Bryce Harper, the left fielder for the Washington Nationals, is one of the most exciting young players in baseball. The 2012 Rookie of the Year at the tender age of 19 (his 2012 is one of the best seasons for a 19 year old in baseball history), Harper is a special player, a thrill to watch. At least he’s supposed to be. Unfortunately for Nat’s fans and baseball fans in general Bryce injured his left hand this week sliding into third base after a bases clearing triple. In the video you can see him immediately reach for his hand after sliding. The wisdom of the head first slide notwithstanding, it’s an unfortunate outcome of a tremendous play, a play that would seem to be a shining example of “hustle”. Which is interesting because a few days earlier the Nationals new manager for 2014, former slugging third baseman Matt Williams benched Harper during this 4-3 loss to the Cardinals (on April 19th, 2014 for the time travelers) for “lack of effort” after Harper failed to run all out to first base on a routine ground ball to the pitcher. When questioned after the game Williams responded:
“Lack of hustle. That’s why he came out of the game,” Williams said. “He and I made an agreement, this team made an agreement, that when we play the game, that we hustle at all times.”
It should be noted in Bryce Harper’s defense he had been dealing with a mild quadriceps strain, yet despite that made no excuses and took his punishment in stride.
What do we mean by “hustle? And what does it have to do with a blog about parenting? Well, hustle is an interesting word, with a lot of layered meanings. Here’s the basic dictionary entry from the Free Dictionary:
v.hus·tled, hus·tling, hus·tles
a. To obtain something by deceitful or illicit means; practice theft or swindling.
b. To solicit customers. Used of a pimp or prostitute.
c. To misrepresent one’s ability in order to deceive someone, especially in gambling.
1. To push or convey in a hurried or rough manner: hustled the prisoner into a van.
2. To cause or urge to proceed quickly; hurry: hustled the board into a quick decision.
a. To sell or get by questionable or aggressive means: hustled stolen watches; hustling spare change.
b. To pressure into buying or doing something: a barfly hustling the other customers for drinks.
c. To misrepresent one’s skill in (a game or activity) in order to deceive someone, especially in gambling: hustle pool.
1. The act or an instance of jostling or shoving.
2. Energetic activity; drive.
3. Slang An illicit or unethical way of doing business or obtaining money; a fraud or deceit: “the most dangerous and wide-open drug hustle of them all” (Newsweek)
Now I’m assuming the Matt Williams was referring to the first verb entry under “hustle”, or perhaps the second noun entry, as opposed to “an illicit or unethical way of doing business”, when describing the level of effort he preferred to see in his players. And it is most likely a coincidence that the Nats will miss the services of their best player for at least the next 15 days because he was injured whilst going all out on a play mere days after his coach called him out publicly for lack of hustle. Especially when you consider that “lack of hustle” was probably the last phrase one would expect to hear used to describe the brash and energetic young Harper, who missed significant time in 2013 with a knee injury after smashing face first into the right field wall chasing a hit by then Dodgers catcher AJ Ellis. In fact, Harper’s breakneck style of play had come under criticism for putting his future at risk, with SBNation writer Mike Bates comparing him to Dodger legend Pete Reiser whose career was sidelined by multiple run ins with outfield walls.
So why would Matt Williams make such an odd move? Why call out your best player like that, especially when the evidence would seem to indicate that “lack of hustle” was the least of Bryce Harper’s problems? (We’re getting closer to the parenting bit… bear with us!). Well it could be that Matt Williams simply isn’t great at his new job. As ESPN Insider and one of my favorite baseball writers Keith Law points out, Williams has been battling with Harper all season, moving him around in the lineup inexplicably on top of the public dispraise. (The article is behind the ESPN.com paywall, which I pay without thinking about it just to read KLaw for the most part, here’s a relevant excerpt, and the inspiration for this piece)
Leaders do not make their points at the expense of their best subordinates, but that is exactly what Williams did when he chose to pull Harper from a game on April 19 because Harper didn’t fully run out a routine ground ball back to the pitcher. Harper was coming off an injured quad and, from what I’m told, battling the flu on the day when he chose, wisely, not to run out a ground ball so routine that had the pitcher rolled the ball to first base he still would have beaten Harper by a few feet. Asking any player to run that ball out shows an emphasis on superficial, meaningless behavior over actions that actually increase the team’s chances of winning a game. No one ever scored an extra run by showboating for the cameras, but that is exactly what Williams wanted Harper — who was injured and sick — to do.
Matt Williams has never managed at any level before. His team, widely seen as very talented but disappointing the last two seasons is off to a rocky start and some of the blame for that start is beginning to accrue to the rookie manager who can’t seem to find the right spot in the lineup for his best player, (hint, the answer is bat the man second). In that situation, with little to do other than exhort his players to play better, Williams appears to have settled on a lapse in hustle by Harper a placebo of sorts. If his guys can’t play better, then they should at least look like they are playing harder.
And here’s where I bring it back to around the horn to parenting. Because as parents we can find ourselves in making the same mistake when it comes to raising our Hellions, focusing on appearances rather than substance, accepting the illusion provided by mere activity to the more ephemeral merits of productivity. We can get caught up rushing the kids from piano lessons to soccer practice to SAT tutoring. We stress over what they eat, how much TV do they watch, how clean is their room? And much like our major league manager is surrounded by the fans and press asking him endless questions, we are surrounded by talking heads, fellow parents, churches and salesmen trying to teach us, berate us, scare us and most importantly SELL us the solutions to the problems we perceive, people quite literally trying to “hustle” us in the less savory sense of the word.
There is an issue of authoritarianism at hand as well. We may well disagree with Matt Williams’ quixotic attempt to instill work ethic into his hardest working player, but in the end he’s still the boss. He can abuse that power to distract from his own shortcomings if he so chooses. And the authoritarian streak in the American psyche is quite ready to indulge him if the comment sections and sports talk callers are to be believed. Hence the popularity of punishment as a parenting tool, up to and including corporal punishment. Because punishment looks like we are doing something. Punishment is active and aggressive. Punishment feels effective. It’s parenting the way Patton would. The alternatives, talking to your kids, understanding their needs, things like attachment parenting, those require real, not superficial, effort and attention. It’s namby pamby pointy headed liberal parenting.
Hustle isn’t all bad. When I played soccer as a kid my willingness to play with reckless abandon might have been the difference between a somewhat talented youngster and the kid who scored a championship goal because he was willing to attempt a bicycle kick. That level of hustle also got me kicked in the face a couple of times. And diving into a project and going all out can be exhilarating for both participant and audience. But remember, your kids aren’t a baseball team. They aren’t your hobby or pastime. They’re little persons that you have a responsibility towards. And one of your responsibilities is to understand when your parenting decisions are really evidence based and effective, or just for show, or even worse, to cover your own ass.
Featured Image Credit: The Brocrastinator
Charlie Hustle Image Credit: Topps