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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Bounties vs Targets—the NFL and MLB

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The New Orleans Saints have been given harsh sentences for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams encouraging a culture of paying cash bonuses for his players on hard hits and knockouts of opposing players. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season; GM Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of the season; and Williams, who was hired as the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in January, was suspended indefinitely—NY Times Story.

On Sunday afternoon Peter Gammons, filling in for Jerry Remy on the Red Sox TV broadcasts, was talking with broadcast partner Don Orsillo about the NFL bountygate. Gammons said it was inexcusable and that if anyone in baseball did it, Bud Selig had told him that those involved would be banned for life. Period.

If it was a player, I’m sure the MLBPA would have something to say about that penalty.

In what was a conveniently timed sequence of events, Phillies’ starter Cole Hamels hit Nationals’ rookie Bryce Harper in the back with a fastball in Sunday night’s Phillies-Nats game in Washington and then inexplicably announced that he’d done it intentionally in an “old-school” method of initiation for an arrogant, hot shot rookie.

Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo called Hamels a series of names including “gutless” and said he was “opposite of old-school”. Ken Rosenthal said it was an overreaction on the part of Rizzo for a legitimate play from years gone by. Other sportswriters like Jon Heyman, admired the “toughness” of Hamels.

This is on the heels of Mike Francesa’s suggestion two weeks ago that the Mets, rather than give Jose Reyes a small video tribute on his return to Citi Field as an opponent with the Marlins, throw the ball at his head.

He said this twice.

It’s very easy to encourage these types of things when not actually standing in the box and facing the prospect of getting hit with a 95-mph fastball that can end a career or seriously injure the recipient.

I don’t have a problem with Hamels popping Harper; I do have a problem with him announcing it as if he wants credit for it. It was obvious to any longtime observer of baseball that it was done intentionally, but did the pleased-with-himself Hamels need to say, “Look! See what I did?”

In essence, because Harper is a former number 1 overall pick and is widely expected to embark on a potential Hall of Fame career starting now, he had a bulls-eye on his back and Hamels hit that bulls-eye.

We can debate the propriety of the decision by Hamels to throw at Harper just like we can debate collisions at the plate; umpires having larger strike zones for rookies to test them; or any other rites of passage that occur as a common hazing ritual for newcomers.

But you don’t announce it.

This all fits in neatly with Gammons’s discussion of the bounty program used by the Saints.

What’s missed in many of the analysis and commentaries regarding the Saints is that it wasn’t the program itself that got them in trouble. It was that the NFL told them to stop it, they said they would and didn’t.

And they got caught.

The NFL—conservative as a whole and run by Roger Goodell, whose father was a Republican U.S. Senator—is image-conscious and serious about their perception and disciplinary programs. Punishing the Saints is a combination of punitive measures and a message to everyone else not to do this.

Transferring one sport’s rules and regulations to another can be done in theory but is difficult to do in practice. There’s an overt failure to account for the differences between baseball and football. I’m not talking about the classic George Carlin comedy routine in which he declares the superiority of football to baseball—YouTube link. I’m talking about the fundamental differences between the two sports on and off the field.

MLB players have guaranteed contracts and 100% medical coverage. NFL players don’t. Because NFL players’ contracts are not guaranteed, there’s more pressure for them to play in order to keep those game checks coming in. They can be cut at anytime and be completely out of work. The NFL, such as it is, is a close-knit community and if a player is judged as not being willing to take shots and medications to get out on the field and play when he’s hurt, the rest of the league is going to know about it. It spreads like wildfire and affects their careers negatively or ends them completely.

For every star like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning who have the power to command their organization to make certain maneuvers, there are the rank and file players who have to adhere to the culture or else. It’s a brutal version of survival of the fittest and most resilient, rewarding the player who can live through the war of attrition in exchange continued employment.

This doesn’t happen in baseball.

When a player signs a $100 million contract in football, his stature as a talent predicates a large signing bonus which he gets to keep, but the rest of the deal isn’t guaranteed; therefore it’s not really $100 million even though that’s what the news reports say without full context of the disposability of the contract. We see situations where teams can’t cut a player they’d dearly love to be rid of (Santonio Holmes of the Jets for example), but can’t because of salary cap ramifications. But that’s due to overzealousness and a myriad of other factors such as arrogantly thinking “we’ll be able to handle this guy”. Historically when one team can’t “handle” a guy and gets rid of him based on that and that alone, no one—not the Jets; not the Al Davis Raiders of the 1970s and 80s—will be able to handle him for any amount of money. That’s a foundational error.

