Early in his career, either 2013 or 2014, Bryce Harper did a short stint on the disabled list. In his first game back, he played left field and fielded a ground ball single in the top of the first inning. Instead of lazily throwing the ball back in to the infield, he charged it and fired the ball into first base, hoping to catch the runner not paying attention. It was a one in ten thousand type baseball play–the type of thing fielders rarely ever do.
Harper didn’t get the runner. In fact, the throw was a little off target and the Nats’ first baseman was caught off guard–he had to dive to stop the ball from flying into the stands. The whole sequence was unexpected, bizarre, and–above all else–exciting. Some tweeter on my timeline simply wrote “yup. Bryce is back.”
That was the bargain with an early Bryce Harper. He’d do crazy things you didn’t expect. Take second base on an otherwise routine single when the outfielder casually fielded the ball. Try to throw out runners where no other sane fielder would try. And they weren’t all good things. Bryce would routinely get himself ejected. He’d run into outfield walls. Most of all, he didn’t care what anybody thought. He didn’t mind that opposing fans thought he was a preening pretty boy when he’d flip his hair after a home run, and he’d keep arguing with umpires when it was completely counter-productive. In spite of, and often because of, all these flaws, Nationals fans loved him and defended him when it seemed all 29 other fan bases and the national media didn’t like him. For better it worse, he made a repetitive game like baseball a little more thrilling. The game was different when he was involved–you could immediately tell when “Bryce was back.”
Now Bryce Harper is on what seems to be a death march through his last three months as a National. He is struggling at the plate–he’s currently hitting .213–but something else seems different as well. His ubiquitous presence has receded, and fan loyalties have been distributed to other more “accessible” players like Max Scherzer or younger players like Juan Soto. There is no way to measure this, but fans seemed resigned to him signing elsewhere and it’ll no longer be a cataclysmic event when it happens.
There are many reasons why this might be case, but perhaps one of them is the fact that Bryce himself is different. Those “youthful indiscretions” on the baseball field that were charming in 2013 are both less frequent and less forgivable considering Bryce is supposed to “all grown up” now and a team leader. In any event, the experience of watching Bryce Harper is noticeably different and, for what it’s worth, Bryce doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself as much either. Eventually, Bryce won’t “be back” and it’ll be less painful than we ever imagined it would be.