If you’re a baseball fan in the world right now, the odds of you having the same conversation I’ve been having for the last two weeks are pretty high:
Me: “So, how about those Nationals, huh?”
Other person: “Can you believe it? Bryce Harper leaves and then they go to the World Series. What a tool.”
Me: /backs slowly out of room
Bryce Harper. As divisive a figure as one could find among current baseball players. It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly it is that people dislike him so vehemently. It’s easy to chalk it up to sour grapes among Nationals fans. Or even fans who would have liked to see him sign with their team, and are now enjoying some schadenfreude. All because the Nationals are going to the World Series and Harper is not.
But the thing is, these are two separate things. Harper no longer even goes here and people are still in their feelings about him. And they likely always will be. It’s not about Harper’s abilities as a baseball player. It’s about his personality and style of play and how it doesn’t line up with how they think the game should be played.
A perfect encapsulation of this is the time in 2015 that Harper was literally choked by his own Nationals’ teammate, Jonathan Papelbon. Ostensibly, it was because Harper did not hustle on a pop-up, pausing to be annoyed with himself for hitting into an out in a game that was meaningless.
A lot of MLB fans and even players latched on to this reason and sided with Papelbon. I can’t imagine the dissociation that comes with thinking that a person deserves to get choked at their place of employment for, well, any reason. But specifically for not running fast enough.
That obviously wasn’t the reason, though. The real reason was that Papelbon had recently plunked Manny Machado for having the audacity to hit a home run. Harper called it “tired” in the media, noting that relief pitchers don’t bat, so they never have to face the consequences of their actions when they throw baseballs at opponents. Their offense does, particularly their star players. Which would be Harper, and he was resigned to the fact that he would likely pay for Papelbon’s decision. Which he did, from Papelbon himself.
I can’t fault a player for not wanting to take the physical punishment for a hothead teammate’s actions. But plenty of people do.
There’s a certain set of baseball people (fans, players, media, etc.) who despise players like Harper, and not because of any real baseball reason. They don’t like his arrogance. They don’t like that he knows he is good at baseball. They don’t like the amount of money he’s getting paid. They don’t like his success, so they root for his failure. And that subset is particularly gleeful about this phenomenal run by the Nationals, as though their success reflects in any way upon Harper. Because it gives them something to feel smug about.
As though the Nationals’ current success is any sort of reflection on Harper as a player. He hit .294/.368/.884 with three home runs and four RBI in the 2014 National League Division Series, and his team still lost. In 2015, Harper was worth 10 bWAR and was the best offensive player in the game in a lot of ways. And yet his team didn’t even make the playoffs. Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball for years and his team has NEVER made the playoffs in that time. It’s almost like one player cannot carry an entire team by themselves, and under the same logic, one player cannot generally be blamed for an entire team’s success or lack thereof.
But here’s the thing: regardless of any of this, Bryce Harper is not the story of these playoffs, no matter how much people want him to be. To continue to focus on him just cheapens the fantastic accomplishments of the players who actually ARE on the team and playing in the first World Series in franchise history.
SB Nation’s Eric Stephen said it best:
The Nationals can be celebrated without shitting on Bryce Harper— Eric Stephen (@ericstephen) October 16, 2019
There’s a lot to love about this team. Anthony Rendon could be the league MVP. Howie Kendrick is having a career season and a monster playoffs. The starting pitchers are pitching like it’s 2013. Sean Doolittle and his wife are delightful nerds who regularly bless us with excellent social media content.
Even Harper himself is rooting for this team, and is still comfortable that he made the best long term decision for his family. Telling The Athletic’s Jayson Stark:
“I’m so happy for them. You know how hard it is to get into the postseason and win games. For them to be able to put it together this year the way they have, it’s an amazing thing.”
So why does everyone feel the need to keep bringing it back to Harper? Like an ex-partner who has moved on with someone else, it’s time to let him go.