Bryce Harper was clearly trying to start a dialogue about the unwritten rules of the game when he talked to ESPN reporter Tim Keown about his desire to "Make Baseball Fun Again" in a March interview that stirred emotions on both sides of the debate when it comes to bat flips and other in-game celebrations.
The hat he wore with those words on it on Opening Day just gave his campaign a slogan.
In a meeting with AP Sports Editors last Thursday, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about Harper's months-old comments about the state of baseball and its unwritten rules.
Manfred, as quoted by Washington Post writer Scott Allen, said he thought it was an important conversation, but one for the players to have.
"Whether I want it this way or don’t want it this way," Manfred explained, "the fact of the matter is the players are going to define, themselves, those unwritten rules.
"You can’t legislate that. This generation of players is going to define what’s acceptable and unacceptable. I think to the extent that you believe, and I actually kind of do, that Bryce Harper is a spokesman for this generation, I suspect that you will see more exuberance from our players on the field. I think it’s a good thing. I think that to the extent that you’re trying to market to a younger audience, our younger players taking control of the definition of those unwritten rules is a lot better than some guy who is 67 years old saying, ‘I did it that way and you ought to do it the same way."
Though Harper himself clarified his use of the word "tired" in his comments about the current state of the game, Manfred said he would, of course, have preferred another descriptor.
"If you take Bryce’s comments, do I wish there were a couple of words that I could edit? Yes, I do," [Manfred] said. "‘Tired,’ for example, would be one. But I actually believe that a player of his stature starting a dialogue about what the sport’s going to look like — and I think that dialogue really involves mostly his peers, players on the field — will produce a positive result for the game. They’re young, they see the world different. My kids see the world different than I do, and I do think if we want young people to take the game forward, we have to be tolerant of that dialogue while things change. … It’s sort of like the designated hitter. People have strong views, they express them strongly, but they’re out there talking about the game and amen, good for us. I think this is sort of in the same category. The game is important enough to people that if both the press and the fans seize on this topic and they’re passionate about it? Great."
Harper was informed of the Commissioner's comments after the Nationals' loss to the Miami Marlins in the series finale in South Florida last week.
"I really appreciate the words from Mr. Manfred, of course," he told reporters, "but I think having the generation of talent that they do right now, if that's [Manny] Machado or [Mike] Trout or [Matt] Harvey or [Jacob] deGrom, it's such a great time for baseball, great time for the fans, but also you have to understand that you have to respect the guys that played before you as well. And it's still a game where it's evolving into what it needs to be and we're going to have a lot of fun with it hopefully in the next twenty years and push the envelope and hopefully make some things happen and do some things that are definitely different."
Before Friday night's series opener with the Minnesota Twins, 66-year-old Nats' skipper Dusty Baker was asked for his thoughts on the matter.
Baker, a veteran of 19 major league seasons as a player, in his 21st season on a major league bench, seemed to side with Manfred in saying that today's players should set their own standards.
"I don't want them to be like me necessarily," Baker explained, "because who's to say that I was right or I was wrong.
"I want this generation to be themselves, but there are guidelines and certain rules, but if you expect them to be like you, man, you'll be waiting till the sun goes down and it's not necessarily right.
"Back in our day, if you were over-demonstrative, somebody was going to knock you on your butt, and there were no knockdown rules, there was no nothing, they could throw at you every pitch if they wanted to.
"But nowadays, the money is bigger, the guys are friendlier, guys don't seem to mind.
"See it used to be called 'showing up the opposition' when we were coming up, but now it's called flair, or some of the other words that you could use, 'demonstrative' or whatever.
"Hey, man, it's their generation, it's their game, if they don't mind, why should I mind? If I was playing, I would mind. I'd probably be mad every day, but that's how it is."
Harper continued to do what he can on the field to "Make Baseball Fun Again" on Sunday, in spite of the fact that he didn't start the game.
Baker gave him a day off and told him he would only use him as a pinch hitter late if necessary.
"I told him before the game, I was going to save him toward the end of the game, only pinch hit him," Baker explained, "because I told him about the time that I had put Barry Bonds in on a day off on a double switch... and I had to double switch at that time and he had a day off and ended up going eighteen innings. So I told [Harper] that I didn't want that to happen to him, and we almost went eighteen innings."
The reason they went to extra innings in the first place, however, is that Harper made the most of his ninth inning pinch hit opportunity to hit a game-tying solo home run to center off Minnesota Twins' closer Kevin Jepsen that tied the game up at 4-4 after a three-run home run by Brian Dozier put the Twins up 4-1 in the top of the eighth.
Baker said he wasn't surprised Harper came up big. He also said he didn't think Harper was surprised.
"He believed that he was going to do it, that's what impressed me the most," Baker told reporters.
"I mean, confidence is not his problem. You know what I mean? Everything he does, he doesn't seem surprised and I'm not surprised, but I'm extremely happy and I'm sure he is too."
Baker also kept his word to only use Harper to pinch hit and then take him out so he didn't risk the possibility of the day off turning into an extended outing.
When the Nationals went back out to the field for the tenth, Chris Heisey went out to right instead of Harper.
Later in the game, when the Nationals fell behind again in the fifteenth inning of what ended up being a sixteen inning marathon, he had to let reliever Oliver Perez hit for himself since Heisey was already in the game.
Perez surprised everyone with a bunt on which Twins' catcher John Ryan Murphy committed a throwing error that let the tying run score. Then in the Nationals' half of the sixteenth, Heisey hit a walk-off winner. Just like Baker planned.
"I had to choose between -- I was hoping that we would get down and I could double switch," Baker said. "We went a couple more spots, but I didn't want to put [Harper] out there and be tempted to go against my word.
"I told him that before the game started. And I told him that, 'Hey man, I'm going to wait for a time so the fans can go crazy and you can be the hero and then I'll take you out.' I'm not always right, but I was right today."
"I walked up to Harper, or he came up to me and he goes, "Man, I would have been six innings deep on this day off in the 15th,' you know, so that was a dramatic game."
"He came up to me in the beginning of the game and said if we have an opportunity to pinch hit you and you can hit a homer that would be great," Harper told reporters, including CSN Mid-Atlantic's Chase Hughes:
"It was fun. That's baseball, baseball at every single level," Harper said. "If you're in high school, college, little league; anything. I mean that's fun right there."
"And to be able to have the opportunity to play for Dusty, that desire and that mentality that he brings every single day to let us just have fun to let us enjoy this game, with all the rally caps and all the stuff we were doing... He just lets us play and that's what the game is all about... that's where that comes from 'Make baseball fun again,' right there. And those are the things where you can go out on a daily basis enjoy the game, have fun and he lets us do that. There's no other guy I'd want to be playing for right now."
Baker did what he could. Harper did his part.
In the end, the Nationals outlasted the Twins and swept the three-game set in the nation's capital, in a five hour, fifty-six minute marathon that had a little bit of everything. It was fun.