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Sultan of smack Harper simply being 18-year-old

A story in Tuesday’s newspaper said Las Vegas slugger and Internet-search magnet Bryce Harper was “picking up the finer points” of the game while he continues to knock the cover off the ball with Class-A Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League. It mentioned he was hitting .342 and had belted his 14th homer Monday night.

It did not mention that as he circled the bases, Harper blew a kiss at the Greensboro pitcher.

This, I am almost certain, is not considered one of the finer points of the game. You can’t cry in baseball, you can’t throw kisses in baseball, you can’t even wink in baseball. Just ask Moonlight Graham.

Harper’s kiss has gone viral on the social media outlets. It’s No. 3 with a bullet, trailing only that sailor and the lady in white on V-J Day in Times Square and Madonna and Britney Spears at the 2003 Video Music Awards.

There hasn’t been this much furor over a Class-A ballplayer’s actions since Nuke LaLoosh pitched a game while wearing Annie Savoy’s underwear in “Bull Durham.”

It was two years ago this week that Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old sophomore at Las Vegas High and practically one year to the moment since the Washington Nationals made him the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. That’s when he became a marked man among his peers, or at least those a little older and much more envious.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was speaking for a lot of the nation and probably Canada, too, when he went on “SportsCenter” on Tuesday and encouraged Harper to tone it down a notch.

“I would say ‘Bryce, if you’re going to hit a lot of them, you’d better learn not to show up the pitcher because it’s just going to get tougher and tougher on you if you watch your home runs,’ ” Schmidt said. “Just hit ’em like you’re used to hitting ’em, not like you’re surprised when you hit one.”

Or he could act as Schmidt did when he hit No. 500 against the Pirates in 1987, jumping up and down as if his pants were on fire.

It was a great milestone and it won a game and it’s hard to fault Schmidt or any other ballplayer for showing emotion at a time like that. But one could also argue that it’s still a less grievous form of showing up the pitcher.

Schmidt has also said that had he played during the Steroid Era, he would have taken them. Lady Justice might be blind, but if she put Harper’s kiss on one side of her scale and Schmidt’s views on steroids on the other — and they balanced out — one might suggest she get a new scale.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo.com had another take, comparing Harper to LeBron James on the arrogance meter and writing that — surprise! — this was good for baseball, because the game will need a new villain once it brings down Scott Cousins from the post and pillory.

While interesting, this view mostly ignores that Harper is still an immature teenager with a grand total of 57 Class-A games under his belt, while James is a mature man (and then some) who can fall back on the wisdom acquired over eight seasons at the highest level.

This isn’t the first time Harper has had issues between the lines, and given he is still only 18, it won’t be the last. I had issues between the lines when I was 18, too, and that was in American Legion ball. I also used to leave my old man’s car on empty when I used it to go on dates and made fun of my little sisters. That wasn’t being responsible or mature, either. That was being 18.

I haven’t been watching the South Atlantic Game of the Week on Cox On Demand, so I don’t really know if Harper has developed any character flaws beyond talking a little trash to opponents after they talk a lot of trash to him.

People want him to be Jackie Robinson and turn the other cheek. He wants to be Lenny Dykstra, at least before Dykstra started writing bad checks and stealing cars, and put a chaw of tobacco in the other cheek.

Somewhere in the middle is a compromise, a happy balance between being tough as Nails and being a jerk that one might expect Harper will achieve, when he gets older. Like when he’s 21 or something. If he doesn’t, some kid from the Dominican Republic will put a 97 mph heater in his ear and that’ll be the end of it.

Baseball, as Mike Schmidt said Tuesday, has a way of disciplining those who won’t discipline themselves.

For the record, the name of the Greensboro pitcher who served up the long one to Harper is Zachary Neal. While Harper’s fame — or infamy — is growing by the hour, Zachary Neal’s 10 minutes might be about up.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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