On Thursday night, Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper was named MVP of the National League, a foregone conclusion after an outstanding year. At 23, Harper is the fourth-youngest MVP and the youngest to ever win the award by unanimous vote. He is, by any measure, a once-in-a-generation talent, whose age 22 season (his birthday came after season's end) stands behind only Ted Williams.
And yet, plenty of baseball fans find themselves unable to truly enjoy Harper’s skills for a somewhat ridiculous reason: The guy is a stupendous douche.
Just like his talent, Harper’s terrible attitude isn’t really up for debate. He's brash and hyperconfident, super talented, super young and super rich. He’s got a goofy haircut, is an occasional dick to reporters, and plays either too hard or not hard enough, depending on who you ask. He's gotten in the face of players on other teams, players on his own team and umpires. If you can't find something about Harper that makes you roll your eyes, you're not looking hard enough.
But if you can't look past those things, you're missing out. In 2015, Harper put together an all-time season for a 22-year-old, notable in part because most 22-year-old ballplayers are still riding buses between one-horse towns in the minors. But let's forget them for a moment and compare Harper's season to those of other elite players who had starting jobs before they had mortgages.
Harper slashed .330/.460/.649 in 2015. The only player to best that as a 22-year-old was Ted Williams, one of the game's greatest hitters who put up an astounding .406/.553/.735 in 1941. Harper's 42 home runs last season were the fourth most ever hit by a 22-year-old, trailing only Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Bench and Juan Gonzalez. Look at baseball's age 22 leader boards and, along with there aforementioned, you'll see names like Jimmie Foxx, Alex Rodriguez, and Harper’s contemporary, Mike Trout.
It's elite company that Harper distinguishes himself from only in the amount of ire he inspires. Remember, 22-year-old A-Rod wasn't yet universally detested. Certainly some of that hate is earned, but Harper also deserves a bit of break for his awful personality. Consider the amount of attention the kid's recieved for his baseball skills. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old. He was in the majors as a 19-year-old. Harper's had people kissing his ass since the day they realized he could make them millions. Sometimes he acts like he knows it.
The market in which Harper plays deserves some blame for the negative attention too. Playing in Washington, D.C. invites media scrutiny that wouldn't exist if he played, say, in Anaheim. Trout, who's only 24, has never put up a year quite like Harper's 2015, but his first five seasons in the majors are among the best ever. And yet, we know much less about Trout than we do Harper. That might be because Trout is a less in-your-face kinda guy than Harper. But the sports world's East Coast bias has something to do with it too.
Look, if you hate Harper, none of this is going to change that. Neither is his playfulness with fans, charity work or your own realization that you, too, were a shitbag at 22. And that's really too bad. Because in the end, if you're too busy scoffing at Harper's hair to marvel at his moon shots, it's your loss.
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