PITTSBURGH – It’s more than just an early litmus test for two division leaders.
When the Cubs and Washington Nationals face off at Wrigley Field the next four days, the showcase might be as much about targets, bat flips, mimes and evolving attitudes in an American pastime entrenched in its hegemonic, conservative culture for more than a century.
Starting Thursday night at Wrigley Field, it’s brash, flamboyant Bryce Harper’s Nationals against Joe Maddon’s Embrace-the-Target Cubs, whose youthful core isn’t afraid to party in April like it’s October or spend all three days in Pittsburgh this week wearing neon-colored, psychedelic costumes from their latest theme-wear road trip.
“Baseball’s so monotonous you’ve got to do stuff like dress up like this and have fun on the field,” said last year’s Rookie of the Year, Kris Bryant, whose baseball origins overlapped briefly with Harper in their Las Vegas hometown. “And we’re embracing it, and everybody in this clubhouse has a different personality and it shows out there.
“And then you look at Bryce,” he added. “Some people might not like his personality, but that’s who he is and that’s who he’s going to be. He’s not going to change for anybody, and to an extent you have to respect who he is.”
Goose Gossage be damned.
Gossage, the Hall of Fame closer from a generation ago, made headlines this spring when he blasted changes in the game, including today’s younger players with their penchant for bat flips – at one point singling out Harper for disrespecting the game.
That’s missing the point say people who know him, including some Cubs.
“I’ll tell you right now that he definitely does respect the game,” says Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, whose own success has made him a target of steroid speculation and rival fans on Twitter – whom he often engages.
“Harper gets a lot of sh—for the way he goes about himself, but he’s passionate,” Arrieta said. “He’s arguably the best player in the game. He wants to enjoy himself too. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
This is where Harper speaks the young Cubs’ language.
Harper, the National League’s reigning MVP at 23, might be baseball’s most outspoken player for the need for change from baseball’s staid, stoic past as it increasingly loses the interest of young sports fans.
He’s also the MLB player people most love to hate.
“I think often the greats of the game are under a microscope,” Bryant said. “And he’s definitely one of them. He definitely gets kind of misunderstood.”
These days the Cubs know how he feels – this happy, dancing, pranking group of sudden achievers, who have begun to draw scorn from rival clubhouses, team officials and fans on social media.
“If people misinterpret it, honestly, that’s their fault,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said during spring training of the target the Cubs seem at times to be enlarging as much as embracing with well publicized karaoke, zoo-animal and mime shows.
It’s no surprise that Maddon – the hippest sexagenarian in the game – likes the way the hard-charging, emotional Harper plays and conducts himself.
“I have no problem with a guy enjoying playing the game,” Maddon said. “He’s got a lot of respect for the game and his place in the game. But anytime a guy plays hard, you always appreciate that. And that’s what I see with him.”
If anything they might be kindred spirits.
If Harper is the player people most love to hate, the Cubs are becoming the team version, with their unconventional team demeanor, slogan T-shirts, postgame party room off their clubhouse and ebullient, non-traditional manager.
But nobody can say it’s not working. Harper is a three-time All-Star with an MVP award, who leads the first-place Nationals into town.
And the baseball scofflaw Cubs have the best record in the game.
And corporate America recognizes it. Harper’s new 10-year extension with Under Armour reportedly is the largest endorsement deal for a major-league player in history.
Whether Gossage and his brethren like it or not, the younger-is-better trend in baseball might finally be forcing a cultural sea change a century in the making.
“Here’s the thing: Harper likes to excite the fans,” Arrieta said. “And that’s one of the biggest aspects of what we do – to present something to the fans that make them want to come back and watch, time after time. That’s what he does.”
That’s what the game has needed for decades, Maddon often preaches.
That’s why the zany-suit or pajama trips aren’t going away anytime soon on the North Side, and why Simon the Magician is staying in the Cubs’ iPhone connections.
“I do love diversity,” Maddon said. “It’s interesting. And it really makes everything a lot more fun. So when it comes down to methods of dress, style of hair, whatever, bring it on, man. I think it makes the world a better place.”