1956 was my first season as a baseball fan. That year Mickey Mantle had one of the best seasons ever by a hitter. He won the Triple Crown with a batting average of .353, 52 home runs, and 130 RBIs. His on-base average plus slugging percentage was 1.169.
I resisted the temptation to become a New York Yankees fan, opting instead for the hometown Washington Senators. Their star, Roy Sievers, became my favorite player. But I always wondered what it would be like to root for a team with a star having a season like Mantle’s.
In 2015, I found out. Playing for the Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper batted .330, hit a league-leading 42 home runs, and drove in 99 runs. His on-base average plus slugging percentage was 1.109.
Okay, this wasn’t quite Mantle in 1956, and not in terms of fancier stats either. But it was close enough.
And yes, unlike the 1956 Yankees, the 2015 Nationals were a .500ish team. But Harper’s Nats won four division titles in his seven seasons here. The Nats never had a winning season before he arrived.
Today, Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. The deal is 13 years for $330 million. Months ago, the Nats offered him $300 million for 10 years. Harper made out marginally better by rejecting that offer and testing the market.
Despite all of the thrills Harper brought to Washington, I’m not sorry to see him go (though I wish it hadn’t been to a division rival). It’s not so much that I believe Harper, whose performance has been declining since 2015 especially defensively, isn’t worth $300 million. It’s more that I grew tired of his act.
In my view, Harper was too much about himself and not enough about the team. This problem was at the root of his famous fight with Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon’s real complaint, I believe, wasn’t that Harper didn’t run out a ground ball. It was the fact that Harper threw him under the bus a few days earlier after Papelbon hit Manny Machado with a pitch.
Harper complained to the media that he, Harper, would now become the target of Orioles pitchers. The complaint might have been valid, but Harper should not have criticized a teammate to the media, and certainly not in the context of complaint about what Papelbon’s act meant for him. It doesn’t always have to be about you, Bryce.
Even though running out grounders wasn’t the core issue in the Papelbon fracas, it was an issue with Harper. Too often, he didn’t run them out.
For example, early last season, when the Nats were off to a terrible start, Harper failed to run out a grounder late in a close game against the Dodgers. The infielder bobbled the ball, but was able to retire Harper because he had been jogging to first until he saw the bobble.
The Nats lost the game in extra innings.
Once it became apparent that Harper wouldn’t be back, we started hearing about his obvious failings in the hustle and fundamentals department. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post said this:
Though few mention it, subtracting Harper, while it will cost 34 homers, a .899 career OPS and some amazing hair flips, would help any team improve its attention to fundamentals. When the most famous player on the team can’t go 10 days without failing to run out a groundball or overthrowing a cutoff man by 15 feet or throwing to the wrong base or being caught unprepared in the outfield or on the bases, it’s hard to demand total alertness from the other 24.
“Write it,” one prominent Nats vet said.
I wonder why he didn’t write it before.
As one gets older, the character and personality of the players on the teams we root for take on more importance. At least they have for me.
I’m grateful for Harper’s 2015 season, for the 90 win seasons he helped the team produce, and for the excitement he brought to Washington during his early years here. I’m not sorry to see him go.