They once gave Pete Reiser last rites at the ballpark. It must have been after one of the 11 times he was carried off a baseball field on a stretcher. Just brought a priest to his side and had the sacrament administered by a man of the cloth.
Makes sense. Crashing into all those outfield walls sure can move a guy toward being in grave danger of dying.
Reiser survived, but the concussions and fractured skull and shoulder popping out of place all the time hampered a career that spanned from 1940 to 1952.
He was, however, included in a book called “The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time,” defined as an exceptional talent whose statistics were curtailed by injury.
Reiser didn’t know how to play less than 110 mph.
There was no PAUSE button to his game.
Bryce Harper can relate.
It was late Monday when Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell tweeted that no one should encourage Harper to “think his wall-crash play is brave/tuff/funny. It’s crazy. learn quick or have a Pete Reiser career.”
Boswell is right. It’s not brave or tough or funny.
The Washington Nationals outfielder took 11 stitches under his chin and escaped a concussion most imagined he had suffered upon running into the right-field wall Monday at Dodger Stadium. His is not a nature to back off when pursuing any ball.
It’s also not a trait to be harnessed.
When asked what ached most upon awaking Tuesday morning, Harper rattled off this list: legs, shoulder, ribs, hand, wrist, chin.
All in a day’s work of playing with reckless abandon.
Lawrence Taylor was as careless with his body as he was magnificent on a football field. Pete Rose hadn’t played a baseball game until his uniform was caked in dirt and his elbows bleeding from the scrapes of head-first slides. You can’t fake that type of passion. Some try and fail.
You can’t feign that level of love for the game.
I’m not big on Everything That is Bryce Harper, not overly fond of things like his people alerting local media that the Las Vegas native would be available for interviews one day in the offseason and then having them dictate what could and could not be asked (which was pretty much everything) while he fielded softball inquiries from fans.
I’m not always impressed by how he handles such situations or, better yet, those who handle him do. Yes, he also has his share of bothersome enablers.
But beyond his obvious skill and unlimited potential to produce the sort of magical career that has been forecast for Harper seemingly since he first held a bat, his intensity and hustle and willingness to play hard every pitch of every inning of every game is to be celebrated more than debated.
I’m sure he didn’t want to run into that wall Monday, and had he not misplayed the fly ball that took him into it, he probably would have had a better idea where he was on the field and avoided the face plant.
Effort, however, isn’t the given it should be with all professional athletes. Asking someone like Harper to change his style of play would be like asking Taylor Swift to quit writing songs about boyfriend issues.
I’m not sure it’s humanely possible for either.
“I’m going to play this game for the rest of my life and try to play it as hard as I can every single day,” Harper told reporters in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “My life being on the line, trying to kill myself out there for my team, trying to win a World Series, people can laugh at that all they want. At the end of the day, I’m going to look myself in the mirror and say I played this game as hard as I could.
“Throughout my career, I’ll learn, I guess. But that’s how I play. I’ve always played like that, even in college. I’d run into walls and get back up and go, ‘Holy crap. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.’ But that’s the way I play. If I catch a ball and make a great catch for my pitcher, even if we’re ahead 6-0, it’s something that I pride myself on. I’m going to keep playing like that for the rest of my career.”
It’s a major stretch to say his life will be on the line most nights, and it’s true that, even at age 20, all the bumps and bruises and breaks compiled now could shorten his career later.
But this is who he is, how he is made, an enormous part of what defines him as a player, for better or worse or hopeful that outfield walls are more forgiving in the future.
It’s not a trait to be harnessed.
Pete Reiser died in 1981. Here’s guessing he wouldn’t have changed a thing about how he played the game.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.