Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bryce Harper: America's Masochistic Baseball Idiot

The gif you’re seeing up there, if you took the time to let it load, is of Bryce Harper last night running into a video wall at full speed for no reason. Have you heard of Bryce Harper? Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper? There’s a pretty decent chance you’ve heard of him, even if you don’t like baseball. People who talk about baseball for a living LOVE to talk about Bryce Harper, so much so that the phenomenon might have spilled into your lap by accident. Anyway, he’s this guy. He plays baseball.

Bryce Harper is famous. He has been famous for a long time. For being good at baseball. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine when he was only 16 years old. Can you imagine? A 16 year old on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine? That’s something that everybody in America sees when they’re in line at the grocery store. That’s a lot of bored, put-upon eyeballs looking at a 16 year old.

To expose a 16 year old to that level of scrutiny is almost sadistic. Think of how crazy it made Tyra Banks when her thighs were on the cover of one of those grocery store magazines. Of course she was probably crazy already, but still. Magazines are a big deal, you guys. Never forget this fact. Sports Illustrated put 16 year old Bryce Harper on the cover, and here I am talking to you about it. Good move by them. They must have sold like 20 copies of that one issue.

The tone of all the talk about Bryce Harper has been, “Oh MY GOD is this guy so YOUNG and GOOD AT BASEBALL! He is SO GOOD at baseball, I bet people who don’t even LIKE BASEBALL will want to see him play BASEBALL, and then all of us BASEBALL PEOPLE who KNOW ABOUT BASEBALL will seem more important in society. Hey everybody! BRYCE HARPER! BASEBALL! HELP US!” It is exactly that strident. This is why you may have heard of him.

How has Bryce Harper, 20 year old phenom and SAVIOR OF BASEBALL handled all this attention? Like a 20 year old. He loves it. He’s good at it, too. He’ll talk to anybody who wants to talk to him about how great he is. He seems affable and relaxed with media people. He does a good job of not saying anything that would make his other baseball teammates hate him, for example “I am the best guy on this team,” or “I can’t wait to play for the New York Yankees later as soon as my contract here is done.” Instead he says things like “I just want to do what’s best for the team” and “I’m focused on trying to win a World Series.” He’s smart about this stuff.

One of the things you might hear about Bryce Harper, over and over again, is that he plays baseball “the right way.” The right way to play baseball is as hard as you possibly can. Like you’re angry at baseball for being the thing you’re doing. That is how Bryce Harper plays baseball. He doesn’t just run, he runs as fast as he can. He doesn’t just swing a bat, he swings a bat as hard as he can. He doesn’t just throw… you get the idea. He plays this way, according to him, because his Dad has spent his life laying rebar in Nevada. This is why baseball people love to talk about Bryce Harper. It’s easy. I just got done writing this paragraph and it was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done in my life.

Sometimes when Bryce Harper plays baseball, he does something that isn’t strictly necessary. Like, say, running into a wall at full speed after taking a bad angle to try to catch the ball, rather than, you know, not running into a wall at full speed, and grabbing the baseball after it bounces off the wall, and then throwing the baseball back to second base, and maybe getting the guy out or at least not running into a wall at full speed and collapsing gently like a ballerina doing Swan Lake. After he did that, he was bloody, with some weird gash that required eleven stitches. And he asked to be left in the game.

It reminds me of his first major league hit, where he threw off his helmet for no reason after rounding first base as if posing for a Wheaties box rather than running out a standard double. His play has a showily masochistic quality. It’s as if he wants people to be maximum excited about how hard he plays baseball. He has said before that he wants to be the best baseball player of all time. If that’s his goal, it seems he is savvy enough o know that image management is a part of the job. He’s been savvy since he was 16 years old, because Sports Illustrated wanted to sell some magazines and they said he was the “Chosen One” and he thought, “That has a nice ring to it.” Muhammad Ali was The Greatest in part because he told us he was The Greatest. That kind of a thing. Have you heard of Muhammad Ali? Yes you have.

It looks like Bryce Harper is doing the same thing. He’s not saying “I am The Greatest,” because baseball is a team sport and you can’t do that and be on a team full of other dudes who also have an impact on the outcome of baseball games, and they will hate you if you tell everybody you’re The Greatest. Instead he’s saying “I am The Greatest” with the way he plays. I imagine that some part of him was excited about the prospect of crashing into that wall. “Oh good,” his brain said, “Here comes my crashing into a wall highlight. This will be a good one. This will help.”

I picture the following exchange:

Center Fielder Denard Span: “Hey Harp, you okay, man?”
Harper: “AM… I… TRENDING?”
Trainer: “Oh shit you have a big weird blood gash.”
Harper: “Leave me in the game and I’ll give you 50 basis points on merchandise.”
Manager Davey Johnson: “Get the fuck outta here, we’ve got a baseball game to play.”
Harper: “Okay, I’ll leave, but let me walk stoically first.”

I like Bryce Harper. I like watching him play baseball. He’s on my favorite team, and he is great. But he’s an idiot. That’s okay. You can be an idiot and play baseball for a living. It’s close to a prerequisite for the job. Baseball involves people throwing a hard ball towards you at 95 miles an hour, and you standing as close to it as possible and trying to hit it with a wooden stick that sometimes shatters into jagged shards. It’s not an ideal task for the faint of heart or for the particularly intelligent. Bryce Harper is already really good at it.

But he wants to be the best at it. He wants people to say he is the best to ever play the game. That is his goal. If it helps his case, he does not care if he runs into a video board at full speed. Look at the way his glove hand drops and his body goes limp at the last possible second. He's clearly no longer trying to catch the ball. It’s like he’s embracing the collision. Why is he still running? He is running in order to hit the wall. It's like he WANTS to hit that wall. He might want to so bad, he’s ready and willing and excited to do it even if it’s not necessary, even if it’s the wrong baseball play to make on the particular ball he’s chasing, maybe even if it actually hurts his team. That’s how badly he wants to be the best baseball player who ever lived. He wants it so bad it’s making him a worse player. He needs to relax and play the ball off the bounce. But he won’t. He is an idiot. He is America’s masochistic baseball idiot. He is great.