Does Harper deserve 'Face of Baseball' tag?

April 22nd, 2017

If nothing else, is at least the eyes, the nose and the lips when it comes to The Face of Baseball. For verification, just listen to the reaction after the slugger with the game's most striking collection of hair strolls to the plate on the road for the Nationals.

Booooooo. Actually, during the Nats' three-game sweep of the Braves this week in Atlanta, it was more like BOOOOOOO, and that was before Harper even threatened to leave the on-deck circle.

Not only that, but Washington plays this weekend in New York, where Mets fans have been known to clear their throats a little at the sight of opposing players, especially those such as Harper with considerable skills.

He gets it, by the way.

"Yeah," Harper said, nodding, when I asked him if he puts this Bryce-centered jeering around Georgia and other parts of the Major Leagues into perspective. He eased into a smile, adding, "Growing up, I always remember this quote from Reggie Jackson that goes, 'They don't boo nobodys.'"

Harper is somebody, all right. In fact, whoever is your choice for The Face of Baseball had better come as strong as this: Consistent excellence, because that mostly has been the way to describe the career of Harper, a four-time All-Star who won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 2015. He's earned the 2015 NL Silver Slugger Award along with the '12 NL Rookie of the Year Award, and he led the NL in homers in '15.

No question, Harper wasn't Harper last year after he hit .176 in July and .203 in September along the way to a .243 batting average overall with 24 homers, significantly below his career averages of .281 and an average of 31 homers per season. Now he's the old Harper, to the chagrin of those booers. Entering Friday night's three-game series against the Mets at Citi Field, he was hitting .400 with six home runs, 18 RBIs, an on-base percentage of .515 and a slugging percentage of .818. He also continued as the owner of one of baseball's most powerful arms in right field, and listen to this ...

He's just 24.

So we're back to that booing. Blame it on the combination of respect and fear for a young superstar who slams pitches as far today as Reggie once did. Pete Rose also comes to mind. Nobody was smothered with more boos on the road during his career than Charlie Hustle.

That's because he tortured opponents with his relentless ways at the plate, on the bases and in the field. You know, just like Harper, 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds of constant energy.

"I've always tried to go into every single stadium and play the game with as much enthusiasm as I can and play as hard as I can also," Harper said. "I also try to do whatever I can to the best of my ability to help my team win. Wherever I play, whether they boo me or not, I don't even worry about it. My objective is just to go about it the right way and play hard."

That sounds like The Face of Baseball to me. Then again, there is a 25-year-old standout with the Angels named , and his resume sparkles like that of his NL counterpart. They both are in their seventh season in the Major Leagues, but Trout has played in five All-Star Games and won two American League MVP Awards. Plus, he has five Silver Slugger Awards, and he used his swift feet to lead the league in stolen bases five years ago.

According to Harper, there also are other candidates.

"We got a lot of young talent in this game, and it starts with Mike Trout, and then you have Manny Machado, and you have , and there's , of course," Harper said. "So the game is going in the right direction with all of those guys. It's a lot of fun to play every single day and be a part of that. Hopefully, all of us can contribute and bring as much to this game as we can."

They all do in their own little ways. We've already discussed Trout. As for Machado, he's a defensive whiz at third base for the Orioles with an efficient bat. Betts is a Red Sox standout in the outfield and at the plate despite his diminutive stature. Seager spent his 2016 NL Rookie of the Year Award-winning season as the Dodgers' next great shortstop, and he slammed three homers during a game.

While Seager is 22, Machado and Betts join Harper at 24, but out of this whole mix of rising players, nobody gets close to the boos of Harper.

To hear Nationals manager Dusty Baker tell it, the public only knows that other Harper who had a run-in with an umpire during the National Junior College World Series, when the player drew a line in the dirt after a called third strike to show why he thought the ump missed the call. That other Harper became a target of high expectations after he followed as the Nats' second consecutive No. 1 overall pick in the Draft. That other Harper made the cover of Sports Illustrated before he did anything worth mentioning in the Major Leagues.

That other Harper made social media explode by saying, "That's a clown question, bro," while responding to a reporter.

"They don't know him. They don't understand him," Baker said. "I don't think he really cares, but he's different. I like him a lot. I told him I was going to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church the other day in Atlanta, and he asked me to bring him something back. I told him that, 'When we come in here the next time, do you want to go?' And he said, 'I'd love to.' I went to the Negro League Hall of Fame [in Kansas City], and he wanted to go with me.

"He's really into his game. He's very confident. He comes across as a cocky individual, but he lives and walks his faith, which is Mormon. He also knows history better than any other player I've ever had on one of my teams, and I'm talking about all history."

As a result, Harper is the perfect guy to ask this question: When considering everybody from Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron to Derek Jeter, what are the definitive characters you must have to become The Face of Baseball?

"It comes with a lot of stuff," Harper said. "You have to perform on the field the best you can, and you have to be a good person on and off the field, as well. You want to help out in your community, and you particularly want to be helpful in the community where you're from and where you play. As young guys in this game, there are a bunch of other things we can do. We can serve people, and we can just help people. We can spread the knowledge of the game to young folks to try to make it even better for the players who come up after us. We can do all of these things while having fun at the same time."

In sum, that's Harper.

So maybe he is The Face of Baseball.

Baker raised his eyebrows, before he delivered the truth, "Instead of naming this guy or that guy, why can't there be more than one?"