A NATIONALS TREASURE
“I don’t care what anybody says about me…I know what I do, and I do it well.”_Lil Tunechi.
That’s Bryce Harper’s Instagram bio. Lil Tunechi. Lil Wayne. I quite enjoy when people express the multitudes they contain. Bryce Harper plays in a Nationals game, hits a bomb, wins MVP and also he can Instagram himself wearing a thumb ring or take a selfie in his truck after stopping for tacos. Those multitudes — everything on the spectrum of him expressing himself — makes him who he is and who he is, is an amazing ballplayer. He’s fun to watch! The same thing that gives him the confidence to (literally) step up to the plate and hit a home run 461 feet off an intimidating pitcher is the same thing that gives him the confidence to grow his hair out, shave the sides, gel and swoop the longest part up the middle. It’s the same thing that makes an older player like Papelbon want to (and literally) choke him in the dugout. It’s the same thing that makes 64-year-old Goose Gossage angry, makes 68-year-old Johnny Bench angry, the same thing that makes all of the Goose Gossages and Johnny Benches of the world angry. Harper is one of our baseball bad boys. Bryce Harper is a Nationals Treasure. Bryce Harper is a National Treasure, period.
Harper is Mormon, chews “herbal stuff” instead of tobacco and he will let you know when you ask a clown question. Harper takes selfies in bed, he takes selfies wearing sunglasses, he’s photographed with a puppy or a kid or he’s photographed naked or shirtless or in a robe or wearing a tuxedo. He Instagrams himself holding his MVP trophy or his hand holding an ice cream cone or his family at the pumpkin patch. These are all things people could fuss about if he weren’t playing well, but he is. He’s one of the best players in Major League Baseball. So what now? He’s pretty-haired and flashy and good so no one can claim his fashion sense is distracting him from the game. Can Bryce Harper Live? Let him live.
I LOVE THE NUMBERS; WE READ MLB NEWS
Most of us know the stats; we read MLB News. “Harper is the only player in Major League Baseball history with at least 42 home runs, 124 walks and 118 runs scored at age 22 or younger, and he is the youngest player in MLB history with at least 42 home runs and 124 walks in a season. The previous youngest was Babe Ruth, who hit 54 home runs and had 150 walks in 1920 at the age of 25.”_MLB News.
And at 22, Bryce was the third youngest player to win the American League MVP award, the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history. Bryce was the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, Bryce was in a dugout fight with Papelbon, Bryce takes his batting helmet off and whips his hair back and forth. Bryce looks like a baby lion from The Lion King. Bryce wears a thumb ring and ripped jeans and drinks Jarritos. Bryce got naked for the ESPN body issue. Bryce worries a lot of people because much like Jose Bautista, not only is Bryce very good at baseball, but he also seems to enjoy it a bit too much. There are rules regarding how much players are allowed to enjoy baseball and here is a quick cheat sheet: they are not allowed to enjoy it very much at all.
Hit a three-run home run to give your team the lead against the Texas Rangers in Game Five of the Division Series? Not allowed to flip your bat, Jose. Even though you did anyway and Andrew Keh of The New York Times called it the “the most ostentatious bat flip in MLB History” and even though your bat flip has its own section of a Wikipedia article and even though someone out there got the flip tattooed on their thigh and Topps made a special baseball card just for that moment, it still wasn’t allowed. That Game Five of the ALDS was one of the most amazing baseball games I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching and as it was happening I tweeted: I HOPE EVERYONE WHO THINKS BASEBALL IS BORING IS WATCHING THIS GAME. I am a Rangers fan and enjoyed that game immensely because it was exactly what baseball is about (outside of rowdy fans throwing bottles and garbage onto the field, which I guess is sort of what baseball is about too, in a way) and exactly what baseball should be about: heartbreaks, triumphs, humans, emotions, winning, losing, picking yourself up and trying again and above all things, hope. Epic, exciting, game-changing moments warrant epic, exciting, game-changing emotions.
