Thursday, March 15, 2012

He Could Have Been a Hockey Player

“I want to play the game hard. I want to ram it down your throat, put you into left field when I’m going into second base.”

-- Bryce Harper, quoted in a story about him in the baseball preview section at

Bryce Harper is currently a baseball player in the Washington Nationals organization. The time and the place, however, seem oddly inappropriate. He is neither of this time or this place. The rough edges to his game; the cocky, yet matter-of-fact attitude; his volcanic temperament (he was once ejected from a game for arguing a called strike in a National Junior College World Series game, and it being the second ejection of his season, resulted in a two-game suspension that ended his amateur playing career when his team did not advance far enough for him to return to play); not to mention his immense talent makes him the sort of sports figure that men in fedoras once spent dozens of paragraphs a day explaining, praising, and mythologizing in newsprint.

And he is a “Washington National?” A city of button-down collars, brief cases, and whispered conversations in alcoves? This is a guy who chose his uniform number (34) because the digits add to seven, the uniform number of New York Yankee legend Mickey Mantle. Being brash and aiming high does not seem to be a problem for him.

What does this have to do with hockey? If Harper should come north with the Nationals out of spring training this season, he might as much as any Washington athlete be a “hockey” type of player. In another era he could have been…

Dale Hunter. Hunter was hardly shy about playing the game hard. Being the only player in the history of the league to record more than 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes is ample evidence of having played the game “hard” and having played it “well.” As for the putting an opponent into left field – or hard into the glass – Hunter had more than his share of such episodes in his career.

Gordie Howe. “Mr. Hockey” wasn’t the quote machine in his day for which Harper seems to have a gift, but he was certainly the combination of talent and toughness that appear to be the cornerstones of Harper’s game. When you have an in-game achievement named for you – the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” of a goal, an assist, and a fight – you are pretty much the gold standard for combining talent and toughness. Harper could be baseball’s equivalent.

Mark Messier. It will be a long time before the jury can weigh in on Harper’s ability to lead at a level commensurate with his skill, but what Harper shares with Messier, in addition to that mix of toughness and talent, is a certain distinctiveness of appearance. Messier, with his chiseled features and trademark “Winn-Well” bucket on the ice, has his counterpart in Harper, who has made eye-black something of an art form.

Brett Hull. The Golden Brett could score goals, Bryce Harper can hit. And neither seems to have had a reliable governor on their vocal cords to keep from saying what is on their minds in an unfiltered fashion. Brett Hull was once quoted as saying, “I'm not done yet making people miserable. If they're going to make me miserable, then I'm going to make them miserable.” In his GQ article, Harper was quoted as saying, “It was an ‘eff you’ from the mouth,” in describing his blowing a kiss at a pitcher after hitting a home run off him. On the other hand, Hull once said, “Scoring a goal is a euphoric feeling, and it's not so much the puck going in. It's the reaction from your teammates, the opponents and the fans…to shut up a crowd or to have your fans go berserk is the greatest feeling. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.” Harper echoed this sentiment at the 2011 South Atlantic League All Star Game…"(The season) is fun every single day and I love it. Baseball is my life. I love the game."

No comparison across sports is perfect, but one could see Bryce Harper in a hockey jersey and skates as much as a batting helmet and spikes. He could take his place among the Bobby Clarke’s, the Brendan Shanahan’s, or the Ted Lindsay’s as much as he could his place among any of his baseball contemporaries. As much as a Dale Hunter, Bryce Harper has the makings of being that player that fans of every team in the league but one will hate – in equal parts for his skill and his antics – and that last city will love having him as their own.

And for Washingtonians that will be in this time and in this place.

photo: Chris McPherson/GQ