WASHINGTON – Davey Johnson is an old-fashioned baseball man reared in a time when baseball was about baseball, not about counting Twitter hashtags or running overseas vote-rigging operations to pick the final spots on an All Star team. Which is why he seemed satisfied to learn Thursday afternoon that his center fielder Bryce Harper was not the player fans picked to the National League team.
"Good," the Washington Nationals manager said.
Let the army of St. Louis Cardinals fans sweep their third baseman David Freese onto the team. He was the World Series MVP last November, after all. He also has more than 232 at-bats in the major leagues.
"He's played every inning, he needs time off to catch his breath," Johnson said of Harper, sounding like a manager of a first-place team eager to see his gifted 19-year-old outfielder take four days of rest in a whirlwind season.
But there was something else that nagged at Johnson. And this was less about Harper's rest and more about a new culture in baseball. This was about trivializing a once-sacred process in which the All-Star managers attempted to put the most-deserving players in the game – not asking fans to vote for a 19-year-old kid hitting .280 with eight home runs in 59 games because it might create an Internet buzz.
Johnson stood just outside the door to the Nationals clubhouse and stared at the ground for a moment. He didn't want this to be seen as an indictment of Harper, a player he appears to love. He was also trying to be careful not to openly criticize a selection procedure baseball clearly wants to promote for non-baseball reasons. But the old-fashioned manager was having trouble comprehending the frenzy suddenly swirling around his team over an online All-Star vote.
"Nothing against [Harper], but it's more a guy that's been known the whole time against someone who came in and had a big splash," Johnson said.
How did baseball come up with the five players in each league for which fans were to vote, he wondered. Was it arbitrary? He didn't even raise the subject of counting hashtags on Twitter, but needless to say: Earl Weaver would never have counted Twitter hashtags.
"If your intent is to win the game, then why don't you pick a more experienced player?" Johnson said.
Again, this was not meant as a shot at Harper, who was not available for comment before Thursday's game against the Giants. It was more an expression of confusion over a process that has changed dramatically since the 69-year-old Johnson last managed in the big leagues a decade ago. But Johnson is right. A player who has spent two months in the majors should not be an All-Star. Not now. Not with older, currently better players deserving to make the trip.
Baseball's final vote might be popular, but it's also a gimmick that adds nothing to a game that has lost much of its luster in the last 20 years. It really was no surprise Freese won the NL vote. No bloc of fans is more motivated to buy into something that celebrates the home team than St. Louis'. And a swarm of Japanese votes that shoved Hideki Matsui and Hideki Okajima onto the American League team in past seasons put Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish on this year's roster.
In other words, it was exactly as Johnson complained about: a popularity vote.
And one Harper does not win.
Lost in the excitement of a player whose haircut looks more like a dead rat and who might be best known for the line: "That's a clown question, bro," is the fact he's not the most significant reason the Nationals have been so good this year.
Washington is in first place because it has the NL's best pitching. And it has the best pitching not just because of the seasons true All-Stars Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are having, but because of Jordan Zimmerman and Edwin Jackson as well. Had the team solved its closer problems sooner in the absence of the injured Drew Storen, it would probably have a better record than it does. Washington ranks first in most pitching categories: ERA, and least hits, runs, earned runs and home runs allowed. And if the Nats are going to win the NL East, they are going to do so with pitching.
But Harper has done something none of those pitchers other than Strasburg has been able to do. He's made the Nationals relevant.
[Big League Stew: Bryce Harper wants to become a firefighter]
And that's what got him in the final-All Star vote.
Baseball has proven a tough sell in its return to Washington. The move of the team from Montreal was so mishandled as league officials battled with Washington politicians that the franchise was never able to put together a proper ticket drive and didn't recover for seven seasons. Even the move to a new stadium in 2008 did little to generate fan interest.
Harper, however, has changed the dialogue in Washington. Conversations that were once about the Redskins or politics or the Washington Capitals are now sprinkled with exclamations of amazement about the Nationals' new young outfielder: Did you see his hair? Did you hear what he said? Did you see him playing softball on the Mall? How about that throw? What about that home run? Can you believe he stole home on Cole Hamels?
For this, Harper will be a star here. For this and the home runs many expect him to someday hit, along with the catches and the throws and the very presence of a larger-than-life player, Harper is going to make many All-Star teams. He will be a big deal for many years.
Just not now.
Best to be a real All-Star anyway, not a # sensation.
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