It’s almost impossible to overstate just how much hype surrounded Bryce Harper’s ascent to Major League Baseball. From the time he began turning heads of baseball scouts as a 15-year-old high school freshman, he was being touted as the next can’t-miss phenom. A Sports Illustrated cover story called him “Baseball’s Chosen One,” and Harper has mostly succeeded so far into his still-young career. He won Rookie of the Year in 2012, already has more All-Star appearances than most baseball players, and he was named the National League MVP in 2015. It’s possible he’s just getting started.
But Bryce Harper has been no stranger to controversy. True, a life as examined as his could never be completely flawless. Yet some of his baseball colleagues generally think poorly of him, and they have reasons. He’s brash. He’s been in altercations with his own teammates and has been caught on television cameras violently cursing at umpires (while his team was celebrating, no less). Chalk some of it up to youth or to being caught up in his own hype machine, but there’s a shady side to Bryce Harper.
A Harper brawl ended a player's career
Journeyman outfielder Mike Morse had planned to retire following the 2016 season, until the general manager of the San Francisco Giants saw him at a wedding and talked him into coming back for another year. His season wasn’t going all that well and the Giants were on track for a pretty dismal record, when his team met up with Bryce Harper’s Washington Nationals in May 2017. By the time the later innings rolled around, Hunter Strickland had taken the mound to pitch against Harper. The two had quite a history, as Bryce had hit two home runs against Strickland a few years back in the playoffs and even stared him down after one of the dingers. Strickland had sworn if he ever faced Harper in a game again, he would drive a pitch right into him. And he did.
Harper was hit in the hip by a 98 mph fastball and immediately charged at Strickland. Unbeknownst to Harper, another Giants player was gunning for him, ready to deliver a haymaker of a punch. That’s when Mike Morse stepped in to protect Harper (a former teammate of his) and received a concussion somewhere in the tangle. Morse never played in another Major League Baseball game, paying a career-ending price for protecting one of the game’s biggest stars. Strickland and Harper were uninjured and were given brief suspensions.
Harper cheated at “Catchphrase” on the Tonight Show
Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon loves to play games with his famous guests, probably to try to break the humdrum cycle of repetitive interviews we all sit through whenever someone’s promoting something. When he had guest Andy Samberg on in 2016, he also booked Bryce Harper and supermodel Gigi Hadid for a nice game of Catchphrase, where teammates help each other guess a word as a timer ticks down. Harper and Fallon were teamed together, and two things were immediately clear: Bryce Harper was wearing two white T-shirts for some reason, and he was also not that great at the game itself.
Two times while trying to give Fallon clues, Harper erroneously awarded his own team points for answers that Fallon did not guess correctly. For instance, to Bryce Harper, the word “marshmallow” and “s’mores” counted as the same thing. (It’s a pretty basic game — just get your partner to say the actual word.) When the phrase “eager beaver” came up, Harper went ahead and accepted “beaver” from his partner, and that’s more points for Bryce. Is this a terrible crime? No. Is it really stupid to even be discussing this? Yes, because most people grow out of cheating at games like Catchphrase sometime in middle school. Fallon learned that his team didn’t quite earn those points later, and crowned Samberg and Hadid the true winners. Maybe don’t get into a battle of wits with Bryce Harper because the win might not be as satisfying as it could be.
He's had issues with lazy play
2015 was a banner year for Bryce Harper. He batted .330 and slugged 42 home runs on the way to being the National League MVP. It’s also the year he had one of the most publicized teammate-on-teammate fights in MLB history. In the late innings of a tied game, Bryce popped up to left field and didn’t appear to run the ball out, which really draws the ire of veterans who hate seeing a lack of hustle or effort in young players. Teammate Jonathan Papelbon noticed this and chided Bryce from the dugout, which led to hands on throats and displays of testosterone-having. Thing is, this wasn’t the first time Harper acted lackadaisical on the field, nor would it be the last.
