Face of the game

Hero or villain, Bryce Harper is exactly what baseball needs right now

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WASHINGTON — Let’s take you back to a moment in May: The New York Yankees are playing the Washington Nationals, and in the third inning, Adam Warren’s pitch to Bryce Harper is either low and inside or on the plate at the knees, depending on which cap you happen to be wearing. Harper and the Nationals bench and probably 94 percent of the people in the stands at Nationals Park see it low. The Yankees, the six percent of the fans wearing the NY on their hats, and home-plate umpire, Marvin Hudson, see it as a strike.

Of course, as the old saying goes, it’s a strike because the umpire says it’s a strike, and so Harper kind of cocks his head unhappily and steps out of the box. He has a history with umpires, of course, but this time he does not appear to be griping to the umpire. He’s composing himself. After a few seconds, he steps back into the box, the game seems ready to go on. Then Hudson calls timeout to tell Nationals manager Matt Williams his bench mates to pipe down. Harper steps back out of the box and walks away while Hudson finishes his messaging.

When Hudson does finish shushing, though, he is unhappy to find Harper out of the box. He barks something at Harper, who promptly walks over and stomps on the corner of the box as if to say, “Hey, I was standing right here.” Then there’s a flurry of some kind, Williams comes running out the dugout, everyone is kind of excited because it’s always exciting when the manager comes running out.

Only then everyone realizes something: Hudson had just thrown Bryce Harper out of the game. And the boos rained down. Rage whirled around. A comical silent movie ensued. And when it all ended, fans — Yankees and Nationals fans alike — kind of looked at each other as if to ask: “OK, now what?”

Suddenly, with Bryce Harper out of the game, baseball got a whole lot less interesting.

* * *

Baseball is not dying. This is not one of those stories. Baseball, as a 30-team industry with local television contracts and involved stadium deals, is doing better than it ever has before. Night after night, in major-league cities across America, people are going to the ballpark in greater numbers than ever. In many markets, local baseball broadcasts crush everything on television, including Bachelorette moments and playoff games of other sports. Baseball is doing just fine.

No, this is about why so many people THINK baseball is dying.

CALCATERRA: Baseball is not dying

And the answer might be encrypted here in this Forbes list of the 100 highest-paid athletes from 2014. The list neatly divides the athletes’ revenue between salary they earn and money they pull in from endorsements.

Here are the Top 10 money-makers in endorsements:

1. Roger Federer, $58 million

2. Tiger Woods, $50 million

3. Phil Mickelson, $48 million

4. LeBron James, $44 million

5. Kevin Durant, $35 million

6. Rory McIlroy, $32 million

7. Novak Djokovic, $31 million

8. Rafael Nadal, $28 million

9. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, $27 million

10. Cristiano Ronaldo, $27 million

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a captain of the Indian national cricket team, in case you did not know that. And after the Top 10, you have athletes who are easily recognized by just one name — Kobe, Sugarpova, Messi, Bolt, Neymar. Not too far down you see Serena Williams, Peyton Manning, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and so on.

OK, now, you ready? Here, again among the 100 highest-paid athletes, are the bottom 10 in endorsements:

91. Tyron Smith, $250K

92. Jayson Werth, $200K

93. Cole Hamels, $200K

94. Felix Hernandez, $200K

95. Cliff Lee, $200K

96. Max Scherzer, $150K

97. Adam Wainwright, $150K

98. Gerald McCoy, $150K

99. Maurkice Pouncey, $100K

100. Zack Greinke, $50K

In case the names don’t all look familiar … well, that’s the point isn’t it? Tyron Smith is an All-Pro offensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys. Gerald McCoy is an All-Pro defensive tackle for Tampa Bay. Maurkice Pouncey is an All-Pro center for Pittsburgh.

The other seven guys are baseball players.

This is not to feel sorry for any of them — after all, they are all on the Forbes 100 highest paid athletes in the world list. They’re doing fine. Baseball’s doing fine. Heck, 27 of the 100 players on the overall list are baseball players, by far the most of any sport (basketball is next with 18, then football with 16 and soccer with 15). And baseball players are huge heroes in their individual markets.

