Harper too good, valuable to feud with umps
Nationals outfielder needs to be smarter and avoid ejections
Bryce Harper makes baseball better every single time he steps foot on the diamond. He's not just baseball's best player at the moment, although he's certainly that. He's also its most compelling.
Harper's every at-bat has become must-watch television. No player is quicker or stronger. No player is more confident. Greatness does not frighten him. Nor do expectations. He has plenty of those himself.
When Harper was hitting home runs in bunches a few days ago, he shrugged and said, "That's what I expect of myself."
Baseball has been blessed to welcome so many amazing young players to the big leagues in recent years, from Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw to Madison Bumgarner and Yasiel Puig.
None of them has more promise than Harper, and on a Washington Nationals team that's good enough to win a World Series, Harper could end up having the kind of season that elevates him to a special place in the hearts and minds of fans.
On the other hand ...
Harper must stay on the field. It's that simple. He let an umpire get under his skin for the second time in eight days on Wednesday night and got himself ejected in the Nationals' 3-2 win over the Yankees. This can't happen.
This isn't about right and wrong. We can argue about that forever. But there are things Harper can control. Sure, home-plate umpire Marvin Hudson might have lost his cool himself. Maybe his trigger finger was a tad too quick. In these encounters, it's always difficult to know who said what.
That's not the point. Harper knows that arguing balls and strikes is the fastest way to get tossed from a game. He also has to know that he simply must discipline himself to shut his mouth, to step back in the box and to keep playing.
This is easier said than done. In the heat of competition, things can get out of hand quickly. Later, both sides may have some regrets. But just as Harper has disciplined himself in terms of the strike zone and bat control and all of that, he absolutely must do what has to be done to stay in the game.
Harper must also know that umpires are people too. When word gets around that he can be difficult, his leash will become even shorter. Harper simply can't make the games about the umpires.
There's a respect factor at work here as well. These umpires are the best in the world. They've risen to the highest level of their profession because they're good at what they do. If there's anything that Instant Replay has shown us, it's how good the umpiring in baseball is.
Every Major League player will tell him that respecting the umpires and opening lines of communication is a better way to go about things. Confrontation will get him nowhere.
Harper has joined Royals starter Yordano Ventura as the only two Major League players with two ejections this season, and that's a list every player should try to avoid.
This is the kind of season that was predicted for Harper when the Nationals made him the No. 1 pick of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft and had him in the big leagues less than two years later at 19.
In three years since, Harper has shown flashes of greatness. Most impressive is even at that young age he has never once looked overwhelmed. From Day 1, it was clear he belonged in the big leagues.
But this season has seen Harper emerge as a great player, a player that is doing things only the special ones do. He leads the National League in an assortment of offensive categories, including home runs (15), RBIs (38), walks (37) and OPS (1.203).
Harper has batted .397 during Washington's 17-4 run from last to first in the National League East. Again and again, he has been the guy who delivered.
But Harper can't deliver from the clubhouse. That has been the primary issue for a lot of his first four seasons. The thing the Nationals love most about him is also the thing that scares them to death.
Harper's greatness begins with a relentless work ethic and a belief that he must do everything at 110 mph. At times, he seems to believe every ball should be harder than the next one and that every base must be stolen and every wall crashed into.
Harper missed 106 games during the 2013-14 seasons. At least one of those injuries -- a torn ligament that sidelined him 62 games last season -- was the result of taking an extra base, one that didn't have to be taken.
Some of it surely is youth. At 22, Harper is still figuring things out and will for a long time. Let's be clear that the Nationals don't really want Harper to change in any substantive way. They want his gifts. They want his effort. They just want him to be smarter. In dealing with umpires, he simply has no choice.