Bryce Harper’s Textgate With Davey Johnson

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Bryce Harper sent a text message to Nationals manager Davey Johnson with the ultimatum, “Play me or trade me.” The implication of this is that the 20-year-old was telling his veteran manager that he didn’t want to sit on the bench under any circumstances and that if Johnson knew what was good for him and the Nats, he’d write Harper’s name in the lineup. Or else. The reality of the situation is that Harper was being held out due to the lingering concerns over a knee injury that placed him on the disabled list and an ongoing slump. Johnson wanted to give him a few days off, but Harper wanted to play and said so. Johnson put him back in the lineup.

The media sought to make it into a big deal with a flashy headline, speculation and faux investigation into whether there’s any tension brewing between Harper, Johnson and the Nats where none appears to be in evidence. Johnson has never shied away from confrontation. As a player for the Braves, he got into a fistfight with manager Eddie Mathews. Mathews happened to be one of the toughest customers in baseball who simply liked to fight. Johnson blackened Mathews’s eye and the two made peace over drinks after airing their grievances with their fists. As a manager, Johnson had multiple altercations with Darryl Strawberry, fought with Kevin Mitchell, and nearly fought with Bobby Bonilla. It’s not as if he picked the lightweights. Those who have followed Johnson’s career know that even at age 70, he wouldn’t hesitate to take on the 6’2”, 230 pound 20-year-old Harper if it were necessary, but that’s not what this was. Not even close.

Harper has gotten a bad rap due to the perception that he was anointed at such a young age. He and support staff—family, representatives—are partly at fault for it by putting out preposterous stories of his exploits (he passed the GED without studying), his favorite players (Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose whose careers ended years and decades before his birth), and his own silly minor league behaviors (war paint and tantrums with umpires). There’s a pretentiousness in Harper’s biography that has not been consistent with his actions on the field.

He’s done some stupid things like smashing his bat against the runway wall in Cincinnati and nearly pulling a Ralphie from A Christmas Story (You’ll whack your eye out!), and plays the game with zero concern for his physical well-being. He goes all-out, doesn’t act like a spoiled brat on the field as shown with his mature and classic response to Cole Hamels intentionally hitting him as he humiliated Hamels by stealing home, and wants to play every day. His text message to Johnson may have sounded like a pampered would-be megastar making untoward demands upon his manager with implied threats knowing the club had little choice but to cave, but that’s just the way it’s being framed by the media and fans looking to find more reasons to knock Harper down a few pegs. In an age in which many players want to coast, Harper wants to play and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s refreshing.

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Bryce Harper’s Tantrum

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In a Mötley Crüe retrospective, lead singer Vince Neil recounted how he threw a hissy fit because his preferred mustard hadn’t been provided for his sandwich. He broke the jar against the wall, it exploded and he wound up cutting his hand so badly that he severed an artery, tendons and nerves and almost cut a finger off completely. He called it his “Spinal Tap” moment in honor of the deadly accurate satirical heavy metal band of the same name.

Bryce Harper had his Spinal Tap moment last night when, during an 0 for 5 performance in the Nationals’ 7-3 win over the Reds in Cincinnati, he slammed his bat against the runway wall, it rebounded and hit him near the left eye. He needed 10 stitches to close a cut—ESPN Story.

He was beyond lucky.

The bat could’ve hit him in the eye and ended his career. Easily.

Is this cause for more ridicule on the 19-year-old or is it a moment of anger gone wrong?

Harper’s been called arrogant. His life-story is laced with exaggerations like passing his GED without studying, and made-for-public-consumption assertions such as his favorite players being Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle. There have been heavily viewed YouTube incidents of self-involved behavior from the minor leagues. When let out of his cage to do interviews without filter and cliché, he’s come across as obnoxious.

But he’s 19.

In spite of all his talents, that should never be forgotten.

In general, 19-year-olds are arrogant and obnoxious.

Amid all the expectations and eager anticipation of his first meltdown, he’s also shown an amazing talent for the game and baseball-savvy beyond his years. Cole Hamels intentionally drilled him with a fastball and Harper, rather than do the teenage tough guy thing by glaring at Hamels and possibly starting a brawl, went to first base without complaint. Once he got to third base, he stole home on a Hamels pickoff attempt of the runner on first base.

He won that battle and respect throughout the league for handling it right.

It would be a bigger deal if there weren’t players and managers who’ve done similarly absurd things when they were twice Harper’s age (and more) and been lauded for their intensity.

Lou Piniella demolished the old Yankee Stadium water cooler with his foot.

Paul O’Neill tells endless stories about the things he’s done in fits of anger.

Larry Bowa demolished a urinal in Philadelphia and blamed Jay Johnstone for it.

If Harper was behaving in an overt, on-field manner as one of his comparable talents—Gregg Jefferies—did when he was a Mets’ rookie by flinging helmets every time he grounded out, he’d need to be pulled aside and told in no uncertain terms to knock it off. He didn’t. He did this in the the runway where players go to vent their frustrations. In this case, his frustrations vented back and he hurt himself.

He won’t do it again.

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