History and tradition are like precious heirlooms to Major League Baseball, which is replete with longstanding questions in those areas.
Should the DH exist in both leagues or neither one? Should certain statistical milestones guarantee entry into the Hall of Fame? Should fan appeal and career achievement be factors into selections for the All-Star Game?
In terms of the latter, reputations often have been key to players’ participation in the Midsummer Classic. Willie Mays was selected 24 times (second to Hank Aaron’s 25), including his final, pitiful two seasons. Cal Ripken Jr. was chosen for 19 games, even as he tailed off toward the end of his career. Ozzie Smith made the team in 15 of his 19 seasons, the penultimate being 1995, when he batted .199.
So with all due respect to Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson, I disagree with his assessment of the All-Star process, especially as it pertains to rookie sensations Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.
“This is not a popularity contest or based on media hype,” Johnson told Bob Nightengale of USA Today. “They should make it only if they deserve it, not because of name recognition and youth.”
Trout’s inclusion on the American League roster was a no-doubt-about-it. Entering Monday, he led the AL in batting average (.339) and stolen bases (22) and ranked fourth in on-base percentage (.395), ninth in slugging (.542). With numbers like that, he belongs on ballots for Most Valuable Player, let alone the All-Star Game.
Harper, whose fate rests with the fans as a Final Vote entry, doesn’t have the same clear-cut case as the Los Angeles Angels’ 20-year-old outfielder. But the Nats’ teenage phenom is just as worthy and deserving of being in Kansas City next week.
Old-timers might argue that Harper hasn’t paid enough dues to merit admission on less-than unquestionable statistics. They could point to his spending the first month of the season in the minors. They could highlight his lower numbers, subsequently, compared with other candidates. They could contend that publicity has thrust Harper deeper into the conversation than he would be otherwise.
All of those arguments have merit. But they all miss the point, too.
The game is supposed to feature stars, and already Harper is among the sport’s biggest and brightest. He had a nice head start by appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16 and being the No. 1 overall draft pick at age 17. But those facts easily could have burdened him, not boosted him.
Instead, he justified the hype at every level, his fame and infamy growing at near-identical paces. The crowd at Dodger Stadium booed him lustily during his major-league debut. And quite a throng it was, 54,242, thanks to Harper’s presence. He’s the only reason the Dodgers drew a sellout … for a Nats game in April.
No offense to Chipper Jones, Michael Bourn, Aaron Hill and David Freese, but they don’t move the needle for ticket sales or TV ratings.
Acknowledging Harper’s magnetism and adding it to the All-Star equation wouldn’t cheapen the game. It wouldn’t be akin to a sideshow or gimmick, such as 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel’s pinch-hitting appearance for the St. Louis Browns in 1951. Harper actually can play.
He’s en route to becoming the most productive 19-year-old in major league history. His aggressive, hard-charging style of play has made him respected and loathed at the same time. With baseball in a never-ending battle to attract new fans and retain old ones, it needs more doses of Harper, especially on its national stage.