Those Bryce Harper-Jackie Robinson Comparisons Were Definitely A Mistake
Bryce Harper has serious talent. Skipping his last two years of high school to play in junior college, excelling there, getting picked first overall in the MLB draft, tearing up A ball: that's quite a run, and suggests that though he's struggled early in Double-A, he'll right the ship. And with that kind of talent comes a lot of people talking about you. Not all of that talk is positive, and Harper's contributed to that. But there's certainly a lot of talk, has been for years, and will only be more as he continues his progression toward the major leagues.
What all of this certainly does not mean is that the scrutiny endured by Harper is anywhere remotely close to even being in the relative neighborhood of approaching the scrutiny endured by Jackie Robinson, who, you know, only broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. Unfortunately, two members of the Nationals organization, Doug Harris (director of player development) and Tony Tarasco (minor league coordinator) were asked about the level of attention placed on Harper. You can guess where this is going. Tarasco:
"You have to go back to Jackie Robinson to find anybody who goes through this much scrutiny. It wasn't like this for [Stephen] Strasburg. Wasn't like this for Alex Rodriguez."
"This is really unfair and it's totally different, but if I can make a comparison to one guy that has been scrutinized like this, it would be Jackie Robinson. And it's unfair because it was a different standard. He was under a microscope in an era when we didn't have Internet, didn't have cellphones.
"Now, Jackie Robinson had his life threatened. I'm not comparing Bryce to that. But as far as nonstop scrutiny? Absolutely. Day to day."
A few things. Harris qualifies his answer (though the "really unfair" part might have served as a good clue that he was wading into dangerous territory). He adds perspective and context. This wasn't done out of ignorance or thoughtlessness. And Harper does put up with a lot - more than we'll know. He told Verducci about how "[s]ome of the stuff I hear, I can't say." Verducci mentions that he's been "heckled in his home ballpark" and criticized by any number of people both in and on the periphery of baseball.
But Jackie Robinson? Just...no. Harris was right: it's unfair, and it's unfair because the scrutiny Robinson was under was of such a more intensified type that the comparison isn't even worth making. Sure, the Internet wasn't around to pick apart his every move, but people sure were around to pick apart his every move. He initiated a sea change in the game that many, many people weren't ready for, while handling himself with incredible grace and performing beautifully in the field. (And the same goes for Larry Doby, who did all that in the American League later in 1947, and into 1948.)
Bryce Harper, on the other hand, is a hugely talented kid who rubs some people the wrong way, perhaps unfairly to an extent. He's under a lot of pressure and gets a lot of crap from people, but it's just a different plane of existence. Why not a comparison to David Clyde, the one-time pitching phenom who sold out his home stadium for his major league debut at 18 in 1973? Why not Darryl Strawberry, the hotshot high school prospect from L.A./No. 1 draft pick/Mets minor league phenom/young star in New York?
Those guys faced a ton of pressure, and received a ton of attention, without, you know, changing the face of baseball as we know it while also leaving an indelible mark in American society. They - and even Strasburg, despite Tarasco's assertion to the contrary - strike us as more apt comparisons. We don't believe at all that Harris and Tarasco meant to minimize what Robinson endured, achieved, and meant, but when you make any comparison between him and a guy whose situation just isn't comparable...well, it speaks for itself, and it's not too hard to figure out what it says.
Photos via Library of Congress, Getty (Christian Petersen)
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