Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig are doing what needs to be done: They are ruining baseball.
That baseball needs ruining is not an indictment of the game itself. Baseball is great right now -- Matt Harvey is on some Doc Gooden ish, Miguel Cabrera is the leading cause of post-pitch depression, Mike Trout is being Mike Trout, all great stuff. However, these adults who play a game for a living are expected to set that aside and instead act out some relentlessly staid ode to the Puritan work ethic.
Baseball's obsession with notions of "class" and "respect" and "tradition" and "endless other vagaries no one cares about" are largely to blame for this static state of affairs. Follow a team for a season and you'll become intimately familiar not only with the RULES, but the frequent Victorian fainting couch trips that follow transgressions against the RULES. Grown adults flopping about dramatically, back of palm on forehead, reaching for yet another opium calmative -- all because someone has dared sully the gentleman's game.
A recent example: First, Bryce Harper does something unimaginably cruel to a Julio Teheran pitch. Second, he admires his handiwork in the same way a frat gazes upon a particularly geometric Natty Lite beer can pyramid. Third, he takes a leisurely stroll around the bases as the baseball puritans screech for him to be stoned.
Teheran obliged by sending a 94-mph fastball into Harper's side on the first pitch of his next at-bat. I repeat, because Harper managed a feat less than one percent of the human population is capable of, and in doing so enjoyed himself, he was to accept getting hit by a major league fastball. The Great Council of Old Dudes Who Care Too Much also decrees that a player in Harper's position -- one with a baseball-sized mass of purple and blue tattooed onto his thigh -- must now sullenly walk to first base and reflect on his unspeakable display of emotion.
But then something wonderful happened. Harper briefly stared at his thigh, in seeming disbelief at the authoritarian spectacle of it all, and let loose with a fabulously unprintable string of verbiage aimed at Teheran. Not only was Harper refusing to abide by baseball norms, he was refusing to accept the punishment for doing so. The Old Dudes howled.
It was the same way they howled the moment Puig's Cuban defector storyline lost its feel-good vibes and was replaced with a single loaded word: arrogant. The working justification for this narrative seems to be that noted respect-ologist and pitcher Ian Kennedy said it, so it must be true. Never mind that Kennedy played for the division rival Arizona Diamondbacks. No, haven't you seen how Puig sometimes flips his bat? Oh, and the way he smiles while playing the Game? What is to be done with this interloper?!
Like Harper, Puig has to deal with this sort of nonsense because he is not under the impression that baseball is or should be an exercise in paying tribute to imagined idealizations of the past. This cycle of trying to reenact inapplicable history is somewhat common to all sports, but remains pronounced in baseball. Case in point: Basketball got over the plebeian vulgarity of slam dunks rather quickly, in comparison to baseball's 100-year-old riddle: How do you show respect to people you are paid to beat?
Harper and Puig remain gleefully unconcerned with this supposed riddle and, not by coincidence, they are foremost among the few baseball players that currently merit appointment viewing. A 22-year-old Mike Trout may be the best baseball player alive, but he doesn't have the instantaneous appeal of either Harper or Puig. That sort of charisma is just as rare as the ability to make major league pitching look pedestrian, which is why both players are such ubiquitous topics of conversation. Puig is a 22-year-old rookie, Harper is a 20-year-old former rookie of the year. Neither of them appears to be going away anytime soon -- no matter how much The Great Council complains.
The rabid media scrutiny over these broken RULES has thankfully done little to compel them into playing like a couple of good little Derek Jeters. "That's my game. I'm going to play my baseball the way I play," said Puig in response to the resentment of his contemporaries. Harper has even acknowledged that he can come off as arrogant and… well, deal with it, bro.
Just how long any of this will go on is anyone's guess. There is no way of knowing if Harper and Puig will become the baseball icons of their generation, the standard that future players keep in mind when they imagine themselves on the field. However, one thing is certain: there may be nothing better for baseball than Harper and Puig ruining it.
A glimpse of that post-apocalyptic future can be seen in the Tampa Bay Rays' right field prodigy, Wil Myers. During a Fox broadcast of Saturday's Rays-Dodgers game, Joe Buck revealed the prologue of the Rays' extra innings win over the Giants a week earlier. After the Rays blew an opportunity to close the game out in the ninth inning, Myers turned to hitting coach Derek Shelton and said "Leave it to Wil." An inning later, Myers delivered a bases loaded walk-off single in just his 38th major league game.
Myers is supposedly prone to saying the sort of awesomely self-assured things a 22-year-old baseball virtuoso would say. This is not how rookies are supposed to be. They're supposed to keep their heads down and mouths shut, so says The Great Council. Rookies are supposed to be mute automatons because, well, no one knows. Myers doesn't seem to care one way or another. I hope he never does. The Rules aren't worth caring about.
* * *
Tomas Rios is a freelance NYC-based writer who has covered MMA for The Classical, Deadspin, The Pacific Standard and Slate. You can find him @TheTomasRios.