Competitive fire makes Harper great for game

May 13th, 2016

One of the things we love about Bryce Harper is that he brings a certain energy and fire to the ballpark every single night. Has it been over the top at times? Sure, it has.

Let's remember that Harper was 19 years old when he played his first Major League game four years ago. Did he still have some growing up to do? Of course.

Here's the amazing thing about those early years, and it has nothing to do with emotion. Never once did Harper look overmatched. He wasn't a great player. His career batting average was .272 after three seasons, and he averaged 18 home runs.

Harper was a good player, a two-time National League All-Star. But it was clear he wasn't nearly what he eventually was going to be. That's what we saw burst onto the scene last season with 42 home runs and the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

Now Harper is getting the Barry Bonds treatment -- 18 walks in his past 32 plate appearances for a .688 on-base percentage. Part of the fun will be seeing how he adjusts to not swinging the bat, if he gets frustrated.

This isn't about the player behind him producing, although that's a factor. Harper has elevated his game to the point that he'll be the focus of every opposing team. There's no one Nationals manager Dusty Baker can insert in the lineup who's going to make teams more willing to pitch to Harper.

Some teams are going to do that only if the game situation -- for instance, bases loaded -- dictates it. On the other hand, Jim Palmer once walked Jim Rice with the bases loaded.

"One run is better than four," Palmer said.

Back to Bryce. The Nats have fretted about his emotions at times, in part because he played too hard, cared too much. They wanted him to understand that every wall didn't have to be banged into, every base stolen. He missed 44 games in 2013 and 62 in '14.

Harper's emotions sometimes got the best of him at home plate when he'd be so frustrated after an at-bat that he would break baseball's cardinal rule about running hard to first base. This wasn't loafing. It was just the opposite.

Now about that emotion. It's being debated here, there and everywhere in the wake of Monday's game, when Harper came back onto the field and cursed an umpire after being ejected.

Major League Baseball suspended Harper for a game (he has appealed) for his actions, thereby prompting rounds of talk about whether or not he's hurting the game.

This is silly. Let Bryce be Bryce. Part of the reason he's great is that he combines talent, hard work and a raging competitive fire. This isn't to say that running back on the field and cussing an umpire is acceptable. It's not.

But this is something Harper has to figure out on his own. He'll eventually learn that doing things like he did on Monday night helps no one. Also, every minute that fans and the media spend debating his temper is a minute they're not focused on his greatness.

Also, it's important not to try to fit Harper into some blueprint of how we think a player ought to act. As Tony La Russa once said of Rickey Henderson, "The great ones are all a little different."

We let them do their thing. We admire their talent. We consider ourselves lucky to see them play.

Did Ted Williams annoy people at times? Reggie Jackson? Babe Ruth? Cal Ripken Jr. has talked about how furious he'd get when Dennis Eckersley struck him out and then finished with a pump of the fist and a scream.

This was honest, unvarnished emotion and part of who Eckersley was. None of us wants to see baseball players choreograph celebrations, but that's not what this is about.

In the heat of the moment, competitive people are going to show some emotion. No big deal. Harper has said baseball players should not be frowned upon for showing emotion. He emphasized that this generation of players has a different code of conduct. At least some do.

Agreed. No one should begrudge a genuine show of emotion. That's what we're doing at home or in the stands, right? On the other hand, no one should begrudge players who aren't comfortable showing them.

Plenty of this is up to Harper. And to Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen and Clayton Kershaw and others. The game is theirs. They've represented it well. They will continue to. All of them do things different. That's a good thing.