November 23, 2017

Maturity and More Pugnacious Approach Will Yield a DC Summer Blockbuster

May 31, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Bryce Harper charged the mound on Monday and for the most part baseball fans across the country applauded. That ovation, however meek or mild it may prove, still marks a sea change in how Harper is perceived by baseball zealots of every ilk. Yes, the boos rain down when he comes to bat at numerous stadiums around the country, but his confrontation with Hunter Strickland is playing differently than anything we have seen in the past for Harper. The directional shift has been slow in coming but marks important growth for the young phenom in areas other than endorsements.

There is no denying that the particular circumstances of Harper versus Strickland favored Harper. At 6′-3″ and approximately 225 pounds, Bryce gave away a few inches of reach to the taller, rangier Strickland. Harper was more Joe Frazier to Strickland’s Muhammed Ali. But the fight will neither be remembered nor judged on its pugilistic artistry. The photo of Harper landing his best blow to the hat brim and forehead of Strickland will be the historic takeaway. On the merits of that shot alone, Harper wins by a unanimous decision.

Strickland had the high ground–the ten inch mound height specifically, but Harper could not have chosen a better place to make his stand politically. There is nothing laudable about throwing a 97 mph fastball at another player to settle a three-year old score that had little merit at its inception. Washington television announcer F.P. Santangelo pointed to Buster Posey standing quietly behind the plate as Harper took off and astutely placed his hand on the scales of public perception. The point spread like an angry Trump tweet.

And yet there have been other times, other places where Harper neither charged the mound nor found public support when buzzed by opposing pitchers. The Atlanta Braves threw at Harper repeatedly when he was a rookie player whose aggressive base running did nothing to endear him to Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. But Harper is no longer a rookie. He has an MVP trophy in his collection and has his sights set on another. The moment belongs to Harper now.

As welcome as Harper’s new gestalt may be, the more intriguing question is whether the blow landed by Harper is in service to a cause larger than his own.

The “Fracas in Frisco,” has some of the intrinsic drama of another confrontation that proved historic in its import, one captured perfectly in a memorable photograph of its own. Late in the summer of 2004 a fight between the Yankees and the Red Sox ranged across the field at Fenway and was summed up historically in a photograph of catcher Jason Varitek shoving his glove into the mug of Alex Rodriguez. That melee proved a watershed moment for the Boston Red Sox as a team and provided emotional momentum that carried the Fenway faithful to their first World Series win in almost a century.

Is there something similar afoot in the Harper versus Strickland decision? Does the wider acceptance of Harper and his greater maturity as a player carry with it a larger tidal sweep for his team and its ability to contend?

The potential is certainly there. Like Harper, the Washington Nationals are hungry to prove that they belong among legendary baseball contenders. The numbers support the Nationals. Since the 2012 season only the St. Louis Cardinals have won more games–and that contest is exceedingly close at this writing. But Washington has not been able to score runs in October or find post-season success. Is that narrative being re-written?

Like Harper, the Washington Nationals are a more mature team as the 2017 season begins to gather momentum. A third of the season is in the record books and Washington is once again at the top of the NL East and more than ever one of the best teams in either league. But like Harper, is there a greater gravitas for the team that only time can bring? The early indications are positive, but in that regard all votes are not yet in.

If there is a face that has defined success for the Washington Nationals more than Bryce Harper it is that of Stephen Strasburg. He was the ace of the 2012 team that began this run and in 2017 Strasburg is off to another fast start, this one reminiscent of 2016 when he was 13-0 at the All Star Break. Like Harper, Strasburg is an older, wiser version of his rookie self. But he has yet to achieve the kind of dominance that might still come to pass. He has won 15 games twice-once in 2012 and again last season. But more seems possible and one has to ask if this is that season?

Yet whereas once the Nationals were a team defined by Harper and Strasburg, Washington is about so much more in 2017. Max Scherzer is still the best player that puts on a Washington Nationals uniform every game. He is 32 years old now and in quiet contrast to Strasburg’s 75 career wins, he has 130 and has led the league in wins three times, twice with 20 or more. If there is anyone in DC headed for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown it is Scherzer. As much as the no-hitters and the strikeouts by the bucket full may Max worthy, showing the way to Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals as a team may help tip the balance for Max when the voting is done.

One of the newest and most important features down the stretch is going to be Ryan Zimmerman who, like Scherzer is 32, and has plenty left as he battles Harper for the team lead in batting. There is one more 32-year old on the Nationals roster: Daniel Murphy and it is uncanny how much these three men: Scherzer, Zimmerman and Murphy, all at the same juncture in their careers, could lift the team and its younger players up onto the larger stage they are all seeking.

Questions remain about the bullpen and the rotation depth, but the picture is being colored in every day and what emerges is a Nationals team that has more fire and more fight than those in the recent past. Both the wise and knowing and the young and hungry have a common desire. As Dusty Baker said after the dust-up with Strickland, “we don’t take nothing.” That combative stance is new. The fire used to burn brightest in Jayson Werth, who sought to show the way, but now it has taken hold in so many others and that may be portentous. How much fight does Dusty Baker’s team have in them? It is a plot line better than any the overwrought summer blockbusters will feature. And it promises fun that is suitable for audiences of all ages. What’s not to like.

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