same way. And while it’s a poor commentary on the current state of some factions of the country, a let’s-do-this-differently message probably won’t be received as well from a Jose Fernandez or a Yasiel Puig as it might be from a Bryce Harper.
Maybe Harper is still too brash to be accepted by the older generation of baseball fans, and it’s certainly possible his personality will end up leading him down the path traveled by Barry Bonds; a great player who ends up playing the role of the villain to fans of the other 29 teams. But the more players like Harper speak up, the more white players reject the cultural norms that suggest a guy who shows emotion deserves a fastball in the back, the better the chances that the game does evolve, rather than simply splitting into cultural camps where fans choose to root for players who look and act like they do.
While I do think there are reasonable lines to be drawn, and that respecting your opponents is a virtue, I’m with Harper on the game’s unwritten rules being tired and outdated. Baseball needs more guys like Jose Fernandez, not fewer, and things like Bautista firing his bat into the air are good for the game. Emotion, passion, and energy make the game more enjoyable. Bryce Harper makes the game more enjoyable. Here’s to hoping he’s successful in not only having one of the great careers in baseball history, but in encouraging more Caucasians to see the game as entertainment rather than an opportunity to take some kind of made-up moral high-ground.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.