Demanding on-the-field decorum from players but being okay with things like off-the-field domestic violence and drugging doesn’t make a lot of sense. A player like Harper can hit 42 home runs in one season but he’s not allowed to drop his bat a certain way or put too much product in his hair or he’s instantly labeled as douchey or disrespectful? People call Bryce a punk or a fool because he’s young, too flashy for some people. Yasiel Puig drives his car too fast, (I mean, this is true but) flips his bat too much, seemingly doesn’t have the right attitude when making an amazing catch or play. They’re not humble enough. These are our young MLB phenoms who are held to an entirely different standard than our young NFL or NBA phenoms.
In the NFL or NBA, it’s welcomed and expected for the super-talented guys at the top of their game to wear dope clothes and jewelry, to peacock with their hairstyles and cars. There is no denying that those things factor into the lure of young athletes to succeed — glitter, glamour, sports, cars, masculinity, sex — the amount of confidence/arrogance/competitiveness it takes to make it to that level and stay there is necessarily obscene.
SORRY NOT SORRY
In the ESPN article about Bryce Harper aptly entitled “Sorry Not Sorry,” Tim Keown boldly writes “He wants to change the game. He wants to change the perception of baseball players, to become a single-name icon like LeBron and Beckham and Cam.” (There’s also a companion ESPN radio piece re: the “Sorry Not Sorry” article.)
Keown knows his bad boys; he wrote Bad As I Wanna Be with Dennis Rodman. And like Rodman, Bryce is as bad as he wants to be and as good as he wants to be, too. The thing about Bryce Harper is that he IS as good as everyone said he would be. And to add to it, he’s handsome, hella talented, has a gorgeous swing and is (more than likely) soon to be disgustingly wealthy. (He will be a free agent after the 2018 season so just Google “Bryce Harper contract prediction” and watch the $400–500 million conversation pop up.)
He also has an attitude that spills out with no regard of staying in its place. So during games, yeah he goes a little warrior-wild with the eye black. And off the field, he wears polka dot socks and double-monks, sometimes red suede loafers with his initials stitched on the top. Bryce Harper can wear whatever shoes he wants, cut his hair how he wants. Autonomy is beautiful. Policing celebratory behavior and self-expression is fugly.
Bryce on baseball: “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do.”
I can’t say exactly why MLB’s unwritten rules are in place but I can say that history has shown us that this is an organization at times super-adverse to change, super-adverse to bending. This is an organization that fought very hard to keep its ballplayers white, an organization that didn’t allow a black player to don an MLB uniform until 1947 and even then offered little to no protection against all that Jackie Robinson had to endure. Major League Baseball isn’t always the best at getting with the times. There are always going to be older players who feel like they’ve paid their dues and who believe the younger ones simply need to keep their heads down, know their place. But what if the younger players don’t want to follow those rules anymore? What if the way they choose to respect the game looks differently from the way players of the past respected the game? And who qualifies respect? Isn’t it disrespectful to not celebrate something worth celebrating? If Jose hadn’t flipped his bat during Game Five of the ALDS, I would’ve been #personallyoffended.
Mike Trout recently said he’d never be flashy about a home run and that’s his choice. Trout is one of my favorite players and since we already know the stats, I won’t write them here. Trouty is ruh-eally good at baseball. But when Trout seems to sprout wings and leap forty feet in the air to rob someone of a home run, he does whoop a bit, holler even. The exuberance is impossible to contain. He just did the unthinkable and it requires celebration. We’re talking the best baseball players in the world, doing what they do and doing what they do well…which demands a bat flip, a hair flip, a ripped shirt, an icy-neon Gatorade bath, a shout.
I defend expression of emotion and emotion itself. I defend Bryce and Jose and Yasiel for bringing energy to the game, for getting younger fans even more involved. We need you! I defend Trout for voicing his opinions on it too. and Trout shouldn’t be shamed for who he is, either. Trout is going the Derek Jeter route and there are worst ways to go. The other day during an interview down in Cuba, Jeter claimed that he has “always been very interested in content.” That’s Classic Jeter. He’s not going to give us too much. He’s reserved, not flashy. Everyone is different. We’re all okay.