The previous year, Nationals manager Matt Williams removed Harper from a game in the sixth inning, this time for not running out a ground ball. Williams called it “the inability to run 90 feet — lack of hustle.” There’s that word again. Fast-forward to 2018, and Harper again noticeably didn’t hustle to first on a double-play ball to the shortstop. Keep in mind, on any of these plays an error could have occurred and Harper could have reached base if he had exerted the effort to get there. It’s not even just on the offensive side, either. He’s also been criticized for being lazy in the field, letting balls come to him instead of charging them.
He called baseball's traditions “tired”
Baseball is lovingly called “the national pastime” for a reason: It’s very steeped in history and tradition. The rules have by and large stayed the same over the years, and it’s a game that has deep roots in its past. Records have an aura of mystique and awe to them that you don’t get from other sports. Players pay their dues and do their time toiling in the minor leagues before getting their big shot. Bryce Harper put his hands on his hips, observed all this, and then flushed the toilet.
In an interview with ESPN, Harper ripped into the game: “Baseball’s tired. It’s a tired sport because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do.”
It was a poor attempt at trying to say he just wants to make the game fun. For example, he likes the thought of bigger home run celebrations, but he doesn’t want to have to worry about getting hit by a pitch in his next at-bat, as tradition dictates. Granted, baseball may not be the quickest to get with current times, but Harper casting aside 150 years of tradition — while having a reputation for lacking hustle and generally being thought of as overrated — might not be the wisest way to inject youthful exuberance into the game.
He was ejected at age 17 for showing up an umpire
Bryce Harper is a polarizing figure today, but he was a lightning rod for controversy even back in 2010.
Bryce was just a 17-year-old rising star when he played in the Junior College World Series, but unfortunately he was already acting like a diva. In the fifth inning he was called out looking at a third strike. Harper had a huge problem with this and began telling umpire Don Gilmore how he felt. He even helpfully drew in the dirt with his bat to let Gilmore know where Harper felt the pitch actually was. And he likely said something naughty because Gilmore then ejected him from the game.
An act like this would normally incur a one-game suspension, but since Harper had been ejected earlier in the year (yes, shocking), it was increased to two. Two games in the Junior College World Series, that is. He was benched, and his team lost the next game, ending their season. It also ended Harper’s amateur career. Way to go out on a high note!
Bryce seems to have a problem with Atlanta's logo
The National League East has long been a tough division, with Bryce Harper’s Nationals taking on teams like the Mets, Phillies, and Braves for several heated series every year. In 2014, the Nationals and Braves were neck-and-neck for much of the season when they met up in Atlanta in mid-August. Harper’s reputation was well-established at this point, and Braves fans lustily booed him at every at-bat. He must have wanted to rile them up more or add more fuel to the rivalry because a couple of the times he walked to the batter’s box, he appeared to drag his cleats through the Braves logo as he walked across it. He did it enough times that the on-air announcers took notice.
Of course, Bryce played the fool later. “That’s the last thing on my mind when I’m walking up to the plate. I really had no idea. When (a Nationals spokesperson) came up to me, I had no clue that I did anything.” And who knows, that all may be true. Just saying, Bryce, you have a history.
Some people were pretty unhappy about the Home Run Derby
The annual Home Run Derby happens during the All-Star Break. It’s fun! It’s goofy and made for showboating. It’s a chance for players to loosen up a little in the middle of a grueling season. Harper clearly had himself a good time in front of his home crowd at the 2018 event, as the All-Star Game was in Washington D.C. that season. Oh, and also because he won the Home Run Derby pretty handily, beating out finalist Kyle Schwarber from the Cubs. But almost immediately after, some fans cried foul, saying that Harper and his father (who pitched to him in the contest) cheated.
It was said that Harper’s father was pitching to his son too quickly, not letting the balls he was hitting land completely and basically giving Harper a few extra swings. Some viewers pointed to a moment where Harper seemed to gesture at his dad as the concrete evidence. Other angles show that the umpire was giving the signal for his dad to throw.
Surely, Harper’s reputation played a part in fans’ furor, as Home Run Derby rules aren’t as hard and fast as regular-season rules. Nor should they be. This is supposed to be fun! Can’t we all just enjoy the show?
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