Contracts in baseball are such that when Albert Pujols signed a $240 million contract with the Angels last winter, it was guaranteed that he’d collect $240 million if he never plays another game.

How many MLB players do you read about committing suicide after their careers are over? Winding up in serious trouble with the law? Have debilitating injuries?

Just last week Junior Seau committed suicide and it was forgotten the next day because the “tragedy” of the day became Mariano Rivera tearing his ACL and being lost for the season.

Which is the true tragedy?

Both are future Hall of Famers in their respective sports; both were well-liked; but Rivera will collect his $15 million salary for 2012 and receive a similar contract for 2013; Seau was rumored to be having financial troubles and domestic squabbles and was entirely unable to adjust to the freedom, emptiness and depression of not having a season or game to prepare for to go along with the wear-and-tear of a 13-year NFL career.

You can call baseball a “contact” sport, but considering the uproar when a collision at home plate occurs and knocks out the catcher, it—clean or not—becomes the impetus for calls to outlaw the home plate collision entirely. It degenerates into a pseudo-contact sport. In football, the mandate is to hit hard—it’s inherent; in baseball, a hard hit is a rare, incidental and predominately unintentional byproduct.

In football, they’ve taken steps to reduce the injuries and number of hard hits because of the bottom line need for offensive production and the stars being on the field to keep the fans engaged and happy, but they’re still very large, well-conditioned men running into one another at full speed. People get hurt. If you can’t or won’t play through pain and the backup will, then your job and career are in jeopardy without any outlet for the aggression that led to an NFL career in the first place, nor the opportunity to make the kind of money they’re making once their careers are over.

Players don’t know what to do with themselves once their regimented lives as football players are done. The simultaneous addictions to the attention, painkillers, money, pain and the compulsive need to keep going in spite of the threat of long-term damage already in place is being exacerbated; irrationality and rudderless post-career lives are too often rife with financial missteps, legal entanglements, after-effects and early deaths.

Coaches and managers are not exempt from the urgency of their professions.

MLB managers and coaches are not working the hours that NFL coaches are. Rank and file MLB assistants are comparatively well-paid and their jobs are many times as a result of patronage, friendship, loyalty or payback. In reality, apart from the pitching coach, not many MLB coaches influence the team to any grand degree.

Not so with the NFL on any count.

NFL assistants work ridiculous hours and, apart from star coordinators, aren’t paid all that well and, like the players, if they don’t have friends in the league or a good reputation, they won’t have another job when they’re let go.

John Madden left coaching because of his ulcer and didn’t return because he replaced it by carving out a Hall of Fame broadcasting career. Jim Brown retired at the top of his game to go to Hollywood. Barry Sanders and Tiki Barber both retired while they still had a few years left in them, but also had their health.

How many other football players can say that?

Mostly they play until they’re dragged off the field knowing what awaits them in the aftermath.

The sporting ideal of competitiveness, honor and fair play doesn’t truly exist. Baseball players subsist in the bubble of individual achievement within a team concept. It’s one man against another when a pitcher and hitter square off. It’s not that way in football where no one player can function without the other ten men. Football players are warriors who know their time is short and every play could be their last with nothing to fall back on aside from a lifetime of pain and mounting bills for medical and family expenses. Baseball players are covered. Football players can’t just turn off that intensity and otherworldliness that allows them to ignore aches and pains that would hospitalize a normal man.

Baseball is languid; football is full-speed and frantic.

Comparing baseball and football is apples and oranges. They’re different. A bounty program wouldn’t specifically exist in baseball because how would it be enacted? A bounty program in football is easy because, in general, a player contract in the NFL is a bounty, but it’s a bounty the player places on himself. He knows when he signs it that one day, he’ll have to pay up with his physical and emotional well being.

Sometimes he pays with his life in quality and permanence.

They know that going in and, invariably, it gets them in the end.

The bounty a player puts on his own head is carried out by football itself.

And football is tantamount to the monolithic hit man that never, ever fails in its objective.

