September 20, 2018

Has Harper Been a Divider or a Uniter?

September 6, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Bryce Harper carves a path in the world of baseball like a comic book hero laying waste to bad guys. That is the way many fans see him; the way many depict him. The real world, one with which Harper has only nodding acquaintance, is more nuanced.

The Harper era in Washington, DC is likely drawing to a close and it is already inviting analysis, largely from those with comic book mentalities. It goes something like this: Washington had one of the great lineups, one of the great players and yet they couldn’t win. How pathetic are they? They benched Strasburg and now they are letting the best player in the game walk.

A comic book has greater intellectual depth than that.

In truth, the dominance of Washington’s team was the brain child of GM Mike Rizzo and if anyone can lay claim to its success–and failures, it is Rizzo. Yet, Bryce is a constant on the Washington, DC teams that have one of the best records in the game since Opening Day, 2012. There are only a few other players who have been there for the entirety of the run: Strasburg, Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, and Rendon. So when looking for a common thread that defines the unique gestalt of this Washington baseball era, Harper is a significant piece of the puzzle. But what role does he play exactly? Does he unite the team in its quest for glory, or divide it in subtle ways that undermine its winner’s circle mentality?

The knock on the Washington Nationals since 2012 has been that they do not have that “je ne c’est quoi” that takes a very good baseball team from the playoffs to the mountain top. Cardinal players saw it in the fifth and deciding game of the 2012 NLDS that they won against the Nationals. Washington had a late inning lead in their home ball park, but allowed the Cards to win in the final inning. St. Louis players opined afterwards that when they looked across the diamond late in the game, they saw a tense and uncertain team, one they believed would crumble in the end.

It’s chemistry bro, grow a pair.

Solving the chemical equation in Washington has proven difficult. Into its already potent elixir, the Washington front office has stirred first Davey Johnson, then Matt Williams and more recently Dusty Baker. What has confronted each of the new managers is a clubhouse defined first by its lack of real leadership and second by the presence of Bryce Harper. Managers have been asked to solve the leadership issue while simultaneously addressing the vexing issue of Harper’s inconsistencies.

The inconsistencies have been attributed to injuries, but there is something more complicated at work than just that. There is his bad boy behavior that initially invited reaction from competing teams. There is his belief he IS LeBron. There is his silly hair toss, the bat flip, the lack of hustle going down the line, the poor routes to fly balls. One MVP season and five others that are decidedly less so. Hmnnn… How does that work exactly??

Matt Williams had the temerity to bench Harper for not running out ground balls and was almost drawn and quartered in the baseball media. First Davey Johnson then Dusty Baker tried being father figures to their enfant terrible, though god knows one would never venture too far into that psychological morass. Harper lived with his parents during his first year in the minors. Harper’s father did not throw batting practice back then, but had he requested it, the team would likely have acquiesced.

The baseball media have been quiet as church mice about the complexities of the Harper story. Maybe they all have book contracts maturing like pears in wine sauce, but I think most know far more than they ever say. It has to do with being friends to the rich and powerful, like maybe someone in the Commissioner’s Office. Mighty Manfred says criticize Mike Trout for failing to seek more publicity for the game and like a pack of dogs with a steak, they go after it. Harper wins the Home Run Derby with minimal opposition and no one asks why the big mashers did not participate. Who’s a good dog!!

Adding Harper’s endorsement contracts to his annual salary would produce a number that dwarfs the income of any other player on the Washington roster. Harper has been unique in seeking out those deals and he has done it by being in a cozy partnership with the Commissioner’s office and MLB Inc. who have marketed him incessantly. He is worth a mint to baseball’s ownership group for all of the publicity he has garnered for baseball. It would be easy to say Harper is good for the game, but exactly whose game Harper benefits is a fair question.

The vexing conundrum is how Harper has affected the Nationals clubhouse chemistry? How do his team mates react to the package that is Bryce Harper. The modern athlete is not much different than Bryce. Most came up through the same system, one that culls out the best of the best in their early teens and puts them together to fight for the grand prize. They know how the game is played up on a different level, so it would be surprising that there is vast antipathy for Harper. But it is fair to wonder whether Jonathan Papelbon is some weird outlier or a leading indicator in a debate that has been quashed by those who don’t want to sully Harper and the outpouring of cash he represents.

But when the chips are down and the game is on the line, do the other Nationals want Harp up at bat? He loves the big stage, but how well does he perform there if Daddy is not pitching grape fruits to him? His batting average with two outs and runners in scoring position is .243. Many have noted in recent years how the preponderance of home runs Harper hits are solo shots. He has never driven in 100 RBI. Even in his MVP year when he hit 42 long balls, he had just 99 RBI. For nineteen post season games, Harper has a .211/.315/.487 slash line. Not exactly “Mr. October.” Since 2012 he has been in the top ten in WAR only once, in 2015.

Is the guy a team player putting everything into winning or a hot dog playing for the money and fame?

I don’t have the answers to those questions, but someone has to ask. Bryce Harper is on the threshold of making more money than Donald Trump and not asking the right questions, the tough questions, doesn’t lead to great outcomes as we have seen in other circumstances.

In 2012 the Washington Nationals were the new kids on the block hoping to prove they belonged. They were more than happy to showcase Bryce Harper, to plaster his name on anything that moved and listen to the cash register sing. They were more than ready to ignore all the questions that might have been asked in other circumstances. If Harper were playing in New York City and hitting 42 home runs without driving in 100 runs, someone have asked, “what’s up with that?” The Harper hype that has been ongoing will wither in the more unforgiving media markets that will likely pay him the kind of money he wants. But if he continues to play with the same eye to camera angles rather than angles to the ball, how forgiving will the next set of eyes be?

Since Harper was signed I have seen him up close and personal and from a distance. I prefer the latter. As a Washington, DC baseball fan, I am ready to say my goodbyes because I suspect he has been more divisive than we will ever know. It just remains to see whether he grows out of those tendencies, as he has with many of the other less congenial characteristics that have marked his first six years in the majors.

He is good for the game and maybe he will actually be good for a team in the future. But it is not an anomaly that his best year in 2015 was one of the worst for a very good Washington Nationals team. It is THE leading indicator on how good Harper has actually been for the Washington Nationals during his tenure. When the team has won, he has been there, but not as a decisive factor. When Harper has been at his best, the team has tanked. Harper can be marketed as a lot of things, but as the hero of the golden era in Washington, DC baseball, he is notably flat and off key in what could have been a euphonious symphony for us all.

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