Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Available and Opinionated
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in July 2014
The Nationals can be a little soft, okay. They don’t handle adversity particularly well and haven’t psychologically recovered from a playoff collapse against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012. They need an edge, someone with nerve and daring. They need a bold voice that agitates, challenges and re-draws comfort zones – even if the voice isn’t obviously qualified to do so. They need Bryce Harper. Most teams – sports or otherwise – need a Bryce Harper. The Bryce Harper’s, if properly harnessed and balanced, create healthy discomfort; and in healthy discomfort there is growth and, often, greater success. At the highest levels of competition, good guys don’t always finish last, but they rarely finish first…and isn’t that the point?
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Boys will be boys. And so will young men, it seems.
Somewhat lost in the at-or-near first place Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals is the absence of both teams’ young phenoms – Manny Machado and Bryce Harper – from the lineup for large chunks of this season’s first half. Winning masks all warts. It’s like beer for not-so-pretty-faces.
Machado didn’t make his 2014 debut until May 1, the result of offseason knee surgery. On June 8, he threw a 21-year-old fit after a pitch from Oakland A’s reliever Fernando Abad buzzed by his surgically repaired knee. Machado purposefully let his bat helicopter onto the field after an empty swing at the next pitch. The benches cleared and a lot of bad breath and choice words were exchanged. It was, shall we say, an unattractive moment. The temper tantrum cost Machado five games, a suspension he served last week.
Not to be “out-controversied”, Harper, continuing his reckless play, ripped up a thumb sliding into third on April 25, had surgery and missed two months. But he’s back now – with an attitude. The day after playing his first game since April, Harper, as reported by The Washington Post, popped off about his position in the batting order and the team’s defensive alignment. He didn’t like batting sixth and wanted to play center field, not left, despite being on ice for two months. Harper also offered to anyone and everyone that Ryan Zimmerman should have continued in left field and defensive stalwart Danny Espinosa should have remained at second base. The intended or unintended message behind Harper’s loose-lipped commentary was this: I’m better than the guys hitting in front of me and Denard Span (one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball) should be on the bench.
Youth often lacks proper physical and verbal temperance. Harper is good, but his hype still leads his production. He has never hit 30 homeruns, had 100 RBI or flirted with a .300 batting average in a season. Harper’s never been a serious MVP candidate and currently has had as many surgeries as All-Star Game appearances (2). After being called up in 2012 at age 19, Harper stayed healthy and played 139 games. Last year, that number fell to 119 as he battled knee issues, a consequence of a collision with an outfield wall. Through last Sunday, Harper’s posted for just 28 of 87 games in 2014. The song apparently, as Led Zeppelin might say, remains the same.
And this guy has an opinion on how a major league team should be managed? This reckless and bumptious youth has the audacity to challenge, and maybe undermine, first year manager and long-time major leaguer Matt Williams? Clearly Harper needs to be humbled, put in his place, served a slice of humble pie and prescribed an aggressive course of ego-arrest. He needs a timeout chair, to stand in the corner and have all his electronics taken away.
Or does he?
I love this cast of Nationals. They are classy, easy to like and the best professional sports team in Washington, D.C. But sometimes they are too nice. The camaraderie is too great. Their gentlemen factor is too high. They represent themselves, their families, MLB and the nation’s capital too well. You’d introduce your daughters to these Nationals and loan them expensive yard equipment. Those are commendable qualities, but in the world of ultra-competitive athletics, they can lead to “the S-word”: soft.