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An Impressive Display From Bryce Harper

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There’s a perception that because I try to pull the cover off the exaggerations in the legend of Bryce Harper that I want him to fail and enter the netherworld of “can’t miss” first overall picks who missed.

That list is long and, in some cases, quite sad.

Some were ruined by self-inflicted and team abuse: David Clyde.

Others got injured in off-field mishaps: Brien Taylor.

Many were all tools, no substance: Matt Anderson; Shawn Abner.

A few were taken for ancillary reasons: Steve Chilcott; Matt Bush.

I don’t want Harper to fail. But I don’t want to hear these ridiculous stories about his exploits to put him in the superhuman category at 19-years-old. The desperation to make him something he’s not can lay the foundation for a stalled or ruined career.

In his weeklong tenure in the big leagues, Harper has shown his massive talents with a deadly strong and accurate throwing arm; plate discipline; skillful defense at a position—leftfield—he’s rarely played; plus speed and aggressiveness. He’s also shown teenage arrogance (flipping off his helmet on his first big league hit) and stupidity (playing softball in a Washington DC park).

But last night, when Phillies’ pitcher Cole Hamels drilled him in the back with a fastball, Harper was cool and ruthless.

Hamels inexplicably said he was throwing at Harper—ESPN Story.

Of course he was throwing at him, but only an idiot says so after the fact. Now he’s going get suspended. Deservedly so.

Jordan Zimmerman retaliated by hitting Hamels, but the true retaliation came from Harper in the immediate aftermath of his plunking.

In what was quite possibly the most impressive thing that I’ve seen Harper do—more impressive, in fact, than the hitting, fielding, running and throwing—was a display of maturity that precludes the helmet-flip and softball participation.

After reaching first on the 2-out HBP, Harper went to third on a Jayson Werth single; Hamels tried to pick Werth off and with a quickness of thinking, anticipation and baseball instincts unheard of in veterans let alone a 19-year-old, Harper didn’t hesitate in taking off for home. He stole it relatively easily.

In addition to that, given Harper’s reputation, one would’ve expected him to glare at Hamels or mutter to himself; one would’ve expected him to flaunt his steal of home and victory in the war of machismo.

But he did none of the above.

He did his job and his silence and professionalism was explosive in its impact. The HBP was an attempt to get a rise out of the rookie and he answered by not answering in the way Hamels wanted. He answered on the field. It was a message to the rest of the league that he’s going to shove it to those who push him and do it without the histrionics that made Harper a YouTube sensation for his attitude, tantrums and ejections.

Hamels welcomed him to the big leagues.

Harper followed it up by proving he belongs.

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Harper Valley GED

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Can he walk on water too?

Maybe it’d be better to ask what he can’t do.

The stories about Bryce Harper reached mythic proportions two years ago. Now I don’t know where they’ve gone. That said, I know poorly constructed, unrealistic modern day fiction when I see it and in this piece in today’s NY Times by Tyler Kepner, the Harper legend takes the next step into ludicrousness.

It’s not the piece in and of itself that’s the problem. Basically it’s about Harper being impressive in his first few big league games and the reception he got in Los Angeles and in Washington. A standard column about a hot prospect should be expected. But one line caught my attention and raised my radar to a heightened sense of alert that the undoing of Harper isn’t going to come on the field, but in the media and with public demands of what he’s supposed to be.

Here’s the clip:

Harper was so talented as a high school sophomore that he took his G.E.D., passing it without studying, and enrolled at a junior college.

Without studying, huh?

Wowzers.

That’s amazing.

Unbelievable in fact.

Not unbelievable in that I believe it and am stunned; unbelievable in that I don’t believe it.

He didn’t study? Why even bother taking the test then? Was he that brilliant that he could walk in and take a test—that by the accounts I’ve heard is not easy—and pass it? You can look at some sample questions from the GED yourself here and determine whether you believe a 15-year-old could do such a thing.

Let’s suspend disbelief for a second and accept that perhaps Harper has a photographic memory. Former NFL quarterback and Super Bowl winner Jeff Hostetler has a photographic memory and all he needed to do for a test was read the textbook once. He would then mentally thumb through the pages until he found the correct answer. We can debate whether this is actual genius or a gift, but Hostetler still had to read the book.

