LOS ANGELES – We wonder sometimes how much they care and still, for some, Bryce Harper plays too hard.
We watch them pace themselves until their contract years and still, for some, Bryce Harper is reckless.
We watch them lay down when the contract comes and still, for some, Bryce Harper must be smarter.
You wouldn't have had to go far Tuesday to come upon the opinion Harper is a threat to himself and his organization, the Washington Nationals. He'd run face-first into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium the night before, chased a fly ball straight into the immovable object, then looked up from the warning track and asked his teammate, the center fielder, "Is it bad? Is it bad?"
It wasn't great.
By Tuesday afternoon, Harper's beard had been shaved so a doctor could lace 11 stitches through his chin. He wasn't in Tuesday night's lineup, in part because he was feeling queasy. Specialists have thus far ruled out a concussion, though the Nationals' plan is to continue monitoring Harper for signs otherwise.
Asked what hurt, Harper smiled thinly and said, "Both legs. Shoulder. Ribs. Knee. Wrist. Chin, of course."
When he'd walked off the field – after first trying to talk them into allowing him to continue ("Butterfly it up and play," he'd begged) – Harper looked like he'd been garroted by that fence. So, he'd miss Tuesday night's game against the Dodgers, maybe Wednesday night's game, maybe more. He'd been examined, X-rayed, and had his memory probed for signs of brain injury.
"I know what my name is," he said. "I know who my parents are."
In spite of that evidence, Davey Johnson didn't have him in the lineup against Clayton Kershaw.
Harper has run into stuff before. Other players. Other walls. Plenty of naysayers. To this day he bears a scar over his left eye, there because he ran into his own bat after a fruitless trip to the plate. Two weeks ago, it was a fence in Atlanta. He bruised his left side and then had two hits in his next 19 at-bats. Entirely undaunted, and in a game the Nationals led, 6-0, Harper charged again after the baseball and this time discovered the out-of-town scoreboard. Along with the news the rival Braves were well ahead of the Diamondbacks, Harper discovered that this particular wall held many of the same qualities as other walls, primarily in that he'll never be able to run through one. Except metaphorically.
And for this, Harper found he'd be criticized for trying to make a play when it would have been safer, easier, fully understandable, if he'd pulled up and taken the ball off the wall. Hey, the Nationals were way ahead. It was even suggested that the Nationals, infamous for swaddling Stephen Strasburg in an innings limit, should be equally concerned with Harper's habit of putting himself at risk.
Just stop. Let the young man play the game. He misjudged a fly ball. In a foreign ballpark he didn't feel the warning track under his feet. He didn't concern himself with the scoreboard, and not just the one he caromed off. The ball was in the air. He tried to catch it.
Mid-morning Tuesday, Harper tweeted, "I will keep playing the game hard for the rest of my life even if it kills me! I'll never stop. #RespectTheGame"
First Harper was disliked because he worked the system and the draft. Then because he was too showy. Then because he was precocious and good and didn't care what people thought of him. Now because he won't ease up a little?
Asked if Harper might change, Johnson said, "No."
He felt compelled to continue.
"I don't want to dampen his enthusiasm," he said. "That's who he is."
Players such as Harper – young, talented, relentless – annoy the status quo. That's because he exposes the status quo as a little soft, a little comfortable, and all too willing to let a moment pass. In Harper, they've packed size and speed and power around a survivor's heart. Harper wants to be great. It's time to let him be, the way he wants to be. Don't like it? Come beat it.
Hey, it's his face.
Matt Kemp hit a wall in Colorado last summer. Look at him now. After surgery, he's still seeking his usual game. He's chasing a swing approaching familiar, a bygone power stroke. Still, Kemp says he doesn't regret his decision a bit, because there was no decision. The ball goes up, he chases. Maybe not with quite the ferocity of Harper, but the conversation is the same; you play to win the game and wake up tomorrow to count the body parts. Most of the time, it works out fine. The rest of the time, it works out great.
"I'm going to play like that the rest of my career," Harper said. "At the end of the day I'm going to look in the mirror and say I played this game as hard as I could."
Of course, that's right after he asks, "Is it bad?"
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