TALKING BRYCE WITH STACEY MAY FOWLES
I asked essayist, novelist, baseball-lover and curator of the sublime Tiny Letter: Baseball Life Advice Stacey May Fowles why she thinks Harper is singled out when it comes to The Old Boys’ Baseball Club of Fussiness and she summed it up perfectly. Beautifully. Stacey said:
I’ve always been interested in players that step outside the boundaries of what is “expected” in baseball. I’ll admit that Harper wasn’t always on my radar when it came to fandom, but when he finally arrived I was immediately smitten. He’s very obviously self-confident, and believes himself to be the best without apology, but for whatever reason it’s not a harmful belief. It manages to be charming instead of cocky and off-putting. He’s somehow maintained a sort of classically attractive underdog quality despite being one of the best players to ever play the game. I’m not even sure how that’s possible.
I also think he challenges standard trope of masculinity in incredibly nuanced ways. But simply, he’s a heterosexual man challenging homophobia in a hyper-masculine milieu, whether he realizes it or not. He asserts stereotypically feminine traits, like vanity, and “prettiness,” and, well, personal grooming, but is still a notable heterosexual heartthrob when it comes to athletes we love. His interaction with gender is actually kind of fascinating, and I’m not sure I’ve gotten to the bottom of it yet. I just know that its a breath of fresh air in a culture that demands men act, speak, and play a certain way. He’s both performative and entirely genuine, which is an intoxicating combination.
EVERYTHING STACEY SAID. I think the idea of what’s “expected” and not apologizing for it is what makes some men want to fight him. Makes some men want to fuss about him when they get the chance. When of course in reality, it takes uniqueness and unapologetic confidence/belief in one’s self to make it to a certain level in professional sports or professional anything, really. But there are always unwritten rules and if broken…terms like “respect the game” are constantly brought up. The idea of respect in general….not respecting those who have come before him…not respecting the pitcher by blowing a kiss or “pimping” a home run. (I hate the term.) Bryce not apologizing for himself is key, like Stacey said. Sorry Not Sorry. And he shouldn’t be.
I appreciate Josh Donaldson’s hair as much as I do Bryce’s, although Bryce flips his more. And I truly look forward to seeing what Bryce will wear the same way I look forward to seeing what Cam Newton will wear in his postgame conferences. Satin smoking jackets? Velvet? Glitter? ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.
LAYERS AND LAYERS
There are layers to my feelings as a woman who is also a huge fan of baseball, of sports in general. I love college football/basketball and the NFL and the NBA even though I am careful about who I watch and root for since so many players are accused of (and so many times NOT prosecuted for although they absolutely should be when they are clearly guilty) sexual assault and rape, domestic violence, since so many teams/universities prefer to look the other way. Katie Nolan and Jessica Luther discussed this recently on Katie’s GarbageTime Podcast…the complexities that go into being a woman, a feminist, a sports fan.
And like Stacey discussed before in her blessing of an essay “It’s Okay To Have The Hots For Baseball Players: A Manifesto,” Layers. She wrote “Quite frankly, I’ve grown real tired of pretending that Bryce Harper isn’t a scorchingly beautiful specimen of masculinity.”
Yes I can list all thirty MLB teams and tell you whether they’re American or National or Central or East or West and yes I can also tell you which players are most handsome and fun in my opinion. I always have a (some) baseball crush(es) going. I’m okay with Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant doing an interview together. Layers of handsomeness and talent! There are layers re: fashion, there are layers re: masculinity, athletes, expression.
