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Bryce Harper’s Hair and treating ballplayers as human beings

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Back when Bryce Harper was in the minors he got into some sort of dustup after taunting an opposing pitcher. I’m fuzzy on the details, but it may have been a gesture during a home run trot a day after the pitcher plunked him or something. It made the news for a day or so as those things tend to do. Regardless of the exact details, I remember writing something about how Harper was a punk who had a lot to learn and blah, blah, blah, the usual autopilot sports take stuff.

Not long after that I had an epiphany: “What the hell do I care? What did Bryce Harper do to me? Is this really a bad thing, or am I just saying it’s a bad thing because I’ve been conditioned to think and say that it’s a bad thing when athletes behave in certain, non-conforming ways?”

I’m sure I’ve reverted to autopilot sports takes here and there since then, but that Bryce Harper incident many years ago was when I started to try to change the way I thought about athletes and their behavior. When I started to do what I still work hard to do when I talk about and think about sports:

  • To remember that sports do not exist in their own, hermetically-sealed world. Rather, they are a part of the larger world;
  • To remember that sports traditions, conventions and norms were not handed down by God Almighty, but created by normal dudes, that they are not entitled to any greater reverence or respect than any other tradition is, and that they should always be questioned and challenged;
  • To remember that players are real human beings with human emotions and motivations and that they’re going through human experiences. They are not gladiators or avatars or video game characters and we should not treat them as such; and
  • By treating athletes as real human beings, we are far more likely to go easier on them when they do silly things but we are likewise more likely to be harder on them when they do truly bad things and that’s probably a healthier way to deal with player misconduct, minor and major.

One would think such considerations are obvious, but it’s extraordinarily hard to find commentators or fans who approach sports and athletes in this way. To the great majority of people, athletes are characters in a grand drama. Heroes and villains who are obligated to fulfill certain roles and are subject to very strict rules of decorum. Not because those roles make any sense in relation to the world at large and not because those rules make any sort of logical sense but because, well, just because.

When you break out of the old habit of viewing athletes as heroes, villains and gladiators, your view of them changes pretty dramatically. The guys who are spoken highly of by sports commentators and fans start to seem less admirable to you because you realize that they’re spoken highly of primarily because of how they conform to their expected roles, not how they are as human beings in a larger world. In reality, we don’t know what kind of people most of these men are because we don’t know them outside of sports. That team leader who has the respect of his peers can be a jackass in his personal life. We may never know. Or, when we do know, his status as a leader seems beside the point. Meanwhile, the alleged clubhouse cancer may be a truly good and interesting person and his cancerous attributes may simply be a function of his failure to conform in more or less harmless ways.

In context of that professional world (i.e. the clubhouse as office where ballplayers do their business) the leader being respected is a great thing and the cancer not conforming could very well be a bad thing because it’s good to have leaders and no one wants a difficult coworker. And, of course, eventually, good leadership likely helps teams win and non-conforming behavior could lead to the team performing poorly.

But you and I and the commentators don’t work in that clubhouse. We don’t necessarily have to care about such things. Just because a manager or player thinks a player is a jerk doesn’t mean we have to. Maybe we just like his style of play. Maybe we like his social media presence. Likewise, just because the team leader is respected doesn’t mean we have to like him. We’re not on the team. He’s not our leader. Maybe he’s not a nice person. Maybe he is. The point is that the qualities they bring to their job are not the only qualities that matter because they don’t exist in a hermetically-sealed world. They live in the real world and all sorts of stuff impacts what makes a person a person.

This is why I’m drawn to the players about whose lives we learn a little bit about and who seem to march to the beat of their own drummer. Maybe that’s a little unfair of me — I’m sure many of the traditional, conforming “take the things one game at a time” guys are cool and good people; we just don’t know much about them, likely by their own design — but it’s why I’m drawn to the guys who get press for being weirdos. People say I’m just a contrarian who likes clubhouse cancers, but it’s not that. I just like it when I can see the walls between the real world and the sports world that fans and commentators have spent so long erecting being broken down.

All of that is a long way of explaining that I’ve been on Team Bryce Harper for a long time now. At least since a few days after that incident back in the minors. I offer it to show my bonafides as a dude who tries to be fair to players who are a bit different. Some would say a dude who bends over backwards to promote players who are a bit different, which, fine. I offer it so that, when I do fall into “that guy is a knucklehead” mode, you know I have considered it seriously and that I’m not just offering hot takes for the sake of hot takes.

Which is to say, Jesus, Bryce Harper. Did you really post this on your Instagram?

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OK, sorry. I took a minute and thought about how Bryce Harper is a human being and all of that and now I’m OK.

Maybe.

Rays beat Mets 8-5, clinch 1st AL East title in 10 years

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK (AP) Confetti instead of champagne. Silly string instead of beer.

The Tampa Bay Rays, long accustomed to doing more with less, figured out a way to maximize the division-clinching celebration they were allowed to enjoy during a 2020 season shortened by the coronavirus.

Randy Arozarena homered twice and the Rays clinched their first AL East title in 10 years Wednesday night with an 8-5 victory over the New York Mets.

