Bryce Harper's mission to make baseball fun again

Bryce Harper is ready to step in for the mission he has taken on: to make baseball fun again. Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

He leads the league in homers. He leads the league in stop-what-you're-doing-and-turn-on-SportsCenter moments. And, of course, he leads the league in hair. But in other news, Bryce Harper has a war to fight.

The culture war.

He might not look the part. But baseball's most magnetic player is the Gen. George S. Patton of the baseball culture war. He sees what the men around him don't. He says what the men around him won't. So he is willing to fight to save the world. His world. The beautiful world of baseball. And amazingly, the fight started with a cap.

"MAKE BASEBALL FUN AGAIN." Four words, stitched in red onto a white trucker's cap, sitting atop Harper's head as he addressed the media after homering on Opening Day. Let the fun begin. Let the culture war begin.

He was "just messing around," he says now. Just messing with the media. And you'll be shocked to learn that three weeks later, MAKE BASEBALL FUN AGAIN caps and T-shirts are eminently available for purchase all over the internet, not to mention at the Washington Nationals' team store.

But here's the important part: When Harper wriggled that cap onto his head that day, it had nothing to do with marketing. He was a man with a message. And he's going to make sure we all hear that message for, like, the next two decades.

"I love this game more than anything in the entire world," he says. "But ..."

But? Was that a "but?" It sure was. But ... the game has to change. And -- you need to know this, you need to be ready for this -- Bryce Harper is volunteering to drive that change.

When he told ESPN The Magazine this winter that "baseball is tired ... because you can't express yourself," he knew exactly what he was doing. Knew exactly what he was saying. Knew exactly why he was saying it.

"When I was doing the article, I knew it was going to be a good read," he says. "I knew it was going to show the amount of enthusiasm that I had toward the game and how much I love this game. But times are changing."

And who is more uniquely positioned to be the agent for change than the most dynamic 23-year-old game-changer in this sport? When Harper arrived in the big leagues, he was 19. He was already a light-up-the-sky fireball, blazing with eye black, energy and bravado. And what was the reaction of the old-school world around him? Suspicion. What else?

Asked if there were times back then when he felt pressure not to express his personality, Harper thinks carefully about how to answer.

"Seriously, at a young age, it's kind of scary to do it," he says, "because you never know what's going to happen. You know, sometimes you do it, and it's like, 'Maybe I shouldn't have done that,' because you're 19, 20 years old and facing a guy who's 35, 36, and he probably isn't going to like what I just did to him."

But now it's not so scary anymore. Not for him at least. And Harper is actively working to promote the idea that it shouldn't ever be scary. The culture he is waging this war against might never see it that way. But Gen. Patton just doesn't get that.

He's totally cool with some unwritten rules. But most of them? They would make more sense to him if they would just factor in the meaning of the moment.

"If you're up, 8-1 or 9-1," Harper says, "you're not going to steal second base. And you're not going to celebrate a homer, up 8-1 or 9-1. But game on the line, huge moment, you never know what you're going to do. It's something that just happens. And that's what makes the game fun. It's that emotion. It's that fire. It's that competitiveness."

So the Jose Bautista bat flip? You'll find no bigger fan of that flip, outside of the Bautista family maybe, than Bryce Harper.

"That was just a huge situation," Harper says. "And it's like I was saying. You never know what you're going to do. You have a whole country behind you. And being able to show an emotion in the playoffs ... I mean, I have no idea what I would have done if I had hit that homer. I have no clue. So I enjoyed seeing it. And I think Major League Baseball enjoyed seeing it. They put it everywhere, so they must have.

"What an incredible moment for baseball, just as a fan of the sport," Harper adds. "I mean, how many NFL or NBA or Olympian or any athletes -- they all know about the Bautista bat flip, because it's incredible, because it's out there. He put it out there. It's fun. The emotion was amazing."

So on the Culture War mission statement, what's the general's definition of "fun?" You just got it hand-delivered. "Fun" means never having to apologize for expressing genuine joy, as long as it's real. And justified. And not mean-spirited.

If baseball is ever going to connect with its lost generation, Harper's generation, it has to cross this line, turn its back on the stoicism of the previous century and allow for the personal freedoms that other sports allow and encourage. And guess who is leading that charge?

But even in Harper's own clubhouse, not everyone is lining up behind him on this battlefield. They've just learned to roll with it. And with him. Here is their take:

From Jayson Werth

This fight to reel in the lost generation -- "that applies to my kids," says the Nationals' 36-year-old left fielder, a mentor to Harper in many areas, an old-school holdout when it comes to this area. "I don't think it applies to me. I'll be gone. It won't be my problem."

To look at Werth's thick beard and overflowing locks, you might think he's a rebel himself. But when it comes to how to act on a baseball field, he's anything but. His grandfather (Dick "Ducky" Schofield), uncle (Dick Schofield) and stepfather (Dennis Werth) all played in the major leagues. So Werth acts the way they taught him to act. He hasn't given in to the shifting tide on this argument. And he never expects to. So maybe, he says with a laugh, "I'm the problem."

He and Harper have had their debates on this topic. Many times. And because they're so tight on other levels, "we have a good back-and-forth on this," Werth says. "But mostly, we've agreed to disagree a lot."

Just because he's on the other side of this battle, though, doesn't mean Werth has an issue with the guy who's directing the fight. Exactly the opposite.

"He does love baseball," Werth says of Harper. "And right now, he's one of the faces of Major League Baseball. So if they're going to move that demographic, if that's what the game needs, then maybe he's the right guy to do it."

From Ryan Zimmerman

"It's different now," says the Nationals' laid-back first baseman. "It makes me sound really old, even though I'm not old. But it's a different game and a different generation now than when I came up."

Let the record show that Ryan Zimmerman is only 31. But in a way, he was Bryce Harper once. At least in the sense that he was once a 20-year-old big leaguer, growing into being the face of his franchise. Not in the sense that he has any interest in letting his personality explode all over every magazine cover, TV screen and Twitter feed on earth.

"That's just this generation, in every sport," Zimmerman says. "Football. Basketball. I would say pretty much all sports are usually ahead of the curve when it comes to change. Baseball is one of the least-changing sports, one of the hardest to change. It's such an old-school sport. And when you look at these young kids [in baseball now], there's such a market, in social media and off the field, that these other sports have been able to take advantage of a lot longer than baseball has. And some of these young kids are trying to take advantage of that."

From Dusty Baker

"I always thought I could never show my real personality or my true feelings on the inside," Bryce Harper's manager says. "And after a while, I didn't really care to. But nowadays ... it probably is important."

Dusty Baker arrived in the big leagues in the late 1960s, when the face of HIS team was a must-see slugger with a very different demeanor. That would be a gentleman named Henry Aaron. So Baker quickly learned to imitate Aaron's quiet dignity.

"You take on the personality of the superstar you're playing with, because you think that's the way to stardom," Baker says. "Hank Aaron's way was: hit a home run and then don't talk about it, and tell the press you don't know how you did it but you know damn well he did, and then you hit another one. So don't brag. Don't boast. The two people I never heard brag or boast that I was around, as good as they were, were Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax."

Baker looks at Aaron and Koufax as the perfect representatives of their generation. Now he's managing a player who appears poised to become the perfect representative of this generation. Baker isn't ready to anoint Harper with that label yet. But if his brightest star wants to "make baseball fun again," the manager has no plans of getting in the way.

"It's important," Baker says, "because it's important to him."

What makes Baker good at his job is that he doesn't believe in pushing the way it was when he played onto the men who play for him now. He might see his 17-year-old son do the James Harden "Dab" and shake his head. But he lets his players be themselves, as long as their biggest priority is playing baseball.

"It don't bother me, because the opposition don't care anymore," Baker says. "If they don't care, why should I care? ... If they don't say nothing, I won't. But if they knock you on your ass, you've gotta live with it."

Harper and his manager haven't been around each other long. But Harper clearly feels empowered by his boss to start acting like himself -- and not some version of himself that other people want him to be. What a concept.

"I want to come in here and have fun, show emotion and just enjoy the game," Harper says. "And that's what Dusty does every single day."

But last week, Harper received an endorsement from a figure even more powerful than his manager -- namely, the commissioner himself. Speaking to the Associated Press Sports Editors, Rob Manfred described Harper as "a spokesman for this generation." How 'bout that?

"I actually believe that a player of his stature starting a dialogue about what the sport's going to look like -- and I think that dialogue really involves mostly his peers, players on the field -- will produce a positive result for the game," Manfred said. "They're young. They see the world different. My kids see the world different than I do. And I do think if we want young people to take the game forward, we have to be tolerant of that dialogue while things change."

So what do you know? It turns out that even the commissioner wants to (ahem) make baseball fun again. In truth, he and his favorite spokesman both know that it always has been a blast. But if they're going to get the word out, it looks as if they're going to have to be cool with the reality that it won't only be Bryce Harper's bat that will be doing the talking.

It might just be his cap.