For those who questioned my last post in which I said I couldn’t relate to any of this Yankee team’s players (what I really meant was that there were no great personalities, no characters, no excitement, just….dullness), here’s today’s New York Times piece by Juliet Macur that encapsulates what I was talking about: Bryce Harper. Have a look.
Bryce Harper Offers Reminder of the Yankees of Old, Not of the Old Ones of Today
But behind those stone faces and beneath those pinstripes, the Yankees’ hearts must have been lifted, for Harper’s exit gave them something they had not had moments earlier: a much better chance to win.
Harper, 22, has been one of the most talented players in major league baseball for several years, but he had recently been on a hot streak to rival some of the best hitters who ever played. Before Wednesday’s third-inning departure, Harper had hit 10 home runs in his past 12 games, including six in one three-game stretch.
His recent production was enough for his hitting coach, Rick Schu, to call it “scary” and his teammate Drew Storen to call it “scary” and one of the Nationals’ principal owners, Mark Lerner, to call it “so scary.”
Not just because Harper was hitting .333, which ranked third in the National League, or because he led the N.L. in homers (15) and the majors in everything from R.B.I. (38) and walks (37) to on-base (.472) and slugging (.732) percentage.
Watching him should give the Yankees a chill because he represents everything they are not: young, supremely talented and exciting.
A lifetime ago, or so it seems, the Yankees collected big stars like Harper. If they couldn’t build them from scratch — the Jeters and the Riveras and the rest of the so-called and recently departed Core Four — they just went out and bought them.
But those are the Yankees of yesterday. Today’s Yankees are aging and aching, with their biggest star, Alex Rodriguez, a serial liar pushing 40 (years, not homers). The rest? C. C. Sabathia and Carlos Beltran are on the downside of their career. Jacoby Ellsbury, the former Red Sox star, cannot seem to stay healthy and is now on the disabled list, where Mark Teixeira has also spent substantial time in recent years.
After the game Wednesday, when saying that the umpire went too far in tossing him out of the game — his second ejection in a week — Harper said what should have been obvious: “I don’t think 40,000 people came to watch him ump tonight. Plain and simple.”
It was feisty, yes, but it was also classic Harper.
At spring training this year, his reaction to the Nationals’ surprising signing of pitcher Max Scherzer wasn’t the measured response of a humble player looking to avoid controversy. Instead, it was, “Where’s my ring?”
That was juicy bulletin board material for every team that plays him, but it just made his fans love him more. In his fourth season in the majors, with a bushy beard and a head of hair that is often coifed like a pop singer’s, Harper is the biggest star in a city that hasn’t celebrated a championship since the Redskins won the Super Bowl eight months before he was born.
“I love his energy,” said Francisco Hernandez, an Army officer who came to Wednesday’s game with his 4-year-old daughter. “It’s like he’s still a kid out there, saying things that a kid would say.”
Early in his career, Harper had a reputation for being reckless. Twice, he hurt his knee running into walls. He injured his thumb diving headfirst into a base. But this season, he has been healthy, and his teammates have sensed a huge jump in maturity.
Schu, the hitting coach, said Harper’s excellence had been contagious.
“When you’re hitting .330 and hitting home runs it lifts the whole team,” he said. “I don’t care who you are, or if you have a personality, or no personality.”
There’s no sense of when he will peak, either. One of the songs Harper has chosen for his at-bats at Nationals Park is Frank Sinatra’s “The Best Is Yet to Come.” But while the Yankees would never admit it, I’ll bet they can imagine him walking to the plate to Sinatra’s “New York, New York” instead.
Harper won’t be a free agent until after the 2018 season, but his agent is Scott Boras, and Boras has been known to send a player or two to New York if the price is right. Which it usually has been, especially when the Yankees need a lift.
When Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, he told the magazine that two of his goals in baseball were to play in Yankee Stadium and to do it in pinstripes.
When I reminded Lerner, one of the Nationals’ owners, of those comments this week, he laughed.
“Every 16-year-old kid says that,” he said.
But not every 16-year-old kid is Bryce Harper. And what Bryce Harper wants, Bryce Harper seems to get.