“I’m completely dry right now, which I’m not a huge fan of,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Rays player, said with a grin. “But you have to adapt to what we’re asked of.”

With teams instructed to celebrate in a muted and socially distant style, the Rays went old school – or maybe elementary school – with their clinching party.

The team filed slowly onto the field after Nick Anderson fanned Andres Gimenez for the final out. A couple of players shot off canisters filled with confetti that eventually dotted the grass and dirt at Citi Field. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged before the Rays doused one another with silly string and lit some cigars in the visiting clubhouse.

Later, hooting and hollering could be heard from the visitors’ dugout.

“We’re little kids trapped in grown men’s bodies,” Kiermaier said.

Joey Wendle and Brandon Lowe also went deep for the Rays to back Tyler Glasnow‘s six solid innings. Tampa Bay will be home at quirky Tropicana Field for a best-of-three first-round playoff series beginning next Tuesday.

It is the third division crown for the thrifty Rays, whose payroll this season is just over $28 million – more than only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. Tampa Bay, which began play in 1998, also won the AL East, home of two big-spending powers in the Yankees and Red Sox, in 2008 and 2010.

“It feels great to win the division, no matter what division you’re in,” Kiermaier said. “But especially the American League East – it’s just a different animal.”

After missing a chance to clinch Tuesday, the Rays went into Wednesday again needing just a win or a Yankees loss against Toronto to lock up the division championship.

The Rays (37-20) broke a 2-all tie in the sixth on Arozarena’s two-run homer off Michael Wacha and pulled away, taking care of business themselves while New York was routed 14-1 by the Blue Jays.

“At the end of the day, a clinch is a clinch,” said Wendle, who homered in the second. “But to do it on a win – everybody’s kind of riding the high of winning the game along with the division. We didn’t want to see it come down to them losing a game.”

Tampa Bay also is closing in on wrapping up the top record in the AL and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Lowe, who had an RBI fielder’s choice in the third, hit a two-run homer in the eighth. Willy Adames added an RBI single later in the inning and Arozarena homered again in the ninth.

The insurance came in handy for the Rays when the Mets scored three times off Oliver Drake in the ninth – via an RBI groundout by Robinson Cano and a two-run homer by Todd Frazier – before Anderson closed the door.

“I think we had the game pretty much in control (and) certainly recognized what was going on in Buffalo, but I don’t know if you can ever prepare for a moment like that – it’s pretty special,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Glasnow (5-1) allowed two runs on three hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.

Gimenez and Dominic Smith homered off Glasnow in the final home game of the season for the Mets, whose long-shot playoff hopes were further damaged with the loss. New York began the day 2 1/2 games out of an NL wild-card spot.

“We still have a shot with the four games left and we’re competing,” manager Luis Rojas said. “We’ve just got to do what we do – just keep fighting like we did in the ninth.”

Wacha allowed four runs on six hits and struck out four in six innings.

STABLE SHIRT

Rays pitcher Charlie Morton sported a T-shirt picturing a stable of horses as he spoke with reporters during a pregame Zoom call. Morton did little to discourage the notion the shirt was inspired by Cash’s viral rant earlier this month, when he declared the Rays have “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph” after Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman threw near Mike Brousseau’s head in the ninth inning Sept. 4.

“The stable shirt?” Morton said. “It was in my locker last week and I like horses.”

With a grin obviously growing even behind his Rays mask, Morton said he rode horses as a kid.

“So I was ecstatic to see this shirt in my locker and I wore it,” he said.

As for the fireballers on the Rays’ pitching staff?

“We’ve got some guys that throw really hard,” Morton said.

ANOTHER LOSING SEASON

The loss guaranteed the Mets (25-31) will finish with a sub-.500 record for the ninth time in the last 12 seasons – a total matched or exceeded only by the Chicago White Sox (nine), Miami Marlins (10) and San Diego Padres (10). The White Sox and Padres have already clinched playoff spots and a winning record, while the Marlins are in second place in the NL East.

New York made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016 and went 86-76 last year.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Rays: LHP Jose Alvarado (shoulder, lat) is scheduled to throw batting practice to 3B Yandy Diaz (hamstring) and 1B Ji-Man Choi (hamstring) at Tropicana Field on Thursday. Cash said all three players are progressing and he hopes they are available for the playoffs. . Brousseau (oblique) missed a fourth consecutive game. Cash said he would have been available off the bench if needed

Mets: RF Michael Conforto (hamstring) returned to the lineup as the designated hitter after missing two games and went 0 for 4. . The Mets activated RHP Dellin Betances (lat), who last pitched Aug. 29, and optioned RHP Corey Oswalt to the alternate site.

UP NEXT

Rays: After a day off Thursday, Morton (2-2, 4.64 ERA) is scheduled to get his postseason tuneup in the opener of a series against the Phillies on Friday.

Mets: Rookie LHP David Peterson (5-2, 3.80 ERA) opens a four-game road series against the Nationals. Peterson struck out a career-high 10 against the Braves last Saturday.