I kept talking to Stacey about Bryce and all of this because I could talk to Stacey about Bryce and all of this all day. Stacey said:
We’ve seen this whole “respect the game” nonsense with Jose Bautista, obviously. But I think for the old school hatred of him goes far deeper than a simple one off bat flip, probably more than they’re ready to admit to themselves. Bautista, like Harper, refuses to play into the status quo. He won’t bow to tradition, or to the media, or to expectations of how he should or shouldn’t act. And Bautista, like Harper, is not actually doing anything disrespectful at all. In my view, they’re both warm, loyal, “respectful” players who like to enjoy themselves and be the best at what they do. They celebrate their successes, as much as they’ll celebrate anyone else’s. They’re great with kids, as much as some would like to paint them as setting a bad example for young fans. For whatever reason, bygone thinking is that you can’t celebrate who you are, and your unique character. It’s a “fall in line” idea that I would actually argue is bad for young people.
It’s funny that you mention Donaldson, because Harper and him actually connected on Twitter about their hair. Sure, it was a cute, fun social media moment, but it also goes back to this challenging stereotypes of masculinity trope. Donaldson has incredible appeal from a heterosexual attraction standpoint, but he also defies these notions of the way men should be and act. They’re cut from the same cloth in that respect. Donaldson hasn’t caught as much old school criticism, likely because he’s not as outspoken in that respect, but he too has shifted the standard of what players we find compelling and why.
I think it’s interesting to look at why these players appeal to fans that may have felt left out of the baseball conversation in the past. They’re definitely elite athletes, the best in the game, but they look, sound, and act differently than what we’ve come to expect. And that’s a really positive thing, and a comment on our collective shifting attitudes. Baseball is a lens by which we can view our culture, and this old school/new school debate is indicative of positive, progressive change, however minor. Beyond that, they’re very good for baseball. They’re fun superstars who invite a whole new crop of fans to take part. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me that Josh Donaldson, for example, is the reason they started to take in a game our two, and then many. They have broad appeal, and to try to “knock them down a peg” with traditional nonsense is nothing but archaic and harmful.
1–2–3 (STRIKES YOU’LL NEVER RUN OUT OF) ADORABLENESS BREAK
- Bryce makes adorable commercials with adorable children.
- Bryce Harper sings “My Girl.”
- Bryce Harper plays for this, Bryce Harper plays for that, Bryce plays.
BACK TO BUSINESS
I love it when people defend Bryce, I love defending Bryce. And he certainly doesn’t “need” me to. He’s a handsome, rich, super-talented white dude who by no means is like being “persecuted” in any way that demands my defense. But regarding the BIGGER issue of MLB doing everything it can to squash newer/younger viewers/fans…and the issue of how MLB is so slow to welcome change…Bryce is kind of a KANYE. Bryce telling ESPN “I will never say anybody’s better than me. Those words will never come out of my mouth” and Bryce wearing monogrammed velvet slippers is kind of a flip-off to his haters. That appeals to me. “I don’t care what anybody says about me…I know what I do, and I do it well.”
The electrifying thing about baseball is that it has the appearance of being slow and boring to those who don’t watch it (enough) and to those who compare it to other sports. Listen. This is a trick. Don’t be fooled.
Baseball is a puzzle; there’s a secret.
The secret revealed: during a baseball game there is the sure, expected crack of a bat, the bright snap of leather…but more importantly, the crack-snap of something else opening up. Wait for it. The sky — opportunity, hope — blooming. A hit or a home run or a pitch or a stolen base or an unbelievable catch that takes us to a whole new level. The game changer.
Bryce is a game changer too. He is who he is and I’m glad. Bleach-blond Gatorade-chugging Bryce, left-hand swinging, right-hand throwing, candy cane red and white Nationals uniform Bryce. I like him. I just like him, which goes pretty far with me. Love, even. Hey. I love you, Bryce. Keep doing you. I’m okay with letting Bryce Harper live and take his selfies and wear whatever jewelry he wants because it’s working. But more than that. Bigger than that. All of us. Individuals. Hoping. Moving up. Baseball fans young and old— we’re going to a whole new level and we’re (even better than) okay.