The Fourth of July is always a great opportunity to watch fireworks, spend time with friends and family and reflect on all of the benefits that we enjoy as Americans. Things like baseball, and freedom of speech.
Bryce Harper decided to celebrate a little early. On Monday, just hours before he was scheduled to make his return to the Washington lineup for the first time since April 25, Harper stepped in front of reporters and addressed the lineup that his manager had put together for that night’s game. It was a lineup that featured Harper batting sixth and playing in left field, neither of which Harper was happy with.
With microphones crowded around him, Harper made his displeasure known. He should be playing in center field; he should be batting higher; Zimmerman should be in left field, not at third; and Denard Span should be sitting on the bench. Harper outlined his idea of a better plan with a solemn expression, and when he mentioned that he had learned of his place in the lineup through Twitter rather than his manager, the irritation in his voice was tangible.
For those unfamiliar with the situation, all of this tension and controversy stems from an incident way back on April 19. After Bryce Harper failed to try and run out a weak comebacker to the mound — a play that no one in the history of baseball could have run out — manager Matt Williams yanked Harper from the game and sat him on the bench.
Williams’ disciplinary action didn’t stop there. In the postgame press conference, the manager lashed out at his young star in front of reporters. He said Harper hadn’t hustled, and proceeded to make comments that were tantamount to a public shaming.
Harper heard the message, loud and clear. Just six days later, Harper tore a ligament in his thumb sliding head first into third. It was the sort of play, one could easily argue, that Harper was using to prove his manager wrong. In a way, Harper had just hustled himself onto the disabled list.
The irony here is hard to deny. After all, Harper is the last person anyone would think to be called out for lack of hustle. He plays the outfield with a sense of reckless abandon that sends him flying into walls, often risking bodily harm to make plays. If anything, the question should be whether Harper plays the game too hard. Which means Williams’ real motivation in the benching wasn’t about hustle; it was about sending a message concerning who’s in charge. With his actions and his words, Matt Williams was playing the role of Somali pirate to Harper’s Captain Phillips. “Look at me,” Williams was saying, “I’m the captain now.”
So, here we sit, a month and a half later, still debating what all of this means, and wondering who we should be angrier with. Who, in all of this mess, is the one that we should burden with our blame?
There’s plenty of reason to take up the pitchforks and rail against Harper. Like all other sports, baseball is a meritocracy, where special treatment is earned, and Bryce Harper’s bank account of accomplishment doesn’t have the funds to cash the checks his mouth is writing. For all of the potential that’s been heaped on his shoulders – he’s supposedly the next great thing, the next Mickey Mantle – Bryce Harper has been, in short, a disappointment. He can hardly compare to his contemporaries, like Mike Trout, much less the historical greats which he’s expected to be measured against. He’s young, still, and one day he may meet those lofty expectations, but right now, he’s just another young player trying to earn his stripes.
Through his statements, Bryce Harper has also made another thing perfectly clear: he thinks he’s a better center fielder than Denard Span. Even if it’s true (and I’m not so sure it is), that statement may be the most detrimental of any Harper made on Monday. It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder how warm the relationship between Harper and Span is. Span may deny any ill feelings toward Harper in public, but it’s hard to ignore such an obvious slight. And who knows what damage could be caused by a Span/Harper rift in the clubhouse?
Matt Williams certainly isn’t blameless in this, either, especially when it comes to internal politics. He made his managerial calls with the intent of sending a message, but the end result may be alienating one of his young stars, instead. As a manager, it’s one thing to say that you don’t want to coddle your young players, or give them special treatment; but building a wall between them is hardly a better option.
I don’t claim to know everything that goes on within the Nationals’ organization; part of this will always be guesswork. But if Harper’s claims of being informed of his spot in the lineup via Twitter are true, Matt Williams should be ashamed of himself. He owes it to his players to deliver his decisions regarding their playing status in person. Even if Harper hasn’t yet earned the right of dissension, he still deserves that basic courtesy.
As local Washington radio show host Tony Kornheiser pointed out, this clash of egos reeks of the same sort of stink that emanated from the Robert Griffin/Mike Shanahan fiasco, and sports fans in the District can only hope that cooler heads prevail here. After all, the situation with the Redskins ended in a total meltdown, with Mike Shanahan in a “gots-to-go” situation. The Nationals, who are certainly in “win now” mode, can ill afford that sort of implosion.
Williams can’t risk that same sort of standoff, either. If it comes down to a “him or me” decision for the organization, there’s little doubt Williams would be the odd man out. Like Griffin with the Redskins, Harper figures more prominently into the Nats’ future plans than Williams. Even if Harper hasn’t lived up to his potential yet, that potential is still there, and, as a first year manager, Williams has proved just as little.
Over the course of the past week, both Harper and Williams have made all of the right comments; from their public statements, it would appear that they’ve made amends. It’s easy to wonder if that’s all lip service, though, or if Mike Rizzo has hauled the pair into a side room and demanded that they iron out their differences. If so, more power to Rizzo. After all, sides don’t really matter in this. What matters is having the team on the same page, every player pulling toward a singular goal.
And if Matt Williams and Bryce Harper can’t set aside their differences and pull toward that goal, there will just be more captains to go down with the ship.