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.

Jones, Maddux, Morris consider Bonds, Clemens for Hall

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Jack Morris and Ryne Sandberg are among 16 members of the contemporary baseball era committee that will meet to consider the Cooperstown fate of an eight-man ballot that includes Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro.

Hall of Famers Lee Smith, Frank Thomas and Alan Trammell also are on the panel, which will meet in San Diego ahead of the winter meetings.

They will be joined by former Toronto CEO Paul Beeston, former Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs executive Theo Epstein, Anaheim Angels owner Arte Moreno, Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng, Minnesota Twins president Dave St. Peter and Chicago White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams.

Three media members/historians are on the committee: longtime statistical analyst Steve Hirdt of Stats Perform, La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. Neal and Slusser are past presidents of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Hall Chairman Jane Forbes Clark will be the committee’s non-voting chair.

The ballot also includes Albert Belle, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy and Curt Schilling. The committee considers candidates whose careers were primarily from 1980 on. A candidate needs 75% to be elected and anyone who does will be inducted on July 23, along with anyone chosen in the BBWAA vote, announced on Jan. 24.

Bonds, Clemens and Schilling fell short in January in their 10th and final appearances on the BBWAA ballot. Bonds received 260 of 394 votes (66%), Clemens 257 (65.2%) and Schilling 231 (58.6%).

Palmeiro was dropped from the BBWAA ballot after receiving 25 votes (4.4%) in his fourth appearance in 2014, falling below the 5% minimum needed to stay on. His high was 72 votes (12.6%) in 2012.

Bonds denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs and Clemens maintains he never used PEDs. Palmeiro was suspended for 10 days in August 2005 following a positive test under the major league drug program, just over two weeks after getting his 3,000th hit.

A seven-time NL MVP, Bonds set the career home run record with 762 and the season record with 73 in 2001. A seven-time Cy Young Award winner, Clemens went 354-184 with a 3.12 ERA and 4,672 strikeouts, third behind Nolan Ryan (5,714) and Randy Johnson (4,875). Palmeiro had 3,020 hits and 568 homers.

Schilling fell 16 votes shy with 285 (71.1%) in 2021. Support dropped after hateful remarks he made in retirement toward Muslims, transgender people, reporters and others.

McGriff got 169 votes (39.8%) in his final year on the BBWAA ballot in 2019. Murphy was on the BBWAA ballot 15 times and received a high of 116 votes (23.2%) in 2000. Mattingly received a high of 145 votes (28.2%) in the first of 15 appearances on the BBWAA ballot in 2001, and Belle appeared on two BBWAA ballots, receiving 40 votes (7.7%) in 2006 and 19 (3.5%) in 2007.

Players on Major League Baseball’s ineligible list cannot be considered, a rule that excludes Pete Rose.

This year’s BBWAA ballot includes Carlos Beltran, John Lackey and Jered Weaver among 14 newcomers and Scott Rolen, Todd Helton and Billy Wagner among holdovers.