I didn't want to write about Bryce Harper today. I really didn't. But baseball's version of the lightning rod sparked yesterday, and, well, here we are again.
You've read it by now, I'm sure. Tim Keown's excellently written piece for ESPN on Bryce Harper and the state of the modern game. The pull-quotes are all there.
"Baseball's tired," Harper told Keown. "It's a tired sport, because you can't express yourself."
Ah yes, it's all about expressing oneself.
Look, I have no problem with how Harper acts. Well, I'd rather not see him heave his helmet down the right field line after grounding out. But I don't have a problem playing the game hard, with joy and passion, and exhibiting it.
I have no problem with Jose Bautista flipping his bat in an important game. I have no problem with Cam Newton "dabbing" after a touchdown. Much like I didn't have a problem with the Fun Bunch, or Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, or Al Hrabosky or Mark "The Bird" Fidrych.
Pro sports is full of flamboyant and colorful personalities. Baseball tries to hide theirs for the sake of the "unwritten rules," but when you get down to it, the unwritten rules are not only selectively enforced, they're trite.
Goose Gossage's comments on Thursday, unrelated to the Harper article but no less poignant on the same -- but very much different -- topic, reveal a bitter, ugly vein of thought that's not only still prevalent in athletics but, as we are watching unfold across the nation, a vast section of society at large as well.
It's not enough to live and let live. There are morality police everywhere. That's what we're really talking about here. It's an establishment viewpoint telling others how to live their lives. The establishment resents, loaths, fears personality and flamboyancy because those traits threaten their perceived power. The cult of personality.
Society does its best to quash the charismatic out of its own self-preservation.
The "unwritten rules" are simply the establishment of baseball telling young players to behave. The rules are in place to keep the charismatic in check and the establishment in charge. Or else, in many cases.
As we all remember well, Harper was victim of it in his first season when "fake tough" Cole Hamels plunked him for no other reason than simply being Bryce Harper. Of course, Harper stole home on him soon thereafter.
It's the very essence of the incident with Jonathan Papelbon at the end of last season. Papelbon wasn't irate with Harper for not running hard. He simply used that as an excuse to lay into him because Harper called him out in his own way, using the word "tired" again, for throwing at the Orioles' Manny Machado the previous week because Machado had the audacity to hit a home run earlier off a different pitcher.
Papelbon was simply trying to enforce the unwritten rules with Machado, and after Harper called him out, Papelbon then had to to the same to his teammate. In public. Very much in public.
In Harper's direct case, he doesn't care what people say about him.
"I don't care," he said in the ESPN piece. "I ... don't ... care. I really don't. As long as I can look in the mirror and say I played as hard as I could. I think people get opinions when they see me play the game and see the hard-nosed, chip-on-my-shoulder kind of thing. That's the way I play. I want to kick your teeth in. And after the game I can walk out of those doors and be the happiest person in the world."
Harper's one of the most media savvy players I've ever been around. Even from his very first press conference at Nats Park he was in control the entire time, and every single writer in the group was wrapped around his finger -- from the wettest behind the ears to the grizzled veteran scribes. He knows exactly what he's saying and how he's saying it. It's almost scripted.
But here's what either he hasn't learned or doesn't care to acknowledge: What he says not only reflects on himself but impacts his teammates, the organization and the entire fan base. Here we are talking about Bryce Harper talking again and not about, you know, Bryce Harper playing baseball.
Time and again he's described as being a model teammate and all about winning, but making comments like this repeatedly puts a target on his back -- literally and figuratively.
At least one major league player has already gone on record tearing Harper apart for his comments. Will anything come of it? Who knows? But at least there might be more motivation the next time he faces Harper, as if facing the reigning MVP isn't enough of a task. There are others, for sure, that would like to put Harper "in his place."
There's a reason that coaches, from high school on up, tell players not to talk too much, for fear of providing just that little edge of motivation to the opponent. Harper disregards that thought completely. He is who he is, to his benefit and distraction. He's got an MVP out of it already, and if he stays healthy should be able to command whatever salary he wants in three years.
Right and wrong at the same time, he knows what he's doing and he doesn't care.