Bryce Harper is a conservative hero. The star rookie for the Washington Nationals has woken up Major League Baseball, and watching it unfold has reminded me of nothing so much as the collapse of the old political paradigms and the inevitable and upcoming rebirth of conservatism in November.
This became clear to me on May 26 of this year. The Nationals were playing Atlanta, and in the fifth inning Harper, with his team leading by two, singled to right. The ball was hit to Braves right fielder Jason Heyward. Heyward strolled up to the ball as if he were walking to the corner for a paper.
Harper promptly headed for second base. Heyward suddenly woke up and fired to second base, but too late.
More than one sports writer has noted that this moment was no small thing for baseball. It was like the part in the movie “Awakenings” when the guy who was asleep for 30 years wakes up.
To me, the play carried even greater symbolic importance. Heyward’s bungle showed a complacency, if not indolence, that Harper threatens to destroy, but it also could be a metaphor for the collapse of the old liberal order. Heyward was like one of those public school teachers who, because they are a union member, can’t be fired and so are relegated to the “rubber room” to sit and read the paper and gather a check for the rest of their lives. Or even Obama, who went from Hawaii to Harvard to the White House and never seems to have had to slide head-first into a base his entire life.
Then there was Harper’s recent retort, which went viral, to an idiot question asked by a member of the media: “That’s a clown question, bro.” Chris Matthews’ career in five words.
Watching Bryce Harper play is like listening to an economic speech by Paul Ryan: It’s long on reality and short on excuses. Harper has slapped baseball awake, and every time he steps up to the plate, years of crusty baseball routine no longer apply. He swings the bat with a blinding snap of force, and in the outfield dives for balls that bored veterans would let go. When he hits a double he usually tries to stretch it into a triple. Manager Davey Johnson tries to bench him for being hurt, and Harper confronts him and says, like a person with enough dignity to refuse welfare: Let me work. Then he wins the game with a crucial hit.
Harper also adapts. When pitcher Livan Hernandez froze the 19-year-old Harper with a slow curve ball, Harper adjusted his batting and next time up Harper hit a game-winning home run.
Ironically, it is modern conservatives who have embraced change more than liberals, who are dogmatic in their adherence to old ways of doing things. The left, like Jason Heyward dozing in the outfield, sees nothing wrong with the way things have worked, or even not worked, for the past 40 years. Teachers should never be fired, no matter how incompetent. It is anathema for public-sector union members to pay for even a small percentage of their own health care. Sex-ed taught without reference to the human soul can only do good, and has nothing to do with promiscuity and the collapse of female self-esteem. And we can spend all the money in the world and never have to pay it back.
But the world changes, and we are supposed to learn lessons from those changes. Conservatives, and even a few young liberals, accept that life isn’t fair, but that winners tend to be people who shake things up and pivot, even while never forgetting sound fundamental principles. This a good definition not only of Bryce Harper, who electrifies even while never botching the basics, but Mitt Romney, who understands the creative destruction of modern capitalism even as he has mastered the fundamentals of economics. Liberals will falsely claim that Romney wants to return to the 1950s, while never admitting that they are stuck in the much more dysfunctional 1960s.
If America is to be solvent and healthy, we cannot keep doing what we have been doing since the Miracle Mets won the World Series in 1969. We have to do things differently, just as Bryce Harper is not playing baseball the old way. Harper is not going to sit back and accept what the status quo tells him to accept (where does he get off stealing home?). And conservatives are not going to expect to retire at age 65 or to send their kids to the college of their choice if it costs $50,000 a year. We are going to adapt. (In a strange way, conservatives are not only like Bryce Harper, but have become like the do-it-yourself punk rockers of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Don’t have a record label? Start your own. Are the old rock groups bloated and sloppy? Boot them off the stage.) Meanwhile, liberals occupy everything so that they can demand — what was it again? Oh yeah, peace. And taxes.
Harper reminds me of my own grandfather, Joe Judge, who played first base for the Senators from 1915 to 1932. Like Harper, Judge was left-handed and was a scrappy and aggressive player. His career spanned two eras, the dead ball era (1900 to 1919) and the live ball era, from 1920 on, when home runs became much more prevalent. When Babe Ruth arrived in New York in 1919 and baseball changed some rules — including using new balls in every game so you could actually see what you were swinging at — Joe Judge could have insisted that this wasn’t fair, that Major League Baseball was stealing his livelihood, and that Ruth’s ungodly salary represented the one percent. He could have occupied Griffith Stadium.
Instead, he accepted that the old way of doing things was gone, and it wasn’t coming back. And he helped the Senators win the World Series in 1924.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.