Column: Bryce Harper brings more than passion to the game; making baseball fun is beyond a slogan

Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper slides to catch a fly ball in a game against Baltimore earlier this season.
(Nick Wass / Associated Press)

There was no greater story line at the All-Star game than the rush to anoint Aaron Judge as the so-called face of baseball, replacing Mike Trout.

Judge is Paul Bunyan in cleats, he hits baseballs to the moon, and he plays for the New York Yankees. Judge also is polite and respectful — just like Trout, who suddenly has been deemed too bland for the role.

Derek Jeter enjoyed the limelight, dodged controversy and won four championships in his first five years. If those are the ingredients for the face of baseball, it’s going to be a long wait for the next one.


But the game ought to want a little bit of the edge that Bryce Harper flashes. Baseball is entertainment, and Harper can fire up a crowd like few others.

At the All-Star Game he was asked about the craziest things he had heard, and a few words later the Washington Nationals outfielder had fired up the city of Atlanta.

“You try to do the best you can to not really listen to it,” he said. “Of course, you’re going to hear things. Mets fans are kind of rude. Braves fans are kind of rude. Philly fans? Not as bad, but a little bit upset.

“There are the things you hear the most — about family members and things like that — where you want to turn around and punch somebody right in their mouth. Everything else, I don’t really hear.”

I turned that into a tweet — “In an upset, Bryce Harper said Phillies fans were not as rude as Mets or Braves fans.” — and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution turned that tweet into a story, triggering a flood of feedback from readers recalling how Harper once dragged his foot over the Braves’ on-field logo three years ago.

“Bryce Harper just gave Atlanta Braves fans another reason to despise him,” the Journal-Constitution story read.

Not just Braves fans. In Miami — another National League East city often visited by Harper and the Nationals — fans at the All-Star game reflexively booed him, just as he was pointing to the custom-made cleats he wore for the game, a tribute to the late Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez.

Harper made an electric catch during the game, punctuating it with a lovely hair flip. He also wore a microphone so he could chat with the Fox broadcasters while he played right field.

“I won’t keep you the whole inning,” Fox broadcaster Joe Buck told Harper off the air, during warmups.

“Oh, keep me as long as you want,” Harper replied, according to the Kansas City Star. “I’m bored.”

That is how, during baseball’s signature summer showcase, America could listen to Harper and Buck discuss Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.

“Make Baseball Fun Again” is not just a slogan on a cap Harper wears. He means it. He’s thought about what fans want, and he believes a bat flip or fist pump can put an accent on an already compelling game.

“They want to see big emotion and fire from players,” he said.

When players were asked whether they liked the new All-Star format — strictly an exhibition, without the winning league getting home-field advantage in the World Series — most limited their response to “yes.” Harper’s idea to make the All-Star game fun again: Let the two leading vote-getters draft teams from the pool of All-Stars.

“Mike Trout in center, me in right, and Mookie Betts in left,” Harper said. “It would be really cool to see.”

And, in an era when travel ball is almost a requirement for a prospect, he had an earnest and refreshing take when a kid reporter asked what advice Harper would offer to kids.

“Play as many sports as you can,” he said. “Kids get so locked down in one sport nowadays. It’s not fun not being able to play all those sports.”

Harper was 16 when Sports Illustrated dubbed him “The Chosen One.” That was eight years ago. Since then, one of baseball’s favorite parlor games has been speculating about where he might sign as a free agent.

The time is almost here. Harper is eligible for free agency after next season. He also is six months younger than Judge, the rookie sensation.

It’s part of the world we live in. People want to know, and they can always have an opinion about it.

— Bryce Harper, on which team he will choose during free agency after 2018 season

Max Scherzer, Harper’s teammate, got $210 million in free agency. Harper figures to get twice as much, maybe more, and Scherzer says Harper is handling his pending decision with aplomb.

“How he plays is how he’s handling it mentally,” Scherzer said. “As long as he’s playing well, he’s doing fine, and you know where his heart is.”

For a player of Harper’s stature, the run toward free agency can be annoying — not on the field, but with reporters inquiring about his plans, or at least his preferences.

That usually goes in one of two directions. The first route, and the one generally counseled by agents, is to say something along the lines of, “I’m just trying to help my team win, and I’m not thinking about free agency.” The second route, for the few players that actually enjoy the hype, is to say something along the lines of, “You’re from [insert city here]? I’d love to play in [insert city here].”

Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, said his client is so comfortable in those situations that he doesn’t need a script of what to say.

“We have a lot of conversations,” Boras said. “But it’s more about him asking the questions, rather than me delivering what would be our routine of preparation.

“He’s a precocious executive, in many ways.”

So, on the day before the All-Star game, the star that grew up idolizing Mickey Mantle got questions about how many home runs he might hit at Yankee Stadium, and how he might like to play alongside Judge in the Yankees’ outfield, and how much he might like New York City, and the Yankees’ tradition.

“That’s the thing that I want to try to do with D.C.,” Harper said. “That’s why it’s so amazing to be able to start with a team that you can build as much tradition as you can with. Look at a guy like Cal Ripken, who stayed with the Orioles forever. Look at a guy like Derek Jeter, who stayed with the Yankees forever.”

Harper dropped a few of the Nationals’ biggest names — Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner — into the conversation. Then it was as if he realized, oh, yeah, the question was about the Yankees, and New York, and he wouldn’t entirely dodge it.

“I’ve gone to New York City for a couple days,” Harper said. “I want to get out of there in about three days. You go there for a few days, it’s crazy and hectic, and I want to go back home.”

What about L.A.? Harper made several pilgrimages to see Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium, and Los Angeles is about as close as he can get in the major leagues to his Las Vegas home.

“I don’t want to have my pass list that big,” Harper said. “So being just as far away as I can from Vegas isn’t too bad. I enjoy having my family and friends there, but I know my family and friends would be there, probably, every single weekend.

“I enjoy missing Vegas. You know what I’m saying? I enjoy going out to D.C. I enjoy the green. I enjoy the monuments. I enjoy driving down [Interstate] 395 — actually, I don’t enjoy 395, because of the traffic.”

Harper would be a good fit on the Dodgers, but their philosophy of success through depth and flexibility would be at odds with the idea of spending half a billion dollars on one player, particularly since Clayton Kershaw can be a free agent at the same time as Harper.

Harper would be a better fit on the Angels, playing alongside Trout for real instead of just in a fantasy All-Star outfield. But it is difficult to imagine owner Arte Moreno as the high bidder, after the Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton signings restricted the Angels’ financial flexibility and stunted their scouting and player development programs.

For now, Harper is having fun with his coming free agency, throwing out tea leaves to entice the masses, as if local traffic really is going to play any role in deciding which crazy-high bid to accept.

“It’s part of the world we live in,” he said. “People want to know, and they can always have an opinion about it. I think everybody is going to have an opinion about it for the next year and a half, two years.

“Everybody’s been talking about it for four or five years.”

Harper last month posted a picture of him and fellow Las Vegas native Kris Bryant on Instagram, with the tag “Back2BackOneDay.” The uproar predictably followed — is this a sign Harper would be joining the Chicago Cubs? — and he cheerfully owned up to his mischief.

“Just stirring the pot,” he said with a wicked grin.

You sure got the fans in Chicago going nuts.

“I bet I did,” he said.

So, after the old debate about whether Harper might be better than Trout, Harper certainly can appreciate this subtlety: The Angels could have selected any day this season to give out the “double bobblehead” that commemorates Trout’s two most valuable player awards. Harper has won one.

The giveaway is scheduled for Tuesday, when the Angels play host to Harper and the Nationals.

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin