The knock on Bryce Harper, the Nationals’ 22 year-old burgeoning superstar who will soon be named the 2015 NL MVP, is that he’s immature, cocky, and self-destructive. But he seems to have proven himself to be far less so than the same sportswriters who have so often leveled such doubts about his character. This is good news for the Nationals and their fans, and also for suckers like me, who believe that baseball stars have an obligation to be good role models.
I wrote here about the late September, mid-game dugout fight between Harper and Jonathan Papelbon, a late season acquisition by the Nats whose arrival as a new bullpen ace coincided with team’s collapse in the National League East race. Post hoc ergo propter hoc being as seductive a logical fallacy as it is, Nats fans and, less excusably, the D.C. sports press blamed much of the Nats failure on the ex-Phillies, ex-Red Sox closer, along with manager Matt Williams, who was fired immediately after the regular season. Papelbon was also blamed for the fight, which is fair: he started it.
The ethics pressure is on Harper now, ironically enough. The Nats will dump Papelbon if their superstar and likely NL MVP wants that, and it will cost them.The pitcher has a contract obligating them to pay him $11,000,000 next season, and after this ugly mess his trade value will be close to zero. Yet Papelbon is one of the most reliable elite closers in baseball. He has never had a truly bad year, and he has never been hurt. Nor has he ever been regarded as “clubhouse poison”; he’s just a bit of a jerk, in a sport that has many of them. The Nats need a closer, they don’t need to pay $11 million dollars for nothing, and the best for all parties would be for Harper to take Papelbon out for a beer and agree to a truce, then to tell the team that he wants the reliever to stay.There are plenty precedents in baseball history for star players who hated each other’s guts playing well together on the field and leading their teams to championships: heck, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig couldn’t stand each other. We will see if Harper, 22 and a bit of a jerk himself, can rise to the challenge.
Well, he did:
“Since the end of the season, Bryce Harper has reached out to Jonathan Papelbon to make sure their relationship as teammates is functional next season…“Papelbon and Harper are fine together,” one person inside the Nationals said, referring to Harper’s phone call. “Harp just wants to win. All he cares about is that we have a 45-save relief pitcher who’s going to help us.”
That’s called putting professionalism above emotions, letting go of pride and anger for the greater good, and not taking advantage of power and popularity for selfish reasons, even though you can. It’s also called humility and forgiveness.
I think the Nats finally have a real team leader in Bryce Harper.