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Here’s what Bryce Harper has already done on the baseball diamond during the young 2016 season:
-Hit home runs during the season opener and the home opener
-Stole half the number of bases as he did in all of 2015 (including one with his batting gloves in his mouth for no discernible reason)
-Drove in the game-winning runs with a double against the slumping Braves
-Continued to play baseball at the same MVP level he showed last season
And here’s what he’s done outside the game:
-Vocally advocated for baseball to be more entertaining and more enjoyable
-Further made that point by way of custom “Make Baseball Fun Again” hats
-Debuted signature cleats
-Put custom emoji stickers on his bat handles
-Demonstrated exuberance and enthusiasm and a sense of playfulness and fun about this game
As a result, naturally, it seems like everyone hates him. The most notable recent outburst came from comedian (and part-owner of the New York Mets) Bill Maher, who described Harper as “a douche” who “looks like a douchebag,” but plenty of non-famous people share similar sentiments. A quick Internet search for “Harper” and “douche” brings up published results going back to Harper’s Major League debut in 2012, and a Twitter search for the same shows that the comparison is still going strong.
There’s something significant about the persistence of “douche” as the go-to descriptor for Harper. People will always take shots at superstars, but this is such an oddly generic, non-sports-y insult. Basically, it feels like a sad admission that people have no idea how to deal with a young white guy who has some swagger and enthusiasm for the game.
If Harper were Hispanic, he’d get tagged with the patronizing and dismissive “exuberant” moniker, and a lot of what he does would be written off as cultural differences. If he were black, people would use all the coded words that get attached to the Chad Ochocincos and Terrell Owenses of the world: “diva” and “flashy” and “showman” and “entertainer,” and it would become an expected part of his brand. He would be Rickey Henderson, basically.
But Harper is from a demographic that’s expected to treat the game with reverence: white kids who grew up with access to all the youth baseball the world has to offer. Harper was even lucky enough to have an older brother in the sport, so his parents were as aware as anyone could possibly be of what to do when a child shows signs of extreme aptitude in baseball.
The biggest local baseball hero when I was growing up was Cal Ripken, a player defined by his boringness. Ripken’s claim to fame in baseball is actually that he did the same goddamned thing every single day. Home runs, steals, even hits—these are the outlier plays, the things that rarely happen. Ripken holds the record in just showing up and playing the game the “right” way.
The mythology of baseball loves that sort of record. Most baseball movies—think The Natural or For Love of the Game or Field of Dreams—strive for a tone of muted reverence, always taking place in the golden light of a late summer’s afternoon. The sport is a thing to be honored and treated with respect. That’s who Harper is expected to be.
Instead, he’s more Major League. He’s brash, and funny, and he actually treats the game like, you know, a game—that is, as something people play to have fun. When Harper got contact lenses during his brief stint in the minors and saw his play immediately improve, he was compared to Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Charlie Sheen’s character in the film, who has a similar experience. Sheen’s character, it so happens, is also a demonstrative young white guy with a preposterous (i.e. awesome) haircut who irritates the baseball purists.
Major League was released in 1989, three years before Harper was even born. Harper’s comment that baseball is “a tired sport” rings even truer when you realize that 27 years later we’re still playing out that same tired generational conflict.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @matt_terl.
Photo by Keith Allison / Flickr CC 2.0