It's hard for baseball fans not to like Bryce Harper. The Washington Nationals' 19-year-old phenom is having one of the best seasons ever by a teenager, and he has already established himself as one of Major League Baseball's most fiery competitors. And in watching him, one can't help but get excited knowing that the best is still to come.
So don't ask if Harper is a star player. Of course the answer is yes. That's a clown question, bro.
Within MLB's borders, however, it's clear that not everyone is a Harper fan. His star status appears to have something to do with that.
Take Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, for example. By now, you probably saw what happened between him and Harper on Sunday in Miami, when the two of them were involved in a spat over the amount of pine tar on Harper's bat.
No, Harper didn't come yelling and screaming out of Washington's dugout after the umpires decided to rescind a home run after Ozzie told them to check Harper's bat, a la George Brett and Billy Martin in 1983. The exchange between Harper and Ozzie was decidedly more subdued. There were a few profanities uttered by Ozzie, but that's nothing out of the ordinary.
Ozzie explained after the game that it wasn't so much Harper's bat that caused him to go on a mini-tirade when Harper came to the plate in the fourth inning. According to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post, what got Ozzie all riled up was the way in which Harper pointed his bat at the Marlins dugout.
Ozzie took that as a taunting gesture, a mocking response to his complaints about Harper's bat in the first inning. Ozzie then took it as an excuse to accuse Harper of being "unprofessional." Here's the full quote:
First time, it’s going to stay between us. I could have said a lot of [stuff] about this kid. I’ve been praising this kid like everyday. The last three times they asked me about him, the only thing I said was he’s a great player. What he did [today] was unprofessional. I’m not going to tell you guys what he did because I’m not going to be talking about it on ESPN, Baseball Tonight, what happened again. I’ll just leave it like that. I’ll talk to his manager in a little while.
Ozzie also explained that he came out of the dugout to tell Harper "how cute he was." Which, you know, is not something you hear every day.
Harper could have fought fire with fire, but he chose to take the high road, as he's been doing all year. He merely applauded Ozzie for going to battle for his team.
“He’s a great manager to play for. He’s going to battle for you, no matter what. That’s a manager you want to play for," said Harper, who went 0-for-4 in the game.
Harper may be willing to let the incident go, but Ozzie had more to say on Monday. His more recent comments include this little bit, which comes courtesy of Mark Zuckerman of CSNWashington.com:
Ozzie also complimentary of Harper as a player, but "if he keeps doing that (stuff) he may not make it."— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) July 16, 2012
OK then. Whether you want to call that a threat, a warning or simple advice, there's no denying that it sounds ominous. The indication here is that Harper isn't going to last in the big leagues if he doesn't control his ego (which history tells us is a bogus sentiment).
Hmmm...This sounds familiar. Cole Hamels issued more or less the same statement when he beaned Harper in the back in early May.
You remember that incident, right? That was the one where Hamels plunked Harper and then admitted afterwards that it was an intentional beanball.
"I was trying to hit him," said Hamels, via the Associated Press. "I'm not going to deny it."
Hamels didn't hit Harper just for the heck of it. He hit him to send a half-baked message about how baseball is supposed to be.
"I think unfortunately the league's protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball," he said.
Or, in other words, "It's just, 'Welcome to the big leagues.'"
If one didn't know any better, one might think that all of this is simply part of the journey for MLB rookies. Before they can get settled as major leaguers, they have to put up with opposing pitchers throwing at them and opposing managers yelling at them.
It's kind of like hazing, except more malicious.
But what Harper is going through is not the norm. Though he's been hit by pitches twice this year, nobody has admitted to intentionally throwing at Los Angeles Angels super-rookie Mike Trout. And though Trout has been known to get demonstrative when he does something awesome (which is often), nobody has called him "unprofessional" yet.
For that matter, none of this year's other top rookies have had to put up with what Harper's had to put up with. For the most part, standout rookies like Will Middlebrooks, Quintin Berry, Zack Cozart, Wilin Rosario and Kirk Nieuwenhuis have flown under the radar.
The difference between them and Harper is that Harper hasn't been given a chance to fly under the radar. He's been under a microscope not just from the day he broke into the big leagues back in late April, but from the days well before that. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft back in 2010, and the year before that, he popped up on the national radar when Sports Illustrated called him baseball's very own answer to Tiger Woods and LeBron James.
In other words, the one thing Harper has always had that other MLB rookies are just now starting to accumulate is fame. They all have their cult followings (Trout's is the biggest), but none of them can hold a candle to Harper in the celebrity department.
The same is very much true of established major league veterans. Judging from the amount of attention he gets from ESPN and other national media networks, Harper is one the same plane as stars such as Derek Jeter, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols in terms of fame. That's how much the media has built him up.
Hamels clearly had a problem with this. Ozzie's rant about Harper was a little different, but one can't help but wonder if he would have gone so far off the rails if a rookie other than Harper had pointed his bat at the Marlins dugout. Make no mistake, Ozzie went out of his way to try and teach Harper a lesson. He probably would not have wasted his energy if it had been anybody else.
What the Hamels and Guillen incidents go to show is that there's clearly a heightened awareness of Harper's superstar status within the confines of Major League Baseball, and that he's not going to be treated the same as any other rookie. The effort to keep him in his place has been and will be constant.
And this, of course, isn't fair. It's not Harper's fault that he's famous, and he resides more on the confident side of the fine line that divides confidence from cockiness. He plays the game with an attitude, but you can tell when he speaks that he's not trying to be bigger than the game.
Hamels clearly wasn't buying that, and Ozzie indicated in his comments that Harper isn't long for baseball if he thinks that he is bigger than the game. They'd rather have Harper be like any other rookie, and you can rest assured that they're not alone in feeling this way.
Anyone within Major League Baseball who feels this way about Harper doesn't get it. All he's done since he got called up is play ball, just like any other rookie.
His star power is totally out of his control. Resenting him for it is just plain foolish.
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