5/15/2013 2:00 P.M. ET
Harper getting crash course in Majors
Nationals outfielder thrills, spills behind his aggressive style of play
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
The warning track went unheeded by Bryce Harper on Monday night, as will the unsolicited advice about the way he should play the game.
Harper is a hustler, and that's one of the many things to love about him. He doesn't hesitate or meditate or otherwise complicate a sport that often rewards instinct, and Harper's instincts are wildly and often wondrously aggressive.
Of course, it is Harper's infectious zeal that also serves to ruffle some feathers -- sometimes even his own. After all, he certainly looked ruffled after his intimate moment with the out-of-town scoreboard at Dodger Stadium.
Chasing an A.J. Ellis fly ball, Harper ran smack-dab into the chain-link fencing in front of the video board, a la Wile E. Coyote. He jammed his left shoulder and needed 11 stitches on his chin. Harper's legs, ribs, hand and wrist all hurt, as did the eyes of anybody who watched the video replay. Though initial tests for concussion came back negative, Harper was still nauseous enough to sit out Tuesday's game, and his status was questionable for Wednesday, as well.
They asked Harper, once the stars had stopped spinning around his head, if he would do it any differently now that he knew the outcome. If he'd hang back and play the ball off the wall -- heck, the Nats were up, 6-0, at the time -- rather than run it down.
"I'm going to play this game the rest of my life and try to play as hard as I can," Harper replied. "That's my life being on the line, trying to kill myself on the field for my team, trying to win the World Series. People can laugh about it all they want, but at the end of the day, I'm going to look at myself at the mirror and say, 'I played this game as hard as I could.'"
Maybe I've bumped my own head a few too many times, but I'm with Harper on this one.
We can't demand our athletes to be passionate, accountable and committed and then, in the next breath, ask them to tone it down when that passion, accountability and commitment has the ability to wreck our fantasy team. We can't expect greatness out of well-compensated professionals unless we allow them to tap into the intangibles that make them great in the first place.
The desire to see Harper tone down his style of play -- a desire articulated often in the aftermath of Monday's incident -- ignores the fundamental, psychobiological issues at play here. The difficulty of behavioral change is the basis upon which such successful enterprises as Nicorette or Weight Watchers are built. People don't outright change so much as they evolve and adhere to their status or circumstances, and so it will be with Harper's high-tempo habits.
People compare this situation to that of Stephen Strasburg, who was famously shut down by the Nationals last September. They wonder how Washington could be so protective of Strasburg yet so willing to let Harper run wild.
It's a faulty comparison, because the Nats simply capped Strasburg's innings at a pre-defined point, lest he get overworked. They didn't ask him to mess with his mechanics or revise his repertoire. They didn't try to turn a power arm into a soft-tosser. And though I'm certain they'd rather Harper not disable himself on the field of play, they're not asking Harper to care less or pace more.
Harper, remember, is still relatively new to the league and his position, which might help explain how the dimensions of Dodger Stadium could sneak up on him, warning track or not. He's also a 20-year-old kid playing in the Major Leagues at an MVP-type level, and that simply doesn't happen without the intellect to adjust and adapt.
I understand and appreciate the concern for Harper. People don't want to see him run into so many walls that he compromises his career. They want to see him in line for the Hall of Fame, not the Halls of Healing. They don't want him to become the next Pete Reiser, the 1941 NL batting champ and NL MVP Award runner-up in his first full season with the Brooklyn Dodgers who never again played as many as 137 games. Reiser played the game as Harper plays it, even once fracturing his skull in pursuit of a ball at the wall.
Because people in my generation hear the name Pete Reiser and assume he's the guy who starred in "Mad About You," how about a more modern example?
I covered Grady Sizemore in his Indians heyday -- a heyday that, in retrospect, was much shorter than any of us could have imagined. He played every single day, he played hard and he played well, notching more than 30 homers, doubles and steals in 2008. But Sizemore's body began to break down by the age of 26, and now, when you hear news of him trying to rehab from his umpteenth knee surgery in the hope that he'll be able to help a team midsummer, well, it makes you somewhat hopeful and mostly sad. To cite yet another NBC sitcom, I used to compare Sizemore to Billy Mumphrey -- a character in an unpublished novel referenced in "Seinfeld" -- in that his "unbridled enthusiasm" led to his downfall.
Harper has that same unbridled enthusiasm, and he answers questions about it much the same way Sizemore did. But as I learned with Grady, it's a waste of time and breath to preach to a person about the value of altering an approach that has made him what he is today.
Better, it seems, to appreciate that approach. After all, it's essentially what we want out of people paid a king's ransom to play a boy's game. It's Harper's body and Harper's career, and he'll do with it as he pleases. But keep in mind that he'll also learn and adapt as that career goes along. Harper's body will give him all the warnings he needs.