During the coming days and weeks, there is bound to be plenty of debate over Bryce Harper's on-field antics Monday night, when he blew a kiss at an opposing pitcher after hitting a home run. Some will question his maturity and chastise him for poor sportsmanship. Others will defend his showmanship and praise him for being entertaining.
I will do neither.
To me, Harper's actions aren't particularly good or bad for the game of baseball, neither hip and cool nor morally reprehensible. They do, however, show that Harper has no grasp whatsoever on the concept of context.
Like all things relating to life and baseball, this lesson can be taught through a scene from the classic movie "Bull Durham."
In the scene, veteran catcher Crash Davis chastises Ebby Calvin "Nuke" Laloosh, a young, cocky Single-A phenom (sound familiar?) for letting fungus grow on his shower shoes. Crash tells Nuke, a pitcher, to clean his shoes, explaining "If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back on your shower shoes, and the press will think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you're a slob."
Of course, Nuke's shower shoes have nothing to do with Harper, but the overarching point is very relevant: When you establish yourself as a big-league star, you can act how you want. Until then, toe the line.
Harper is nowhere close to being an established major leaguer. He has spent this season with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns, and will surely remain in the minors for at least another year. Yet, the 18-year-old is showing off and taunting opponents as if he's entertaining a national television audience.
Granted, Harper's antics have landed him on many ESPN replays, but that's just it: it's his taunting, not his baseball, that got him there. By prancing around the minors like a high school beauty queen, he has put himself in a position where critics can ignore his game and focus only on his eccentricities.
Look around the sports media world. Every article, podcast, video segment and blog about Harper might devote a sentence or two to the kid's .342 batting average and 14 home runs in a league where he is the youngest player, but that's it. The rest will be devoted to hailing or criticizing him for his wacky behavior.
Sadly, the nature of baseball is such that, even as he dominates opposing pitchers, Harper's ascent to major league stardom is far from a sure thing. Unfortunately, for a kid labeled "franchise savior" by his organization, anything short of major league stardom is failure.
With that in mind, it seems that Harper is painfully unaware of the fact that, while he feasts on Single-A pitching every night, he has accomplished nothing. For a franchise player, a home run in A-ball is worthless. It should be greeted with a yawn, then followed up with the hard work and precise preparation it takes to succeed at a major league level.
Bryce, when you hit 40 in the show - or better yet, belt one out in a world series - go ahead and taunt your opposition. Celebrate like it's the end of the world. Sure, you'll still get criticized, and sure, you'll be reviled by opposing players and fans, but they'll have to give your game the respect it deserves because you've earned it. When you succeed in the big leagues, blowing kisses and taunting pitchers will be seen by many as fun and colorful.
Until then, however, your antics are taking place in the wrong context.