Bryce Harper has been “about to sign” with the Philadelphia Phillies for two weeks now, including one weekend when Andy MacPhail, the team’s chief baseball brain, said the Phillies were good with what they had and weren’t looking to add much in firepower or the payroll to fuel it.
And the rumors, which always seem to change, do not abate. The semi-latest, in which owner John Middleton flew to Las Vegas for a quick meet-and-greet, quickly turned to one in which he wasn’t leaving without either Harper’s signature or Scott Boras’s brains on the paper.
Okay, I stole the last part from The Godfather.
Either way, the next day, noted hyperactive snoop-and-tell artist Jon Heyman suggested there were still multiple teams involved in Harper and that the deal that might be consummated by Monday would now probably drag into Tuesday and maybe even beyond, if the rumor that the Los Angeles Dodgers sent a delegation to Las Vegas to re-introduce themselves to Harper is to be believed. A nation that lost interest in his future 10 days ago must endure more stories that both move him closer and further away from a contract at the same time.
In the meantime, the NBA has mastered the art of keeping people riveted to the month-by-year sagas of Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant as it did those of Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James and Paul George even though their contract decisions take epochs by comparison. People can’t seem to get enough of drool-talking about Kyrie Irving’s dinner dates, but Harper’s future not only doesn’t move the needle, it doesn’t even cause the motion sensors that illuminate the room to activate. How can this be, and should baseball commissioner Rob (The Face Of The Man Who Hates Fun) Manfred be more concerned with Harper fatigue than pitch clocks?
The NBA is, like most sports, dogged by a regular season that lasts an ice age and is as interesting as the fossils that emanate from it. But unlike the others, the NBA doesn’t wait for the regular season to end; it stays in perpetual trade deadline mode, resting only during the playoffs to protect the notion that basketball is occasionally an end in and of itself. As a result, then people who cover the sport spit-spray endlessly about who might be going where eventually and why this is news so vital that it supersedes the sport itself. Presumably there is a market for this; otherwise, nobody would bother watching the sport at all, and even with ratings down from a year ago, that clearly is not so. Nobody ever gets sick of Kevin Durant’s future—not even Kevin Durant, no matter how much he pretends to object to speculation about Kevin Durant.
Bryce Harper, on the other hand, seems to have lost the audience, and when we say Bryce Harper, we say Scott Boras. The flood of rumors and counter-rumors have served only to remind everyone that this little spastic fit of negotiation has gone on too long for the culture’s taste, which given the NBA fan’s endurance seems completely counterintuitive. Harper should matter to the audience baseball says it caters to, and yet most of the reaction to the daily “No news again today” update is “Tell us when there is, and then we’ll decide how much we care.”
It does make a person wonder why baseball’s hot stove has been hijacked by basketball, and what Manfred has in mind to remedy this. If he does. And if it matters either way.
Baseball is in the weird place it sometimes finds itself—trying to decide whether today’s payroll is more important than tomorrow’s audience, and using the next collective bargaining agreement to wage the fight it wants to wage. Anthony Davis is a ridiculous story, and so is Kevin Durant’s epidermal sensitivity, and so are all the sidebars about who ate with whom and whether LeBron is a lousy general manager and even whether the league needs the Lakers to be good at all. But they help keep the engines churnin’ to keep the wheels turnin’.
Most of this, of course, is just watching how the media covers a thing rather than the thing itself, and as a long-time member of the media, let me tell you that the media is almost always deathly dull as a subject. It’s a tedious festival of solipsism in which people like their facts only in the speculative realm, and where the word “Sources” is actually an international distress call for “Help! Help! I’m being used!”
But in the NBA, it somehow works, while in baseball, it apparently doesn’t. Harper’s contract should in a more equitable world be gripping the nation as much as Davis’s dinners or Durant’s pressers—but in the world we’ve got, life is graded on a curve. There is a shelf life for rumors, and Manny Machado barely got in under the attention wire despite his two most ardent suitors being the invisible San Diego Padres and the ethereal Chicago White Sox. Machado’s choice of Bordertown is a fascinating gamble for both sides because the Padres need someone outside the county line to care about them, and Machado chose to be that instrument even if all he gets in the short term is more of that Southern California lifestyle while the Padres try to build a pitching rotation worthy of their everyday lineup. But that’s still inside-baseball stuff that moved the needle only for a day. Harper is still out there, wrapped in the same rumor day after day (at least the Machado deal was kept quiet so there was a level of surprise involved), and we suspect that even Phillies fans are worn out with the dance.
The assumption you will probably take from this is that this is more proof of baseball being behind the times, out of touch with the kids and not comprehending the sexy aroma of players as general managers. But you’re probably bent that way anyway because the internet tells you to be, you miserable pathetic sheep.
But while it’s too late for Harper to grab America’s attention by now, there’s always next year, and yes, you got it, Mike Trout. The best player in baseball is signed with the Los Angeles Angels through 2020, so he can openly flirt with all the potential bidders between now and then if only he can forget that Manfred already fingered him as a prime reason baseball is coughing up blood. Trout isn’t comfortable being a Durant or Davis, let alone a Bron-Bron, so he might not be so willing to be the test case for a new, slightly more contractually casual baseball. This may be more of that “basketball players are just more attuned to the attention” argument, or it might be that the sport is naturally built for individual players to make outsized imprints, while baseball has always been far more suspicious about “individuals” who don’t fully honor the code that the best nail is the one that doesn’t protrude. That cultural choice has been used as a Louisville Slugger against the sport for decades, as though baseball, which brought us modern free agency back in the 1970s is still adamant that the players not enjoy it so damned much.
Plus by the end of 2020, the owners and players will be trying to flay the leather off each others’ wallets because that’s how they figure the game can best be sold. The millionaires will accuse the billionaires of market-fixing and the billionaires will accuse the millionaires of greed and ingratitude. What they’ll be selling is how much they hate each other and how little they love what they’re supposed to have in common.
And by 2021, Stephen Curry will have one year left on his current deal, and the NBA will know just how to play it—willingly and maybe even cheerfully watching as the entire Curry family engages in the process with a reality show (“Cooking And Looking With Steph And Ayesha”) to the cheers and flapping yaps of every basketball analyst across the globe.
Before all that, Bryce Harper will sign. You’ll notice that it happened. You’ll sigh that it dragged on for as long as it did, and you’ll notice how much fun it wasn’t. Then you’ll go back to wondering how the Rockets beating the Warriors Saturday without James Harden impacts Durant’s free agency decision—because that’s your idea of fun, God help you.
Ray Ratto is watching all seven hours of the NHL Trade Deadline Show, most of it sober.