Everyone has sat in a classroom next to a guy who looks like a troublemaker and another who looks like a wonderful, stand-up young man. Both were shooting pencils into the ceiling or putting saran wrap over the toilet seats, but only one gets instantly called out when it’s time to charge into the classroom and pick out the miscreant. It’s the one who looks the part.
Such is the life that Bryce Harper appears to be relegated to. Harper was ejected from Sunday’s game after disagreeing with a strikeout call in the first inning, when his disagreeing escalated to the point that umpire John Hirschbeck thought the 20-year-old was showing him up. Harper raised his bat, Hirschbeck yelled, and Harper tossed his helmet. That was it for the young outfielder, who then had eight innings to cool off. His postgame comments did not further inflame the matter but rather opened the stage for everyone else to talk about how ludicrous Hirschbeck had been.
MLB is reviewing the ejection, as it does every time someone is tossed, but that doesn’t mean that the early reaction — that Hirschbeck was way out of line — is going to win the day. Hirschbeck, and other umpires who have recently found the need to express their authority, such as Tom Hallion in the infamous David Price “liar” incident, will be reviewed and punished or supported in the way that they will. The lingering lesson here is not as much about them as it is for the players who will be dealing with them for many seasons.
Harper may have been on the wrong end of a bad call, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t prevent something like this from happening again.
The biggest skill every athlete must learn is the ability to not let anything take him off his game. Whether it be a pitch he can’t handle, a crowd that gets under his skin or a weakness in his game he can’t overcome, learning to vanquish potential Achilles’ heels is what puts the great players beyond the good ones. Any time a player allows himself to have a wild card that can knock him off his game, he opens the door for the other team or circumstances to take advantage of him and diminish his potential.
Harper has such a wild card, but he’s loathe to deal with it, because it’s not a typical weakness. While others fix their swings or work on their fielding, Harper has been unmoved so far when it comes to tweaking his weakness — perhaps because it’s not an on-field issue.
Harper’s weakness is his unique personality and approach to the game. From his haircuts and eye black to the fearless way he takes at-bats and charges around the bases, Harper’s aggressive, in-your-face style is what sets him apart from fellow players and, in its brashness, gives him confidence in capitalizing on his talents.
But Harper’s unique approach, which is often coupled with outbursts, can be a weakness, too. It’s one thing to snap a bat in half after being upset about striking out, but it’s another when that anger leads to other complications. Last year, Harper went to the plate with blood trickling down his cheek after a bat shard from a post-strikeout wall-bludgeoning left him injured. This time, he missed most of a game after an umpire ejected him for menacing gestures, deserved or not.
While Hirschbeck may have been out of line for tossing Harper, it cannot be denied that the reputation Harper has built for himself in Major League Baseball contributed to Hirschbeck’s quick hook. Harper is known to toss his helmets and whack his bats, and even a merely passionate look from him has people feeling justifiably threatened if they perceive him to be a player who is angry and unhinged. Hirschbeck should have left Harper in the game, but it was Harper’s history more than his in-game histrionics that ultimately got him tossed Sunday. Hirschbeck commented later that he was reacting to Harper throwing his equipment, or the threat thereof, making his action just as much a preventative measure as it was a pugilistic one.
Harper may not like that he’s treated differently because he’s characterized as a wild brat, but it cuts two ways. Many days, a brash, passionate Harper gets a boost from his unique persona. Plenty of people support him for who he is. Other days, however, what others see as reckless anger does him harm. If Harper wants to be excused for being a one-of-a-kind player, he has to know that many people may not know how to react his one-of-a-kind ways.
Harper should never stop being who he is, especially because the way he acts fits so perfectly with his game and how great he can be. What he does need to do, however, is be aware that not everyone understands that passion is not anger, and that him getting fired up, wearing his hair funny or wearing red contacts to make him look like a devil doesn’t mean he’s unhinged.
Few understand that, though. When Harper flips his hat, umpires have reason to think that he’s going over the line. This isn’t the first time that behavior that would have been acceptable for one player instead got Harper in trouble.
It’s not Harper’s fault that he’s sometimes getting treated differently for no reason, but it is Harper’s responsibility to change something if he doesn’t want to occasionally get burnt by umps who find themselves endangered by his personality and actions. Even if it’s only a few times a year, the fact that Harper can either figuratively — or, in this case, literally — take himself out of games by appearing to be too aggressive is something that he should think about moving forward. Even if it means reeling in the way he comes across to people once in a while, even if the fault is not his, Harper has to know how to limit actions that can be used to take him out of games.
It may not be fair that Harper is always going to be that kid who gets blamed when the principal shows up in the classroom looking for the troublemaker, but he can do something about it. It starts with not playing into preconceptions.
Hirschbeck should have walked away and not tossed Harper. But Harper can always walk away, too.