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Hustle Is Overrated

Should Nats’ manager Matt Williams have benched Bryce Harper?

3:40 PM, Apr 23, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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However, Boswell doesn’t provide much “backstory.” What we get instead is a catalogue of complaints about Harper’s vanity—he owns an eye-black company, a fact that Boswell finds “ridiculous”; he gets emotional when he flies out with his team down 8-0; he packs his favorite bats in a gigantic case, “shining like so many Stradivarius violins”; and then there’s Harper’s  “fabu-deluxe hairdo.” Making fun of a 21-year-old’s haircut is unworthy of one of the best baseball writers around, but apparently Boswell’s mockery serves a higher purpose. “Williams,” he writes, “with the Nats’ front office fully behind him, is folding Harper into the context of the team, not letting him be mistaken as its leader or superstar savior.”

You have to love the Post—what other sports section would think it’s perfectly natural to publish leaks on behalf of one part of an institution to send a message to another part of the same institution? The function David Ignatius performs for the Obama White House and Walter Pincus for the intelligence community, Boswell executes for the Nats’ front office. The difference of course is that Harper is likely to outlast the baseball bureaucrats, like Williams, General Manager Mike Rizzo and the rest of the Nats’ staff, with the result that if Boswell continues in this fashion he may eventually find himself with limited access to a player likely to be the club’s marquee talent for at least the next decade.

The baseball blogs are split on Boswell’s column, taking particular notice of his claim that Harper is the Nats’ 7th best player. And some of the baseball professionals, including former Nats’ general manager Jim Bowden, take issue with Williams’ decision. There are other ways to discipline Harper, said Bowden, “without costing the Nationals that baseball game, which that move did.”

The episode, and Boswell’s leak, paints an unpleasant picture of what seems to be a schizophrenic organization: If the club really has a problem with Harper’s emotional makeup, then it’s their fault for spending a first-round pick and a huge signing bonus on a player they now indicate they can’t manage except by showing him up on the field and in print. In fact it seems that Harper is a good kid. After the benching, he told reporters he “absolutely” understood Williams’s decision. “I respect what he did,” said Harper. “It’s part of the game.” Not every big-league ballplayer would’ve swallowed their medicine as gracefully as Harper did.

Maybe that’s why Williams went after him—it’s easier to treat a 21-year-old like a child than it is a 10-year veteran in his 30s. Williams sure could have laid into Adam LaRoche on Sunday after the first baseman swung at the first pitch after two consecutive walks and wound up stranding three men on base. That’s the kind of boneheaded baseball that’s got to be driving Williams crazy. He’s a rookie manager in the middle of a shaky first month in which the club has been throttled by the Braves, its key divisional rival, and he wants to stop the bleeding before the season spirals out of control as it did last year. So who knows, maybe Williams will prove himself to be a wily motivator of men: perhaps he scapegoated Harper because he knows that before the star can carry the club on his shoulders, he’s got to earn it first by bearing its myriad transgressions.

Hustle just isn’t an issue for a guy who runs into walls. No, Harper’s problem is that in making the jump to the big leagues two years after he left amateur ball, it seems he has yet to understand that you can’t go full speed for 162 games. A single play is not going to change the course of a season—unless of course it results in a season-ending injury.

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