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Swinging for a Ring

Nationals star Bryce Harper burst onto the scene as one of the league’s most gifted, aggressive, and provocative talents. What’s changed in his age-24 season? That’s a clown question, bro.

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

After it was over, Bryce Harper wondered why it had ever begun. On Memorial Day, during the eighth inning of a game between the Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants, Harper went up to face Giants relief pitcher Hunter Strickland and was beaned, at 98 miles per hour, in the hip. Harper pointed his bat toward the mound, tossed it to the side, ripped off his batting helmet, and sprinted in Strickland’s direction. He tried hurling his plastic lid at the pitcher’s head, but his form was less "recent league MVP" and more "guy with the yips."

Then it all happened fast: The smooth brim slipped out of Harper’s grasp; the helmet spun into orbit; the two angry men exchanged wild punches; Harper’s well-maintained hair shook and glistened in the sun like a tiny horse’s mane; the two teams’ benches cleared; San Francisco’s Jeff Samardzija and Michael Morse straight-up collided — "there was about 13 feet of man-mountain exploding in the middle of the diamond," wrote SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee — and it took the combined strength of numerous professional athletes to eventually subdue Harper and Strickland, both of whom were suspended Tuesday by the league, for four and six games, respectively. (Both have appealed the suspensions, and Harper’s was already reduced to three games.)

In theory, Harper understood the impetus for being targeted: In the 2014 NLDS, he had demolished two Strickland pitches, hitting one ball 445 feet and landing another in McCovey Cove. More importantly, he had also angered the pitcher by pausing each time to admire his shots. But in the clubhouse following Monday’s game, Harper expressed surprise that Strickland’s hard feelings still lingered three seasons later. "They won the World Series that year," he said of the Giants’ run in 2014. "I don’t even think he should be thinking about what happened in the first round. He should be thinking about wearing that ring home every single night."

Harper would know: It seems to be what’s on his mind at all times.

There’s nothing unusual about a professional athlete obsessed with his own greatness, but what has long distinguished Harper is how raw and honest he’s been on the subject. Not long after Baseball America named him "possibly the best pure hitter under 12 years old," he told the Las Vegas Sun: "I expect perfection from myself." At 16, when he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, labeled "Baseball’s Chosen One," and compared to LeBron James, he told SI’s Tom Verducci that he was clear on his goals. "Be in the Hall of Fame, definitely," the teen said. "Play in the pinstripes. Be considered the greatest ballplayer who ever lived. I can’t wait."

And he didn’t wait: After his sophomore year at Las Vegas High, Harper left and got a GED; this exploited a loophole that made him eligible for the MLB draft a year earlier than he otherwise would have been. He also enrolled in the College of Southern Nevada, a juco school, to compete against older players for a season, acclimate to wooden bats, and take mercy on absolutely no one. In 66 games he smashed 31 home runs, nearly tripling the previous program record of 12. He also got ejected, then suspended, from the Junior College World Series for using his bat to draw a line in the dirt after disagreeing with an umpire’s call.

"If I’m playing some rinky-dink team from Wyoming," Harper told Baseball America in 2010, less than a month before the Nationals selected him with the first overall pick in that year’s draft, "I’m still going to go out there and play as hard as I can. Some opposing teams don’t like that, saying, ‘Hey, calm down, it’s not the World Series.’ But every game to me is the World Series."

By that measure, Harper has played in the World Series 718 times in his six-season career, though he has yet to win an actual playoff series. The level of competitiveness he described in 2010 has not ebbed, and it’s made him one of the most effective — and aggressive, and provocative — players in baseball. Just 24, he’s already a four-time All-Star, and should soon play in his fifth Midsummer Classic. (He leads all NL outfielders in the fan vote.) In 2012 he won NL Rookie of the Year, one season after he’d dominated the minors and pissed people off by hitting a home run and sending an air kiss in the direction of the pitcher. At the start of the 2015 season, he also brought up championship jewelry as he crowed about the Nationals’ addition of pitcher Max Scherzer: "I mean, that’s unbelievable," he told CSN. "To be able to have a guy like Scherzer come in, I just started laughing. I was like, ‘Where’s my ring?,’ ’Cause it’s just stupid."

The Nationals missed the postseason that year, but Harper led the majors in both on-base percentage (.460) and slugging percentage (.649) and was named NL MVP. He also got into a tiff with teammate Jonathan Papelbon over baseball’s unwritten rules and base-running intensity, which culminated in Pap grabbing Harper by the throat and throwing him into a dugout wall.

Harper’s history with Strickland was similarly marked by both Harper’s indisputable skill and confrontational style. Three years ago, when Harper clubbed his bomb off Strickland in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS, he not only stood and watched the arc of the ball before rounding the bases; he also glared directly at the pitcher as he began his trot. (Harper gave an additional staredown to a random red-wine-drinking fan near the dugout who had heckled him before he went up to bat. "He was just devastated about life," Harper recalled to ESPN The Magazine.) It’s likely that Strickland’s remarks about allowing a home run to Harper in Game 1 of the same series stuck with the Washington star, who doesn’t forget much.

Asked after Game 1 if he’d make the same pitch that resulted in Harper’s towering fly that landed in the upper deck, Strickland said, "for sure, I would do it again today." Reporters also asked Strickland if he was worried about his precision that night. "I’m not out there to hit a gnat," he replied. "Good thing he didn’t hit a Nat," a CSN reporter joked at the time, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "lest he start a bench-clearing brawl."

A couple of days before the Memorial Day fracas, Harper had visited some local Little League teams to say hello and share advice with the next generation. Perched on a stool in the middle of a rec field, Harper got real with the youth: "As much as they might tell you, ‘Oh, it’s OK you guys lost,’" he said, copping the tone of a helicopter parent soothing his kid, "no, Johnny, no. No participation trophies, OK? First place only."

He was kind of kidding — his comedic timing as good as that of any decent kid’s entertainer, which is to say that his bit earned a few chuckles from the Little Leaguers and really killed it with all the parents standing behind them — but knowing Harper, he also wasn’t joking at all. A few days later, after the fight, after he told reporters that Strickland gets to look at his hardware all the time, he emphasized a similar message. "He’s got a World Series ring," Harper said. "It’s on his finger. He can look at it every single night he wants to. There’s nothing to be thinking about the first round for, because we were out and they were playing Kansas City in the [2014] World Series."

Harper is not a man who possesses much chill. Many athletes are proud to say, in a suitably monotone and clichéd voice, that their goal is to find equilibrium, to "never get too high or too low." Not Harper. He is fueled by the bad and will rub the good in your face. He doesn’t have the time, nor the inclination, for pretending to be polite or for knowing how to pronounce the word meme. He wants to make baseball more emotional, more rude, more real. He wants to have the freedom to be himself on or off the field: to relish in his successes, to one day seek the biggest contract in free-agent history, to be a fan of a highly questionable mix of teams, and to tell reporters "that’s a clown question, bro" if that’s what he thinks.

Harper understands why a pitcher might celebrate after striking him out; given that he’s hitting .322 with an NL-best 15 home runs so far in 2017, it’s an accomplishment, after all. So why shouldn’t he get to crow when he pulls off the opposite?

"You want kids to play the game, right?" he asked ESPN The Magazine last year. "What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players — Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton — I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic." Over the years, Harper has repeatedly complained about baseball’s humorlessness, "tired" unwritten rules, and unwillingness to let athletes fly their freak flags in the way other major professional sports do. Last season, he wore a "Make Baseball Fun Again" hat. He’d be the first, though, to admit that it’s fun only when you’re winning, and that the far better accessory would be a ring.