But there’s still a point here: The national Q Scores for some of the best baseball players is close to zero. Their international Q Scores? Subterranean. If you add up the estimated endorsements of ALL TWENTY-SEVEN baseball players on the list, it comes in just below Kobe Bryant — and it’s less than half of what Phil Mickelson pulls in. Yes: That’s all 27 players combined.

MORE: Harper declines invitation to Home Run Derby

Let’s put it another way: Baseball’s Home Run Derby is upon us, and it’s one of the game’s spotlight events. Baseball has long been powered by the home run; it’s a little bit of violence in a generally subtle game. Through the years, home runs have made baseball’s — and sports’ — biggest stars, from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson. You don’t have to understand baseball’s rules to admire the home run. And so here, for one night only, are some of baseball’s best home run hitters slugging baseballs as far as they can hit them, this is baseball’s Oscar Night, baseball’s slam dunk competition, baseball’s big night.

And here are your home run heroes:

— Rizzo

— Frazier

— Bryant

— Pederson

— Pujols

— Donaldson

— Fielder

— Machado

Now, ask yourself this question: Think of the friend you have who doesn’t know baseball, the one who might check in at the World Series but also might not, the one who lost interest somewhere along the way but was once a fan, who reads an occasional boxscore but doesn’t watch closely … how many first names other than Albert could they come up with?

The reason people keep thinking baseball is dying is because as a national sport it IS dying or at least shrinking. Local ratings are great; national ratings are in an endless downward cycle. Local support is way up; interest in the playoffs and World Series is down. More fans go to the ballpark at the same time when fewer people identify themselves as baseball fans. Baseball pays a fortune to its best players, but how many of those baseball players do kids even know? The highest profile baseball player in America last year was probably Little Leaguer Mo’Ne Davis … and she wants to play basketball.

All of which is a way of saying: No, baseball is not dying. Even so: Baseball still desperately needs Bryce Harper.

* * *

(Getty Images)

He has wanted to be baseball’s biggest star ever for as long as he can remember. That’s a rarer trait than you might think. When you look at some of the greatest — and most awe-inspiring — baseball players of them all, this is what you see: outsized ambition. Babe Ruth, for all practical purposes, not only invented the home run but also the wild, heavy-swinging strikeout that so often goes with it. Ted Williams wanted to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” Reggie Jackson was the straw that stirs the drink, the guy who once said the only reason he didn’t like being in the World Series was that he couldn’t watch himself play.

Bryce Harper is like that — overpowering, dominating, cocky, hungry. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, with the not-so-subtle headline, “Baseball’s Chosen One,” and the even less understated subhead: “Bryce Harper is the most exciting prodigy since LeBron.” Well, even by then, there were too many legendary stories. When he was 7, a coach of a team for 10-year-olds recruited him for a traveling squad. He had been all over the place by the time he was 10.

When he was in the fifth grade, he told his counselor that he intended to become a baseball star. (“She said, ‘No, really?’” Harper later told a newspaper reporter. “I get that all the time, and it pisses me off.”)

When he was 11, he had a bad game and his mother, Sheri, said she walked over to him and said, “It’s because you didn’t get a kiss from your Mom.” The next day she kissed him. He went 8-for-8 in a doubleheader.

When he was 12, he played in a tournament in Alabama with a 250-foot fence that could not contain him. He went 12-for-12 with 11 home runs. “I did all right,” his mother Sheri would remember him saying afterward.

At 13, he would swing a 20-pound stick of rebar he found on his father, Ron’s, construction site in order to get stronger.

When he was 15, he hit a home run measured at 570-feet — it cleared the fence, two trees and Hollywood Boulevard. This was a few months before he hit the 502-foot home run in Florida that made him a YouTube star.

MORE: Harper set to hit third in All-Star Game

At 16, he became the first high school sophomore to be named Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year. No junior had ever won the award before, much less a sophomore.

At 17, playing for the College of Southern Nevada — Harper earned his GED after his sophomore year in pursuit of better competition — he hit for the cycle one game in the Western District tournament and, the next day, went 6-for-6 with 4 home runs.

