So, Bryce Harper doesn’t want to change. Maybe that’s not surprising coming from the 20-year-old wunderkind who has never lacked the swagger of a man twice his age, jaw-dropping ability, or, of course, the affinity for hurling himself around ballfields with all the restraint of a caffeine-addled Little Leaguer chasing puppies.
But ballfields have walls and fences and scoreboards.
That pesky fact left Harper slumped on the warning track at Dodger Stadium on Monday covered in his own blood with the baseball on the ground after running full-speed into the right-field scoreboard. It eventually led to 11 stitches, negative X-rays on his left shoulder and leg, lingering nausea and a partially shaved beard. The scoreboard appeared uninjured.
Harper’s second unsuccessful encounter this month with the physics of smacking into an outfield wall led to him doubling down on the hair-on-fire approach.
He told reporters “I’m trying to kill myself out there” and, really, that’s what the collision looked like. That, somehow, the hustle and grit and toughness and effort and commitment and any other cliche you could imagine would defy the laws of physics and the reality of what careening into a scoreboard does to one’s body. Spoiler: Walls always win.
Harper’s all-out intensity — the penchant for attacking walls as if he expects to run through them, borderline out-of-control baserunning, entertaining reactions to manager Davey Johnson giving him days off — have built his legend as much as clown comments and long home runs. The style comes with a cost, one that’s given Harper a succession of injury scares in his brief career and left him fortunate not to spend extended time on the disabled list.
All this wall-thudding is easy to laud, if you ignore that all Harper’s encounter with Dodger Stadium’s scoreboard revealed was poor spatial awareness and his ability to absorb a hit. That’s it. There’s no heroism or highlight. Nothing more gained, really, than Washington’s last infamous brush with an inanimate object thanks to the overenthusiastic helmet of Gus Frerotte. Harper didn’t come close to catching the ball. And, once again, he somehow escaped serious injury that would’ve robbed the Nationals of the one player they can’t afford to lose.
Denard Span could tell Harper about the long-term consequences of concussion that almost derailed his career, something ruled out for Harper on Monday by the Impact test and an examination by Dodgers team physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache. Matt Kemp could tell Harper about the torn labrum he suffered after smashing into the center field wall at Coors Field in August. More players could tell Harper about the assorted broken wrists, ribs and trips to the disabled list from even the best-intentioned encounters with immovable objects.
How, exactly, would any of that advance Harper’s stated goal of winning a World Series?
No one is suggesting Harper slow down. Not even close.
The aggressiveness is a weapon, an eye-catching, game-changing entertaining one that must be employed wisely to be useful. That’s key. There has to be a point because Harper, though he may not feel it at 20, isn’t immortal or immune to the lasting toll such collisions can have over the marathon of a season and a career. Play with little regard for your body and, one day, the toll will arrive.
Sacrificing yourself for an uncatchable ball isn’t something to shrug off as an unchangeable style of play. It’s misguided effort for a player still adjusting to his 2010 transition from catcher to outfield. It’s a clear-cut choice that endangers health and, in the larger picture, a team’s postseason hopes.
This isn’t about some hazy concept of being a “gamer.” This is about the common sense to, on occasion, play a ball off the wall instead of playing crash test dummy.
Think Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo would rather have one spectacular, one-in-a-thousand May catch on a West Coast road swing or Harper healthy through October’s chill?