PITTSBURGH – Joe Maddon and Bryce Harper are on the same side of baseball’s culture war, even as the Cubs and Washington Nationals appear to be on a collision course toward October.
The National League’s two best teams so far will face off on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, where Harper will be a focus throughout a four-game series overflowing with storylines.
That’s how Harper wants it, and that’s what Major League Baseball needs now, larger-than-life personalities who aren’t afraid to show some emotions and say what they actually think and try to wake up such a “tired sport.”
Harper’s line to ESPN The Magazine went viral in spring training, and it echoes when Maddon brainstorms another wacky themed road trip, trolls the St. Louis Cardinals and invites zoo animals to Wrigleyville.
So if Harper blasts a home run onto Sheffield Avenue and flips his bat in celebration, Maddon won’t have an issue with the league’s reigning MVP. The smirking Cubs manager knows it when he sees it.
“It depends on who’s doing the bat-flipping,” Maddon said. “If you’ve played for like two weeks and you’re flipping bats, that’s how you’re going to get yourself hurt.”
Maddon rarely criticizes his own players in front of the media, but he called it a “punk move” last year when Junior Lake almost started a bench-clearing brawl at Marlins Park, flipping his bat, admiring his shot from home plate and shushing Miami’s dugout while rounding third base.
“I just think when you’re brand new – just understand your place a little bit,” Maddon said. “That’s why I got on Junior that time. There are a lot of things that don’t bother me, (but) that was so obvious to me. He did it right in front of our dugout and he had not been playing that much. That’s why it bummed me out.
“But for the most part, I have no problem with most anything. As long as the guy plays hard, works hard, is sincere about his effort, I’m OK.”
By all accounts, that’s Harper, who’s still only 23 years old and gets similarity scores comparable to these players on his Baseball-Reference page: Frank Robinson; Mickey Mantle; Miguel Cabrera; Mike Trout; Hank Aaron; and Ken Griffey Jr.
“When he first came up, I remember watching him and he stole home on a double steal,” Maddon said. “He just ran the bases really well and hard – that was my first impression of him. I know he can hit. I know he’s got power. I know he’s got all that stuff. But I just liked the way he played.
“I have no problem with a guy enjoying playing the game. He’s got a lot of respect for the game and his place in the game. But any time a guy plays it hard, you always appreciate that. And that’s what I see with him.”
Maddon flashed back to the way Dennis Eckersley used to pump his fist after getting a big out – and his own personal history as a baby boomer raised in the 1960s and 1970s and listening to loud music and partying at his old Lafayette College fraternity house.
That’s what makes Maddon able to relate to Harper’s individual expressions, even though “Baseball’s Chosen One” was born in 1992.
“That’s the thing that we forget,” Maddon said. “That’s what’s so disappointing sometimes, growing up in the era that I did, and then you see people that are quote-unquote ‘in charge,’ and they forgot what it was like when we were a bunch of…goofballs, for lack of a better term.
“You’d like to believe that there’s a certain evolution of thinking as it moves forward. The long hair back in the day, the high stirrups, the tight uniforms, everybody has their own little shtick. So what? So what? It’s just a tendency to forget what it was like when we were growing up sometimes. I promise you I’ve not forgotten.”