Business is good in baseball. So this isn't 1995, when the sport needed Cal Ripken Jr. to break Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak, and then take one of the most memorable victory laps the sport had ever seen. Baseball isn't coming off a strike and a cancelled World Series and the feeling in the country that the sport had crashed a la Wall Street in 2008.
Baseball doesn't need home runs the way it needed them in '98, when McGwire vs. Sosa lifted everyone before we found out that the home run records came out of a bottle or the end of a syringe.
Attendance is terrific; the money keeps rolling in; baseball doesn't need Bryce Harper the way it needed Ripken in '95 and the home run guys later. Still: It needs him as much as it has needed any young star in a long time.
"This is," Don Mattingly told me in Jupiter, Fla., the other day, "a pretty good time to be a young star in this game." Mattingly smiled then and said, "Not that there's ever a bad time."
"Bryce Harper," Bob Costas told me on Thursday, "is an old-time ballplayer with a new-world sensibility. There's always the feeling that he might say something provocative and light up social media. Or do something provocative on the field. To me, he's the type of guy who might steal a base in an 8-0 game, get thrown at, then lay down a bunt the next time up and try to run right up your back. In all the good ways, there's always the sense that he's about to go off."
Again: There's no recession in baseball. But there is the idea that the other sports have the stars to watch. Baseball needs Bryce Harper to continue to be great and to be somebody to watch the way golf Tiger Woods became somebody the whole country wanted to watch when he first came along. Baseball needs Bryce to be a one-name star like LeBron, or Steph.
Maybe Alex Rodriguez was on his way to being this kind of star once, before he turned out to be as much of a fraud as McGwire and Sosa and Barry Bonds were. As much of a winner as Derek Jeter was, as many big moments as he produced, there was never the kind of genius with Jeter that commanded your attention the way the sheer genius of Michael Jordan once did; the way LeBron does on his way to the basket; or Steph does, sometimes from the Will Call window.
It is different with Harper, at least so far. It doesn't mean that when it is all over, Mike Trout won't have turned out to be a more complete player. Trout is a force of nature himself, and makes you think of a young Mantle sometimes. There is just something different about Harper. He grabs you and makes you pay attention the way that jamoke Jonathan Papelbon grabbed him last season.
And when Harper tells you, as he tells Tim Keown of ESPN, that the game needs to give young guys like him more room to be themselves, you better pay attention to him the way you pay attention to the way he plays the game. Because he is right, 100 percent.
In case you haven't read Keown's terrific piece yet, here is some of what Harper says to him:
"I'm not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it's the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that's Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig -- there's so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.
"Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn't care. Because you got him. That's part of the game. It's not the old feeling -- hoorah ... if you pimp a homer, I'm going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot ... I mean -- sorry.
"If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I'm going to go, 'Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.' That's what makes the game fun. You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players -- Steph Curry, LeBron James. It's exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton -- I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It's that flair. The dramatic."
I thought that if Cam Newton could have won Super Bowl 50, finished off an 18-1 season for himself and the Panthers, he could have become as big a star as there is in American sports. That means as big as LeBron, or Steph. But the defense of the Broncos turned out to be the real star of that game. Then Newton pouted his way through his postgame press conference. Doesn't mean his moment has come and gone. It's just gone for now.
And here comes Harper, off his MVP season, as disappointing as that season was for the Nationals. There is the feeling that eventually he will play for the Yankees or the Dodgers and sign the biggest free-agent contract in the history of sports in America. That is something for him, and for us, to worry about down the road. For now, baseball needs him to be the best traveling road show it has.
Listen: It's always a fine baseball thing to watch young pitchers like the Mets have pitch the way they do. But the main event can never be one pitcher, or even a whole pitching staff. It needs to be someone like Harper, hitting the ball hard, running the bases just as hard, playing with talent and attitude and an edge to him. You don't throw at someone like this the next time he does "pimp" a home run. You just wait to see him do it again.
Nobody is saying he turns out to be Mantle, or Mays, or that he will change the way the game looks the way Jackie Robinson did. Baseball still needs him. Tiger -- one name -- came along at exactly the right time in his sport. So does Bryce in his. Hoorah.