Lebron James. Tiger Woods. Roger Federer. Tom Brady. These are the faces of professional sports in North America. From the NBA to the PGA, every has sport has its continental representative. These are the players that everyone knows about-even my mother. We thought LeBron was big in Cleveland, but his star shone even brighter after his polarizing Decision. Tiger, pre-scandal, was big because he was simply light-years ahead of anyone else in his sport, no one could compete with him. Immediately post-scandal, he garnered even more attention, albeit negative. Now, he has faded, along with the sport which he carried on his back. In tennis, Federer has broken records once thought unbreakable, and is being challenged now by Spaniard Rafael Nadal. Federer vs. Nadal keeps tennis afloat. Ditto to Manning vs. Brady and football in which a different guy seems to be ahead every year, and it keeps fans interested.
It has been argued that Derek Jeter is to baseball as James, Woods, Federer and Brady are to their sports (see “The Last Great American Ballplayer“). Though I see Jeter’s fame as a product of the city he plays in, I will admit that he has been a, if not the, face of baseball since his entrance into the league in 1996. Now the shortstop’s fame is dwindling, and a new star must emerge from the crapshoot, that is the MLB draft. Not just any star, though. The MLB is losing pace with the other major sports, as even the NHL in the USA is making ground (continuing in the theme of rivalries, Crosby vs. Ovechkin). The MLB needs a star, but not just any star. They need a guy who will bring attention back to baseball. A guy who we can’t help but watch, even if we hate him. A guy who is challenged for the title of the best player in baseball on a yearly basis, yet never is overtaken, like Phil was to Tiger. The MLB needs a player that my mom will know, and take interest in.
Right near the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, there is a small settlement of 39 728 people called Hagerstown. It is here where Bryce Harper has started his professional baseball career, and his attempt at reviving baseball. Gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16,
Harper seems to have had the spotlight on him forever. But Harper will not allow himself only 15 minutes of fame. A lifetime would be preferred. It takes a lot for a high class-A player to receive this much attention, yet Harper seems to have mastered it, though in a different way than his soon-to-be teammate Stephen Strasburg. Last year, Strasburg’s AAA games were being televised live on ESPN. There was just one catch for those who were interested in enjoying a good baseball game: when Strasburg was not on the mound, the game was not on TV. ESPN actually did well doing this, because everyone with even the slightest interest in baseball wanted to see what all the hype about this pitching phenom was.
If Harper keeps making headlines at the pace he is, it won’t only be people “with the slightest interest in baseball” tuning in to see him. It will be everybody, and the sideshow will be Strasburg. Harper wants to be MJ, leaving Strasburg as Pippen, the loyal (until a week ago), somewhat jealous sidekick. Did you know that Harper took a summer course so he could skip grade 12, go to junior college and enter the MLB draft early? Fine, he was pushed, but is that okay? Did you know that when he was in the JC playoffs, he was suspended for the last two games and watched his team whither from the stands for arguing balls and strikes? Sure, this seems like a harsh punishment, but the guy drew a line in the dirt to show the ump where he believed the ball to be. The latest Harper scandal, but surely not the last, had him mockingly kissing the opposing pitcher as he rounded the bases after belting a home run. These have led to questions on his arrogance, and a general “who the fuck do you think you are?” from all those watching. Yes, he is still only in high class-A, but Harper is the next big thing. He is the future of Major League Baseball. And he knows it. He is the polarizing figure that will put baseball back on the map. Some will loathe Harper for his antics, some will love him. The one thing I know is that everyone will respect him, similar to the respect, yet utter hatred everyone (except Yankees fans) has for Derek Jeter.
Harper will be viewed as the biggest bust of all-time if he doesn’t live up to his 504-foot home run, 96 MPH fastball hype. And to live up to this self-created hype, Harper is going to have to be a perennial .330 player with 40 homers and 120 rbis every season. He should shatter Pujols’ record of 9 straight .300/30/100 seasons to start a career. Buster Posey should not even be in the discussion for best player in baseball by the time Harper is up, nor should Mike Trout, Brett Lawrie, Mike Moustakas or any other super-prospect. The Harper show will only keep entertaining if these guys threaten Harper’s status as the best all-around player since Bonds circa 2000. Then he should go beyond this, and do something Bonds never could do and win the World Series. Because greatness is measured in championships, and thats the reason Dan Marino isn’t viewed as the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Not only would this feed into the legend of Bryce, but it would be great for baseball too, seeing as they haven’t had a memorable World Series since 2001, when Mariano Rivera picked quite the time for his only career postseason blown save (2002, when it went 7 games between the Angels and Giants, and 2003 where Josh Beckett shut down a lethal Yankees lineup twice are also in the mix, but they simply weren’t as memorable as 2001. That was as exciting as it gets, and I was only 7!). Even if the series itself isn’t that great, Harper will make it worth watching like a novel with a mediocre plot but a riveting protagonist.
In Bryce Harper, we are already seeing flashes of greatness even while he toils in Hagerstown. Bud Selig knows it, the Nationals know it, Stephen Strasburg knows it, and the fans know it. He will bring baseball back to life, and there is no better time than now, as the NBA heads for an offseason of uncertainty and as a 2011 NFL season looks bleaker and bleaker with every day. The PGA had Tiger, the NBA James, the ATP has Federer and the MLB will have Harper. Mark it down, Harper is the next big thing. He will reinstate baseball as truly being America’s favourite pastime.
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