Harper disciplined by yesteryear's phenom

Bryce Harper’s latest bit of drama hit the news: pulled from a close game Saturday and benched for lack of hustle running to first base. Nationals manager Matt Williams was pretty up-front about the reason why, stressing Harper’s obligation to his teammates when he said, “He and I made an agreement, this team made an agreement, that when we play the game, that we hustle at all times.” Harper’s postgame comments seem to indicate he took it in the right way, or was at least ready to give the right answers, so we can forget about any postgame drama.

It’s times like these that you have to remember that, while it might seem as if Harper has already been around a while, he’s nevertheless just 21 years old, yet in his third season in the majors already. I think we all remember what we were like at 21, and whether or not you were ready to be a perfect employee in any workplace, let alone one with few days off and the rigors of a grinding travel schedule. Which is why, even for a player as good as Harper, even for a player who has been relentlessly conditioned and prepared to be a big league ballplayer, as he was, you can extend some small measure of understanding for him. On the other hand, as the son of an ironworker, he has lauded his father’s example as the inspiration for his work ethic.

The microscope that Harper has to work under is no easy thing for anybody, with or without the clown questions. Less than two weeks ago, he was talking about how lost he was at the plate and taking a day off. Then he rattled off an eight-game hitting streak while hitting .483/.545/.759, so I guess you can say he found himself.

That’s what is worth the headaches, even as you accept that, third-year pro or no, Harper is still a very young man. Which is why you can simultaneously respect Williams for exercising his responsibility to his team so quickly. Williams may be a rookie skipper, but he’s also a guy who had his share of huge touts back in the day as the third overall pick of the 1986 draft for the San Francisco Giants. He was in the majors nine months later, just 21 years old with even fewer games as a pro under his belt in the minors than Harper had when he was called up (less than 80, to 134 for Harper).

So Williams knows more than a little about these kinds of pressures, as well as his own experience as a singular talent. Maybe that means he’s less inclined to spare the rod, so to speak. We’ll have to see how Harper, having been chastened, responds to the message in the days to come.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.