The line between hard nosed and bull headed can be a very fine one. The question before the house, as Bryce Harper begins his recuperation from surgery to repair a torn collateral ligament in his thumb, incurred during a head-first slide on a bases-clearing triple, is whom on the Washington Nationals has crossed it further, Harper or his rookie manager Matt Williams.
Who can know for certain whether Williams’ benching Harper the week before, over failure to run out a grounder on which even Rickey Henderson would have been a guaranteed dead duck, while Harper may or may not have been trying to be kind to the quad he’d dinged earlier, got into Harper’s head just enough that he overdid it at the first available opportunity?
This isn’t to say Harper’s head was immune, previously, to playing the game as though he had a process server on his tail. He missed shy of a third of last season with injuries tied directly to a take-no-prisoners playing style. There are those who think now that if Harper ever again plays as many games a season as he did in his Rookie of the Year campaign (139) it’ll be a miracle. Whether of medical science or stubbornness is a tossup.
Now he’s down for the count until some time in July. And there are those among us who are beginning to renew earlier thoughts that there’s also a line between real and false hustle, and that crossing it under any impetus can mean and usually does mean abject disaster.
Busting it up the first base line on a grounder you actually have a chance to turn into a base hit or a possible run scored is one thing. Busting it up the first base line with a testy quad when you could be Jesse Owens and still be dead meat by a mile is something else again. Running down fly balls you actually have a chance to catch is one thing, even if the outfield fence has something to say in reply. Running down fly balls for which you don’t have a prayer no matter how you gun it is something else entirely.
“This ain’t football,” the late Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver liked to say. “We do this every day.” Playing baseball like football or hockey is deadly business. The big bust-it plays get the oohs and aahs from fans in the stands and coaches in the dugouts. Then you end up on the disabled list and with a pocketful of anything from questions to accusations, and the coaches in the dugouts end up with another round of second-guessing on their plates.
Among some Cincinnati Reds fans, Ken Griffey, Jr. had a very unfair reputation for dogging it and being in less than top shape during his tenure there. What they didn’t know, or forgot conveniently, is that years of balls-out play took its toll on the Hall of Famer in waiting. His father knew the line between full tilt and foolhardiness. He didn’t always know it. Junior averaged 121 games a season in 22 major league seasons; after his first season’s return to Cincinnati he’d play 140+ games in a year twice and suffer three season-ending injuries. The wonder isn’t that he didn’t hit more than 630 home runs lifetime, the wonder is that he managed to last as long as he did.
There were those suddenly comparing Harper to Pete Reiser. National League MVP in 1941, 22 years old at the time, 70 extra base hits, led the league in batting (.343), runs (117), doubles (39), triples (17), total bases, getting plunked, and by the way he had a delightful .964 OPS. The only problem Reiser had was holding himself back. He became acquainted too intimately with outfield walls, particularly the center field side of Ebbets Field’s beveled concrete offering.
W.C. Heinz caught up with Reiser in 1958, writing for True magazine, when Reiser was 39 and managing in the Dodgers’ minor league system. Heinz recalled Branch Rickey—who signed Reiser to the Cardinals originally (the commissioner freed him in the minor leagues; Rickey arranged for the Dodgers to keep him in their system until he could be traded back to the Cardinals, until Leo Durocher singing Reiser’s praises loud and long forced his callup to the Dodgers when Reiser’s minor league manager threatened to deal him)—telling the kid:
Young man, you’re the greatest young ballplayer I’ve ever seen, but there is one thing you must remember. Now that you’re a professional ballplayer you’re in show business. You will perform on the biggest stage in the world, the baseball diamond. Like the actors on Broadway, you’ll be expected to put on a great performance every day, no matter how you feel, no matter whether it’s too hot or too cold. Never forget that.
A decade later, Rickey, now running the Dodgers, offered to pay Reiser his full 1948 salary if Pistol Pete (Reiser earned that nickname decades before basketball had ever heard of Pete Maravich) would just sit the season out to heal from yet another of his numerous injuries.
“That,” Reiser would tell Heinz, “might have been the one mistake I made. Maybe I should have rested that year.” Fat chance. “It was my way of playing. If I hadn’t played that way, I wouldn’t have been whatever I was.”
Well, now. Whatever Reiser was, he was the poster child for what happens when you cross that fine line from hard nosed to bull headed. (They actually once gave him the last rites on the field.) Reiser ended up a minor league manager and major league coach, lived just about the rest of his life in pain, and died at 61 having thrown his likely greatness into one wall too many, among other places.
Is this what the Nationals want to happen to Bryce Harper?
“He’s had some tough luck so far. But he’s also very young. I think he’s right on track to be the player he wants to be,” Williams said after Harper underwent surgery to repair his thumb. “This is a little hiccup in the process. Certainly don’t want to see it happen. Hope it doesn’t happen. But sometimes it does. He’ll be a fantastic player. This hiccup will be a part of it.”
This isn’t just a hiccup. This is a kid who doesn’t think there are boundaries on the field and limits to what your body can withstand, now managed by a fellow who seems confused that there should be a difference between honest hustle and show hustle. Traducing that difference can turn a viable player into a might-have-been in a blink, if not a head-first slide.
Harper’s been a talent worth watching and a player worth admiring when he does things right from the moment he hit the majors running. So was Pete Reiser. Until . . .