You get the point. He was a prodigy, a phenom, a once-in-a-generation player. He was just 17 when the Washington Nationals made him the first pick in the draft.

“The guy is good, and he knows it, and he isn’t afraid to tell everybody,” said Pete Rose shortly after Harper was drafted. Rose watched Harper grow up in Las Vegas (Harper has said he patterns himself after Rose) and he loved the kid’s fury, that force of will. The way Rose saw it, too many players lacked ambition. He always remembered the time he told Joe Morgan that too many hitters are satisfied when they go 4-for-4. “Forget that,” he told Morgan. “That’s when you try to go 5-for-5.”

Rose saw the same desire in Harper.The kid didn’t want to just be a big league ballplayer. He did not just want to be a big league star.

“He’s going to be the biggest thing in baseball,” Rose predicted. “And he’s going to be great for baseball. I’m telling you: Baseball NEEDS him. Baseball needs stars.”

* * *

Once the nation began to notice Harper, they noticed the same thing that Rose did did. “He wanted fame,” Richard Ben Cramer had written about another brash young hitter named Ted Williams, “and wanted it with a pure, hot eagerness that would have been embarrassing in a smaller man.”

So it was with Bryce Harper. He did not intend to quietly fit in. He smeared on the eye black, he said whatever he felt like saying, he barked at umpires, he crushed mammoth home runs, he blew a kiss to a pitcher and he made it abundantly clear that he intended to conquer the world.

“If you could describe yourself in one word,” he was asked shortly after he was drafted …

“Gorgeous,” he said. He laughed. That was a joke.

“Hercules,” he said. He did not laugh. That was not a joke.

The kid made the All-Star team as a rookie, mashed 22 homers, stole 18 bases and scored 98 runs. He won rookie of the year. And his fame towered over his precocious numbers. Bryce Harper started getting booed in ballparks all across America.

“I live for the booing,” he said happily.

Booing is no small thing, by the way. Think about the biggest stars in baseball now. Do they get booed? The best player in the game is Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels’ dynamo who does everything brilliantly. We are watching another version of Willie Mays here. But do people notice? Do kids long to be him? Does he get booed in other ballparks? Not so much.

Miguel Cabrera is one of the great hitters in baseball history. Clayton Kershaw is a modern-day Koufax; Felix Hernandez is utterly and relentlessly fantastic; Andrew McCutchen is pretty close to the perfect ballplayer. Do people go to the ballpark just to catch a glimpse of them and, yes, even to boo them?

People go to boo Alex Rodriguez, but that’s a different story They go to boo Yasiel Puig, but you get the sense many of his teammates would join in on the booing if they could. When it comes to the larger sports scene, they can’t quite break through. They stump people when included in the New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s not necessarily fair or right — who can say what it is that makes stars?

Harper, though? He just is a star. Best way you can say it is: There are raw feelings about him.

“This is why you should hate Bryce Harper,” Philly Magazine writes.

“Hating Bryce Harper for all the right reasons,” is a headline over at “Talking Chop,” a blog about the Atlanta Braves.

Baseball players have voted him baseball’s most overrated player (before this year). Former players have repeatedly told him to shut up and grow up and man up.

Harper makes people CARE. People want boo him, cheer him, talk about him, argue about him. There’s just something about Harper’s persona, something that doesn’t necessarily fit into words. Mike Schmidt was a better player than Reggie Jackson. Reggie got the candy bar named after him.

Harper seemed well on his way to candy bar fame when his career was sidetracked by injuries. This was his one glaring weakness: The guy could only play baseball one way, and that way got him hurt. He slammed into walls twice in his second season, badly hurting his knees. In his third season, he slid head first into third and ripped up his thumb. He played that all-out, Pete Rose, kamikaze baseball that he had played all his life, and because of that he played in only 118 games in his second year, only 100 games in his third year. There’s one obvious but often-missed truth about baseball: If you don’t play a full season, you won’t put up a full-season’s worth of numbers. As elementary as that sounds, people don’t always grasp that longevity is a real skill, that staying in the lineup is a tool just like speed and power, that you can’t win MVPs if you miss 40 games. Harper’s production numbers — homers, hits, runs, RBIs, doubles, all of them — tumbled. Some questioned his future. One high ranking baseball executive was asked by his manager before the season if, hypothetically, he would trade for Harper.

