On Being Young And Brash In The Social Media Age

Los Angeles, CA, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper runs to the dugout against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Bryce Harper isn't the first young phenom to take baseball by storm. But doing it in the age of social media is a whole other ballgame.

Since Bryce Harper pushed his way into our collective baseball consciousness, we've been pushing back. All of seventeen years old, he showed up with his high socks and his wild hair and his messy eye black. He ran fast and hard on every play, which was good, but did it with reckless abandon, and we shook our heads. He hit the ball loud and he hit it far, but sometimes he showed up pitchers, and we wagged our fingers. Oh, did we wag our fingers.

"That's a five-tool player," the experts said. "A special talent. Once in a generation. And so young."

"But who does he think he is?" we responded, disapprovingly.

"This isn't the way it's done," we warned.

"He's not respecting the game," cried our elders.

We said it when we were out with our buddies. And at the sports bar. And to our work colleagues. We posted it on Facebook. And on Twitter. And on Tumblr. We wrote it and read it and wrote it some more. We wrote it so much and read it so much that it became the truth.

Bryce Harper. What a prospect. What a jerk.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There's that kid at school. The one who buys his clothes at Goodwill because he wants to, not because he has to. He likes to sketch. And listen to music. He wears his hair long. Not in a style. Just long, past his shoulders. He's friends with a few kids in his class. Mostly they hang around after school. Pretty casual.

And he's really, really fast. Without trying much at all, he runs laps around everyone during gym class. Long, comfortable strides. He does it for the freedom. For the quiet moments, when he can be himself and think and dream.

The track coach is intrigued. He wants the kid on the track team. Fresh blood. New energy. But the other kids on the team don't like the idea. At all.

"The kid's just weird," they tell the coach. "Just look at him."

"You want me to share a locker room with that guy?" says the team captain.

"He joins the team, and I'm out of here," says the co-captain.

And they talk about him. At lunch. In the library. In class. They taunt him. Behind his back.

And they write about him on Facebook. And Twitter. And Tumblr. They write about his hair, and his clothes, and his drawings. He didn't ask for the attention. Never said he wanted to be on the track team. Just wanted to do his thing.

That kid. He's fast but he's a real weirdo.

It's the tall and thin and beautiful girl who wants to tries out for the debate team. It's the overweight kid with pimples and a killer voice who wants the lead role in the school play. It's the same story, written a hundred different ways.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As Americans, we pride ourselves on rugged individualism. But, in truth, we crave conformity. Conformity to social norms. Conformity to gender roles. Conformity to "the ways things have always been done."

In baseball they call it the unwritten rules. Old-time baseball. Among players on the same team, it's handed down from veterans to rookies in the clubhouse. For players on opposing teams, it's meted out on the field. "This is the way it's always been done, kid," they say after pitching inside and landing a fastball on the rookie's body.

Baseball is the perfect expression of this duality. A team sport that exalts individual accomplishments but frowns on individuality. And so it was with Bryce Harper. So young, so talented, so eager. But too much of wanting to do things his way and not the way they'd always been done.

At least that's what everyone said. And wrote. And tweeted. And posted on Facebook. And tweeted again. Bryce Harper, the internet meme, replaced Bryce Harper, the ballplayer.

It turns out that if you look past the eye black and the wild hair and the youthful exuberance, you'll see a pretty good ballplayer.

No, not a pretty good ballplayer. A damn good ballplayer.

A ballplayer who knows how to play the game. The right way.

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