We’re just over 30 games into this MLB season, and it’s already clear that Bryce Harper’s non-athletic activities are a story that’s going to stretch into the long, hot days of August—or longer, if the Nationals can make a deep playoff run. Between his campaign to “Make Baseball Fun Again”—which is actually catching on with players on other teams—and his, shall we say, “youthful exuberance,” Harper stands out against the largely beige-ish background of Major League Baseball like the metallic-pink-and-tulip patterned cleats he wore on Mother’s Day.
It seems like anything Harper does is met with scorn and derision from non-Nationals fans across the sports punditsphere. But sometimes he makes it very, very easy for them.
In a Monday night game against the Tigers, Harper managed to get himself ejected from the game while safely ensconced in the dugout. Home plate umpire Brian Knight made a questionable call on a pitch to Danny Espinosa; Harper, along with the rest of the Nats, took exception to the ruling.
Knight, in turn, took exception to Harper, booting him from the game. This displeased Harper further, which he expressed, boisterously. But before Harper could leave, as required by the rules, or do something really stupid, Clint Robinson smacked a walk-off home run. Harper, against MLB rules, ran out to join the celebration at home plate. He also took a second to share a few choice words with Knight.
The incident is captured pretty clearly on the broadcast video, which meant that it quickly became Vines and GIFs, so it’s really easy to see Harper, hair bouncing jauntily in slow motion, stop celebrating, jab his finger at Knight and yell “Hey, fuck you!”
(There’s no audio, so it’s possible he’s saying “Give up, dude!” or “Hey, thank you!” Unlikely, though.)
After the game, Harper was unrepentant, continuing to criticize Knight and dismissively agreeing to pay whatever penalty the league might levy (in this case, a one-game suspension and a fine, announced Wednesday).
All of this ignited a predictable firestorm: Bryce Harper should be suspended, screeched the curmudgeons. Bryce Harper should apologize! Bryce Harper is a big fat jerk who is everything that’s wrong with baseball!
All of which misses the point that this is just another reason to love Harper. Have you ever been involved in some kind of thing at work where some officious middle-management type, hopped up on business jargon and coffee, decides that it’s time to berate you for something? Even if you’re not at fault, even if everyone hates the dude, you don’t get to yell “Hey, fuck you!” at him. Even if it seems like the most cathartic idea in the world, it’s just not done.
Bryce Harper exists in a workplace where kicking dirt on another man’s shoes is an acceptable way to make a point, or where hurling a dense sphere at 95 miles per hour into a guy’s hip is a way of registering mild displeasure. Sometimes, it’s fun to watch someone like Bryce Harper say what everyone in the stands is thinking. The whole reason we watch pro athletes at all is because they do larger-than-life feats that we can’t; this is just an extension of that.
But what, The Curmudgeon might ask, about the kids? Kids adore Bryce Harper! What lesson are they going to learn from this?
It’s an argument that I’m not fond of, because the answer is obvious: As parents, our job is to reframe any kind of difficult situation into teachable moments. And there are teachable moments aplenty here: about learning to control your emotions, about there being consequences to actions (the initial ejection first, and any subsequent fine or suspension on top of that), sure. But you can also spin positive messages as well: Harper’s biggest sin is that he enjoys what he does too much, and he lets it get the best of his judgment. He started out by defending a teammate, and then he took it too far.
The real takeaway here may be that Bryce Harper even breaks the rules in a way that’s more fun than anything the rest of the league is doing. The baseball purists with sticks planted firmly up their asses may not want kids—or parents—to realize that anytime soon.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.