- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2012


Cole Hamels didn’t mean any harm, mind you, when he massaged Bryce Harper’s back with a fastball Sunday night on national television. The Philadelphia Phillies lefty was just going retro — kind of like, well, “Mad Men” does. Somebody, after all, has to keep that “old-school, prestigious way of baseball going,” he said afterward. The game is “kind of getting away from it.”

For Harper, the Washington Nationals’ 19-year-old prodigy, it was his 30th major-league plate appearance. And in Hamels‘ mind, the kid was past due to be pledged into the baseball brotherhood, to be required to grab his ankles and “assume the position.”

But again, Hamels insisted, there was no malicious intent. “It’s just: ‘Welcome to the big leagues.’”

To which I reply: And welcome to the Clownocracy, Cole Hamels, to that misguided fraternity of “tradition” hounds who think such things actually matter.

Like the Wichita State pitching coach a number of years back who reportedly told his hurlers to throw at hitters who stood too near the plate and tried to time their warm-up pitches. That led to Ben Christensen, later a first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs, drilling an opponent in the eye and essentially ending his career. The opponent, according to accounts, was more than 20 feet from where Christensen’s catcher was squatting.

So, yeah, by all means let’s perpetuate this ridiculousness. I mean, that’s what fills the stadiums these days: the prospect of a 28-year-old veteran teaching a 19-year-old rookie the facts of baseball life. The outcome of the game is almost incidental compared to that.

By the way, I just did some research. I was curious how long it took Mickey Mantle, who also broke into the bigs at 19, to get hit by a pitch. Answer: It didn’t happen until his fifth season (the Washington Senators’ Mickey McDermott doing the honors). Then I checked to see how long it was before Ken Griffey Jr., another 19-year-old rookie, got plunked. Answer: 87 games (and 340 plate appearances).

So in 1951 and 1989, which some might call the Old School Days, no one was in too big a hurry to “welcome” Mantle and Griffey to the big leagues. But who knows? Maybe, in Junior’s case, there was another old-school tradition that superseded the “welcome to the big leagues” tradition. Maybe the latter doesn’t apply to the sons of major leaguers.

Harper, to his credit, refrained from saying, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” Instead, he retaliated by stealing home moments later when Hamels tried to pick a runner off first. It was just the latest in a string of good, hard, old-school plays that Bryce has quickly become known for.

Cole Hamels has nothing to teach Bryce Harper about old-school baseball. Since the day the Nationals called him up from Syracuse, Harper has been flying down the first base line on routine grounders, stretching singles into hustle doubles, sacrificing his body to catch balls in the outfield and, from all appearances, treating the game with respect.

Perhaps this is what the Cole Hamels types really find objectionable about him. Bryce never stops trying to beat you. If he can’t do it with his bat or his legs, he’ll try to do it with his formidable arm. He’s a player who takes his profession so seriously that he tries to develop, to its fullest extent, every aspect of his game. In the era of the designated hitter and the six-inning starting pitcher, you’d think his well-roundedness would be celebrated by the old-schoolers.

But Hamels went to a different school, it seems, and has now appointed himself headmaster — or at least chairman of the Rookie Hazing Department. Before you can graduate, be considered a true big leaguer, you have to pass his test. It’s all about old-time “values” … and proving you belong on the same field with such hardball greatness as the 14-15 Phillies.

(Teammate Chad Qualls sprang to Hamels‘ defense Monday on Twitter, tweeting: “They hit [C]ole right back [with a pitch] but said not on purpose. Yeah right. At least [C]ole was a man and didn’t lie about it.” Yes, give Cole that. He might be a clown, but he’s a stand-up clown. He wears his clown-ness like a badge of honor.)

By any grading scale, Hamels‘ or anyone else’s, Harper scored high, banging two hits, including a double, in addition to his swipe of home. He handled himself with aplomb in the locker room, too, shrugging off the pitcher’s tutorial as no big deal. He might be 19, but Bryce has been taking master’s-level baseball courses for some time now. Soon enough, in fact, he figures to be teaching others a few lessons, maybe even Cole himself.



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