Harper didn’t have to study? Didn’t crack open one book and read a single page to prepare for a difficult test and passed?

Really?

Not only is he a freakishly gifted talent on the baseball field, but he’s a genius too?

This “not studying and passing” stuff is such nonsense that Kepner should be embarrassed for writing it.

If it’s true (it’s not), it shows more arrogance than intelligence; and if it’s not true (and it’s not), then the ridiculous recounting of Harper’s superiority are setting the foundation of a major disaster.

And I didn’t have to do any studying to come to that conclusion. It’s self-evident.

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Bryce Harper’s Age Is Not An Excuse

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There are dueling and diametrically opposed memes at work with Washington Nationals’ rookie Bryce Harper.

He’s been compared to the greatest baseball players in history for what he can do on the field and described in vulgar street vernacular on the social media sites for his behaviors and attitude.

In what appears to be more of an act of contrarianism for the sake of it rather than an impassioned belief that Harper’s misunderstood, the lukewarm defense of Harper’s arrogance is defended by his age, 19.

It doesn’t work that way.

Age is not an excuse any more than talent is a justification. Harper has benefited from the attention he’s attracted since he burst onto the scene after taking his GED so he could go to junior college early, compete against a higher level of competition and start his career fast. A prodigy who reaps the rewards for his skills doesn’t get the pass that a normal teenager does. The oft-mentioned and comic book style lament of “with great power comes great responsibility” holds true.

What precisely is the benefit of turning Harper into this egomaniacal and reviled monster? Wouldn’t it be better for him to have a Tim Tebow-style story of likability, charm and dedication combined with something Tebow doesn’t have—actual on-field upside commensurate with all that attention? Why would anyone want to be seen as an obnoxious, arrogant and spoiled brat whose behaviors have been glossed over as a nod to expediency to maintain the façade and hold true to the brand?

He’s not even a charming bad boy about whom the masses chuckle and nod in a “boys will be boys” acknowledgement that he’s not really hurting anyone.

On the one hand, we hear about his age, abilities and anointing as a future megastar going back years; on the other we have his age presented as a reason to give him a break for acting entitled.

Is it all his fault? No. When someone is held to a different set of criteria because of a series of gifts that are so unique, it’s going to affect his actions. He is a kid; he is 19 and immature.

Those who are saying how stupid they were at 19 probably weren’t in the position where their stupidity was baited, recorded and analyzed by outside influences 24/7.

In short, nobody cared enough about what you or I were doing at 19 to pay attention to it as the foundation of a debate as to propriety.

Harper doesn’t have that luxury.

There’s no reconciliation between the blatantly transparent and crafted biography of Harper, a Mormon who utters self-deprecating and tiresome baseball clichés and the person who engages in interviews like this GQ profile in which his personality comes blasting out as if a cage had been unlocked and, for a brief moment, he was able to be himself.

His heroes are Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle?

Really?

Based on what?

Rose was disgraced and banned from baseball three years prior to Harper’s birth; Mantle was a legend who, to Harper, could just as easily have been a fictional character out of Lord of the Rings as much as a real human being.

These are his heroes?

It strikes of intent; of what sounds good; of what’s salable.

He’s not going to discuss the posters he may have had on his wall as a kid, he’s going to try to fulfill the legacy and become comparable to one of the greatest and most revered players in history, Mantle; or one of the hardest-working, intense, maximizers of finite limits like Rose.

Is his favorite actor Laurence Olivier? His favorite singer Elvis Presley? Is he in love with Bettie Page?

Where does it end?

It’s a story. Nothing more.

The rarity of Harper’s ability automatically removes him from the overwhelming masses of 18-21-year-olds who are allowed moments of formative stupidity. He’s one-in-a-million on the field and that automatically implies that he’s not categorized among those masses. On his first major league hit—an impressive line shot double over Dodgers’ centerfielder Matt Kemp’s head—Harper sprinted around first and halfway between first and second flung his helmet off with quick upward flick of his hand.

It was indicative of attention-getting behavior because he’s “special”; because he’s enabled to do what he wants as a result of the things he can do on the field.

It has to be addressed and checked.

He’s held to a different standard, as he should be. That he’s 19 is not an acceptable excuse. For no other reason than to maximize that talent, he needs to be reined in. And that’s before getting to his still-developing brain and future as a human being.

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