“We have to go on a streak and win nine out of ten,” Bryce Harper said as Philadelphia had crumbled to 9-14 in a loaded NL East.
Then in Aaron Rodgers’ “R-E-L-A-X” fashion, that’s exactly what he and the Phillies did. They now sit 1.5 games back of the Braves after their leader of the clubhouse spoke it into existence.
Baseball has been revolutionary this decade in accumulating generational talent at such a young age. Players are breaking out onto the scene by carrying their teams, breaking individual records, and contending for awards amongst the top of the league under the age of 25 arguably faster than any other sport. Ronald Acuna Jr. Juan Soto. Luis Robert. Manny Machado. Fernando Tatis Jr. Mike Trout. Need I say more?
However, this generational phenomenon feels like it all started with Bryce Harper, who got put on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was just 16 in 2009 and crowned as the most exciting prodigy since LeBron James. Then, he got selected first overall in the 2010 draft by the Nats at 17 years old, unanimously hailed as the obvious choice. Those are some pretty lofty expectations for someone who wouldn’t be able to go out with his team to get a drink afterward if he wanted to for another four years.
As so many child prodigy athletes have fallen victim to expectations of similar magnitude, the only way to survive is to play with an edge and a chip on your shoulder.
Called up at 19 after two years in the minors, he set the league on fire in DC, winning accolades like Rookie of the Year, NL MVP, the Home Run Derby, and making multiple appearances in the All-Star Game. But it’s not just the awards that made Harper a symbolic “turning of the guard” moment for baseball’s young talent: it was the showmanship of hair-flipping, helmet-tossing, bat-flipping, diving plays, and everything in-between (including a “Make Baseball Fun Again” hat) that helped him lobby for baseball to be the exciting sport it was meant to be appreciated as.
Some traditionalist critics villainized him, claiming he took away from the class of the game, but ultimately, he won the war on the culture he was presented with and pioneered the marketing of the new wave of faces that we recognize now.
But Harper never got his playoff moment. He only had the one MVP season and no World Series titles in DC to show for it; they even won it without him in his first year off the team. Mike Trout was the guy we loved to compare him to until we realized Trout might be the best player to ever play the game. But as the other phenoms that are coming up and having comparable success at the age he had when he first came up, it feels like this superstar has become forgotten and possibly even underrated.
Maybe it’s because his debut season in Philadelphia was ultimately a failure- missing the playoffs and finishing 81-81 with a managerial firing, but we can’t afford to take him for granted. He took less money to start a new era in Philly. He bet on the relationship with the team, locking himself up for 13 years with no opt-outs or trade clauses; nothing says, “I want to be the reason you win” more than that.
He may still yell at umpires and play with his hair on fire, but this is a new Harper. He’s got the big-time “Dad Energy” now. He’s got the Nationals’ 2019 title hanging over his head. He’s been faced with adversity and critics on the biggest stage and knows that all of that will still be there until he wins.
So he’s all-in on that in 2020, whether we’re paying attention to it or not- one luxurious hair-flip at a time.
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