“In a minute,” the executive said. “He’s still so young. I believe in him.”

“Really?” the manager asked. “I’m not so sure. Will he ever stay healthy?”

Now, of course, that conversation seems outdated. Harper has stayed healthy this year and because of that he’s having a season for the ages. It’s a season that looks like it was pulled out of Barry Bonds diary. He’s hitting .339. His on-base percentage has hovered around .470. He is the youngest player to hit 25-plus home runs in the first half of the season. He leads baseball in Wins Above Replacement, and he has carried a Nationals team that has been wracked by so many injuries that manager Matt Williams says, “I’ve not been around anything like it.”

“Surprised?” Harper says. “No. Of course I’m not surprised.”

* * *

There is something else to talk about when considering the baseball star: Timing. In basketball, LeBron James will have the ball in his hands when he’s on the floor. He will control the game, for better and worse, because the game goes through him. Tom Brady will make every pass of a last-minute New England Patriots drive. Lionel Messi will be the focus of the attack even as two defenders shadow his every move. Even in hockey, where the shifts are short, the plan will be to get the puck on the stick of a Sidney Crosby and let him do his magic.

In baseball, meanwhile, the best starting pitchers will only appear about once a week. The best relievers show up sporadically, like bank holidays. The best fielders must wait for the ball to be hit in their general direction. And the best hitters must stand in line for their number to be called. Bryce Harper, for all his brilliance, cannot just take over a game in the ninth inning because he might not come to bat.

And even if he does come up, pitchers might — in fact, probably will — walk him if he is in position to win the game with one swing of the bat. This season, Harper walks more than any other player in the game. This is how it goes for the greatest sluggers from Ruth to Williams to Mantle to Willie McCovey to Barry Bonds. You have to learn how to deal with pitches that constantly seem low and away.

“We’ve addressed it,” Nationals manager Matt Williams says. “Bryce understands it’s important to be patient. … That’s part of his maturation, being selective at the plate, understanding what teams are trying to do, and at the same time understanding that there are times when he’s going to get pitches to hit and to be ready for that. That’s part of becoming the player he wants to be. And at 22 years old, having that kind of respect from opponents, it’s a compliment — probably the ultimate compliment.”

MORE: Harper says he hates hitting at Camden Yards

Harper shrugs: “I’ve been dealing with (getting pitched around) my whole life. It’s something you know is going to happen when you prove to people that you can hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

In other words: He’s ready for all this. He’s been preparing for it all his his life. He’s ready for the hype (he recently was photographed for the ESPN Magazine body issue). He’s ready for the media crush (Washington reporters marvel at how he always seems to have something to say). He’s ready for the daily frustration of having pitchers carefully pitch him. He’s ready for the controversies of the social media world. He’s ready to be booed in ballparks everywhere.

He’s ready for it all because this is all he ever wanted. It’s tempting to settle into a relatively quiet baseball life. The money’s good. There are fewer headaches. The greatest player of the 2000s is Albert Pujols, and he’s always tried to stay out of the spotlight. He has avoided the media and tried to live a private life. That’s a good way to live.

But every now and again, a player comes along who just wants to be larger than life. When he was 15, Bryce Harper told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci his goals: “Be in the Hall of Fame, definitely. Play in Yankee Stadium. Play in the pinstripes. Be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived. I can’t wait.”

He still can’t wait. Now he’s baseball’s must-see show. The first few innings of the All-Star Game will feel more special because he will be playing. But he turns every night into an All-Star Game. If he’s coming up this inning, you don’t leave to get a beer or snack. If hits a home run, you race to the Internet to see how far he hit it. If he’s in the field, you watch him closely because, even as he matures, he just might run into a wall or go diving for some ball that looks out of reach … he can’t help it. He wants to do the impossible and sometimes he pulls it off. Baseball can never get enough of that.