The face of baseball belongs to a 24-year old outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels who keeps his head down and runs hard whenever he connects for a home run.
“I just hit the ball and go,” Mike Trout has said. “I go out there and try to respect the game. I go out there and play. My parents always taught me to be humble.”
But there’s another face of baseball, too. It belongs to a 23-year-old outfielder for the Washington Nationals whose home-run swings often are followed by a bat flip as he admires his accomplishment, gazing at the ball like a chef who has prepared the perfect meal.
“Baseball’s a tired sport,” Bryce Harper has said, “because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that. But (it needs) the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now, guys who have flair.”
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Trout upholds an unwritten but longtime baseball code that requires athletes to comport themselves with a degree of selflessness. “Playing the game the right way,” it’s called. Those who violate the code have been subject to retribution ranging from fastballs aimed at their ribs to ridicule.
Pete Rose didn’t acquire the nickname “Charlie Hustle” because his all-out, all-the-time enthusiasm was universally admired. Rose acquired it from opponents who scoffed at his penchant for running to first base on ball four. They thought he was showing off.
In 1977, 14 seasons after Rose was named NL Rookie of the Year, the Chicago White Sox began acknowledging the occasional standing ovation after a home run by stepping out of the dugout for a curtain call. A player briefly waving to the crowd isn’t considered controversial these days, but in 1977 it was seen as an unprecedented act of arrogance.
American sports evolve as American culture changes. Spiking the football after a touchdown, for instance, once was discouraged. I can remember being admonished by a referee for dribbling the ball between my legs during an intramural basketball game in college. (I had seen Fred Brown perform the “stunt” as a University of Iowa guard, and I practiced it to the point I was empowered to do my thing during the final minutes of a 104-19 defeat.)
Baseball has been reluctant to accept anything related to self-expression, which brings us to the divide between Trout, the clean-shaven superstar whose crew cut seemingly was styled from a 1957 Topps baseball card, and Harper, the bearded superstar who broke into the big leagues wearing eye black as a kind of war paint.
The stylistic differences obscure all they have in common. Trout has earned one MVP award and finished as runner-up three other times. Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones described his teammate on the 2015 AL All-Star team as “a white Bo Jackson.”
Harper got his lone MVP award last season by a unanimous vote. Like Trout, he’s a five-tool talent capable of winning the Triple Crown. Like Trout, he loves the game, and here is where the two standouts stand out as polar opposites.
On the field and in the clubhouse, Trout carries on with a businesslike attitude reminiscent of recently retired Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. The next time Trout opens up to the media, or tweets something with more of an edge than “I try to respect the game and play it the right way each chance I get,” it will be the first time.
Harper is a sound bite with a bull terrier’s appetite for the bite. Four years ago, after he hit a homer into the second tier of Toronto’s Rogers Centre, a reporter informed the 19-year-old rookie that Ontario drinking laws made him eligible to partake in a celebratory beer with his teammates. If he did so, what brand would he prefer?
“That’s a clown question, bro,” answered Harper, whose agents applied for trademark dibs on the quote.
During his postgame interview following the Nationals’ season opener a few weeks ago, Harper wore a cap stitched with four words atop the bill: “Make Baseball Fun Again.”
What’s wrong, he wonders, with a triumphant toss of bat — a “gotcha!” gesture directed at the pitcher? Allow that, and allow the pitcher a similarly triumphant gesture when he strikes out the hitter in a subsequent showdown.
As somebody who began following baseball seriously 50 years ago this season — definition of serious: a transistor radio under the pillow during West Coast night games preceding a school day in the Midwest — I’m inclined to defend both sides of the Trout vs. Harper debate.
I appreciate the commitment Trout has made to baseball, which borders on an obsession. (His primary interest off the field, apparently, is the weather. He monitors storm fronts on his computer.)
And yet I get what Harper is saying, as well. Pitcher against batter, batter against pitcher, it’s a humane form of bullfighting in front of 30,000 fans.
When the hitter wins, running hard and keeping the moment somber is never a bad idea. But tossing a bat and enjoying a split-second to gloat, that’s crowd-pleasing showmanship at its ultimate.
The stage is wide, and there’s room for both Trout’s adherence to old-school tradition and Harper’s ambition to make baseball fun.
Whose side do you take?
That’s a clown question, bro.