November 29, 2014

Mike Trout and Bryce Harper: Pat Boone and Elvis

April 23, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Mike Trout is all smiles everywhere he goes at Nationals Park, whether it is during the game as he settles at first base after a single, or in the dugout with his team mate Albert Pujols, who has just hit his 500th home run–congrats big fellow. Bryce Harper by contrast has found little to smile about early in the 2014 season. His manager benched him for lack of hustle, his batting average is well below .300, and he has but a single home run.

Trout has the All-American boy persona that Mickey Mantle captured so well in the early 1950’s and the comparison has been made frequently, though Trout’s gaudy numbers during his first three seasons have it all over Mantle. Trout has hit thirty home runs, stolen 49 bases and his career batting average is .313. Many would argue that he deserved the Most Valuable Player Award in both 2012 and 2013. By comparison, the Mick did not hit his stride for several seasons and the only thing he led the league in early on was strikeouts.

Bryce Harper has put up numbers more like the Mick in his first few seasons, good but not yet great. He was Rookie of the Year in 2012 like Trout, but he did not run away with the award like his American League counterpart. Harper is fourteen months younger than Trout, but it is becoming apparent that even with the age difference, it is going to take Harper longer to grow into his immense capacity for baseball than it did Trout.

Mickey Mantle was special, but Mike Trout is more than special and what is most amazing is how well he wears it, at least for all outward appearances. In appearance he is a big, fast guy more with the build of a running back like Bo Jackson. But it is that campus hero image that he is burnishing and in that he is quite different from Bryce Harper. The latter glowers as often as he smiles, though when he hits one over the wall, he exudes the same exuberance as the Mick once did.

But Trout has those gleaming white teeth that remind me more of Pat Boone than anyone else, and if Trout had gone to college, he would fill out his Letterman Sweater and the girls would swoon like they once did for the last of the great crooners, Mr. Argyle Elegance himself. Harper has none of that Joe College appeal. He was all Charlie Hustle in his first season in Washington, DC. The Nationals were struggling after there face plate, Ryan Zimmerman, started slow and went on the DL. Wilson Ramos tore up his knee and like a super hero, Bryce Harper flew to the rescue. Like Superman, “the Kid” put his finger in the socket and all the necessary energy flowed into the team as he propelled the team to their best finish ever.

Harper dared opposing outfielders to dawdle when he raked a single their way. He would take second if there was the slightest nonchalance and he would get up from the dirt smacking his hands together in delight. That daring won him a reputation that did not sit well with more established players. He was brash and bold, no Pat Boone to Bryce Harper. No, he was all Elvis. Elvis drew on the sexual and racial energy of southern blues singers and part of that is certainly missing from Harper. Indeed, one wonders if a big weekend romp with Keith Richards might be just what the doctor ordered for the moody Harper.

It is that racial energy that Elvis drew upon that is reminiscent of Harper. The brashness of a Carlos Gomez has more to do with Harper’s style of play and the reaction of baseball to Gomez and Harper is quite the same. Brian McCann called Gomez out for his styling around the bases in the same way that the Braves called out Harper for a similar home run trot. The recent kerfluffle of Gomez and Gerrit Cole shows a Carlos Gomez still feeding on that energy, while Bryce Harper may be trying to put the genii back in the bottle. There in may lie the mistake.

One thinks back to Reggie Jackson when drawing comparisons to Bryce Harper. The “In-your-face” quality of Harper’s play calls to mind Satchel Paige and other players who could not be put in a box and told to, “play like everyone else.” Many of those players are African-Americans, though Ty Cobb probably belongs at the same counter with them, all irony intended.

But I would argue that if Bryce Harper is going to succeed, then he needs to loose his inner demons and go all Keith Richards on the baseball world. He respects the game and plays it by the book and it may be the effort to conform to other people’s expectations that is holding him back. I think we saw the real Bryce Harper back in 2012 when he was running full tilt like a demon around the base paths. He has learned that he cannot run through walls, but he needs to understand that maybe he needs to try every once in a while if only to keep himself sharp.

In the end Elvis had more of an impact on the world of music than Pat Boone. He allowed white kids their first chance to experience the libidinal power of the pulsing bass line behind the blues, the thumping drum beat that originated in Africa. Bryce Harper may yet make the brash style of play of international talents like Carlos Gomez acceptable to American kids of all stripes. It won’t be tomorrow. No, white culture still rules baseball and we have their standards to uphold. And maybe Bryce is too repressed to lead the charge.

But I am pulling for the inner Bryce, the guy who first brought electricity to Washington baseball. If he can find that player again, the sky is the limit. Mike Trout has a great future as a ball player and I have all the respect for him in the world. But it comes too easy for him.Years from now he will be selling reverse mortgages or motorized wheel chairs. All the best to him. But Bryce has a chance, just like with Carlos Gomez, to bring a raw edgy excitement to the game and we would do well to let all of them play their game. We would do well to just strap in for the ride, cause when they bring that Bryce Harper traveling show to town , then ain’t gonna be no messing around.

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