Baseball's greatest villain is an 18-year-old minor leaguer with a heinous mustache, an equally off-putting mullet and the scent of someone who emptied a bottle of Eau du Arrogance all over himself.
And you know what? He's exactly what the sport needs.
Bryce Harper(notes) was at it again Monday night. The No. 1 overall pick in the draft last year smacked his 14th home run of the season. He stared at it like a piece of fine art, admired it like a beautiful woman, ogled it like, well, a guy with bad facial hair and a mullet might. And that was before he left the batter's box. Harper's slow trot reached its apex halfway down the third-base line, when he glared at the pitcher, puckered his lips and sealed his home run with a thank-you kiss toward pitcher Zach Neal.
Baseball has long lagged behind football and basketball in the villainy department. It's easy to hate headhunting linebackers and pretty-boy quarterbacks. It's cool to decry sharp-elbowed centers and a Decision-making swingman named LeBron. Because baseball players hew so tightly to their self-enforced code, scant few display the sort of personality that draws fans' ire.
And as the sport's most marketable commodity, Derek Jeter(notes), nears the end of his career with no discernible heir in line, the vacuum is just begging to be filled by the very sort of antihero that has helped catapult the NBA to its most interesting season in decades.
Say what you will about LeBron James. He gets people to watch. He intrigues. He excites. He polarizes. He inspires distinct emotions. Love. Hatred. Nothing in between. It's unique, and it's the very sort of ability Harper possesses. He is a Grade-A instigator. He wore eyeblack like The Crow in high school and junior college because he could. He prances after home runs not because he's too young to know any better – gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 makes someone rather self-aware – but because he knows exactly the sort of reaction it will draw, and he likes it.
At first, the act felt off-putting – phony, marketing-driven, proto-athlete self-absorption. Harper putting the product before the player. Turns out the two are a wonderful symbiosis. Harper's production – a South Atlantic League-leading 14 homers, a .342 batting average, 42 RBIs and 12 steals for Hagerstown as the Class-A league's youngest player – makes his preening palatable.
Because for the deadpan laughs Joe Mauer(notes) can provide hawking dandruff shampoo and the smiles Evan Longoria(notes) can inspire looking for his hat and the amusement Tim Lincecum(notes) can arouse conversing with his virtual doppelganger, baseball lacks the player with the big Q rating, the one who permeates popular culture by his actions and achievements. Every sport dreams of someone like that, and the only thing that will keep baseball from having it with Harper is the game itself.
It goes back to the code. Players tend to police themselves, and there is a chance that if Harper sees enough up-and-in fastballs for his liking, he'll tamp down the pomp. Which would be a shame, really. Because right now, baseball's biggest villain is …
Think about it for a minute. Try to come up with one. Just one.
Scott Boras? Seriously, an agent is the best baseball can do?
Bud Selig? Seriously, a commissioner is the best baseball can do?
Baseball always relies upon an organic narrative developing over the course of a season and the sport remaining a bigger story than its pieces. Its willingness to stomp on original characters keeps the sport ever milquetoast. The last real villain the sport had, Jon Bois notes, was Barry Bonds, and he needed to take copious amounts of steroids to become reviled.
Still, Bonds gave baseball fans a rallying point, the same sort the NBA has these days. It doesn't matter who beats LeBron as long as someone does. And if nobody can, it amps up the stakes for next season, when the evil king is ruling and everyone is trying to overthrow him. It makes for great theater. It turns the actual games into crescendos of a soap opera.
Harper isn't quite there yet. He's not Bonds or John Rocker or Ty Cobb. He's got no PED rap, no racist ranting, no intent to injure others. He's just a cocky kid who finds nothing wrong with a slow home run trot and a pair of pursed lips for the pitcher who allowed it.
And if you have a problem with that, he might just tell you to kiss something else.