Bryce Harper, Human Mormon

Bryce Harper may wind up as a generation-defining baseball talent. He's also a Mormon. Let's leave it at that.
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A little over a year ago, I read what was, briefly, a notorious article on The Daily Caller. It was about Bryce Harper, and made the case for him as a conservative hero, and how his being a conservative hero having a successful rookie season portended the future success of conservatism in general, and particularly by a reversal of ruling parties in the lazy, rotting, Jason Heyward-like—it's complicated, but it's worth mentioning that Jason Heyward is black—and lazily liberal White House. It was all idiotic, of course, and you can read it by clicking this link, or you can spare yourself that experience.

Its idiocy alone wasn’t what fascinated me, and didn't explain how embarrassed I felt when I read it, or read a thorough takedown of it on this site. I wasn't embarrassed because I'm a conservative and I associate with conservative political websites; even if I had reached the same ideological conclusions as the writer of the article, I would never be tempted to support, frequent, retweet or otherwise go to bat for a website with an entire subsection entitled "Guns and Gear." No, my embarrassment was only tangentially related to the issue of a random political writer's overreaching ineptitude. The embarrassment was pretty much entirely because Bryce Harper is a Mormon, and I'm a Mormon, and because nothing is quite as embarrassing as watching someone cynically reduce an athlete or celebrity with whom you share some significant similarity—a real kinship, spiritual and otherwise—in the very way that you fear being reduced yourself. What that article's author did to Bryce Harper was silly and dumb and offensive in several subtle ways. But he didn't just do it to Bryce Harper.

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It wasn't until about six months after he was drafted by the Nationals that I learned from my sister, who attended the same congregation in his hometown of Las Vegas, that Bryce Harper was Mormon. Until then, I knew about him only what other fans knew—that Harper was outwardly brash in a smeared-eye-black sort of baseball player-ish way, and also talented enough to become one of the defining players of his generation. At least initially, I found that I viewed him not as a famous Mormon, or a Mormon athlete, but in much the same way the greater baseball fan-base viewed him: as a prodigiously talented phenom, sure, but as a baseball player who'd succeed or fail on his own baseball player-y merits.

Bryce Harper never oozed Mormon the way his predecessors did. The Mormon athletes of my childhood and adolescence were distinctly and recognizably Mormon in unambiguous ways. They just looked and acted and were Mormon, as I perceived Mormons to be. Steve Young had the haircut—you know the one—and Dale Murphy the obvious uprightness. Shawn Bradley had the gawky whiteness and also the haircut. Jimmer Fredette had the irrepressible, aw-shucks, missionary smile, and the unforced, almost unnoticeable humility. Fredette didn't quite have the haircut, but all of the above had a similar Sunday School speech cadence, and a likable, interview-ready backhanded charisma that seemed rooted in a sort of bashful naivete. 

But Bryce Harper, even in his most notably Mormon moments, never felt or looked or came off like one. In fact, Harper's Mormonism never became a hack talk show topic until his iconic "That's a clown question, bro" response to a reporter's question about his favorite beer. One of the most well-known and perhaps the only well-known and least-misrepresented tenet of Mormon behavior is the teetotalism. But even in a moment directly connected to his Mormon faith, Harper eschewed any established Mormon mannerisms. He had none of the self-deprecating tone that characterized Bradley's interaction with the press, and none of the courteous acquiescence to the media that characterized Young's interviews or now characterizes Jimmer's.

Instead, he mocked the reporter, in the Affliction-wearing lingo of his demographic, and he did it in a beard, sporting purposefully mussed bro-hair. It was almost post-Mormon, at least in the way that Bryce Harper won the exchange by seeming haughtily, indescribably cool.

Which, I probably don't need to mention, is not an attribute associated with Mormon athletes. Not surprisingly, I loved this about Harper. Nothing is more welcome to a frequently stereotyped community than a stereotype-shredding celebrity. It's not that I loved Harper as a player, necessarily, the same way I love, say, Andrew McCutchen—Harper is as great as advertised, but I don't. But I loved what he did for the image of Mormonism in that moment, and for those of us who live in and with it. With his effortless dismissal, he expanded Mormonism's definition such that it could now include a self-assured, half-smiling, faux-hawk adorned Han Solo of a superstar. I loved that when baseball people who know Mormons, or even Mormon people who know baseball, found out that Harper was Mormon, they were at least a little bit surprised. I loved how much it surprised me, too.

But then there was the Daily Caller article, and the reflexive feelings of self-loathing, not because I took the goofy rantings of a conservative content farmer seriously, but because that conservative content farmer had seen reason to draw a line in the sand, put his righteously ridiculous self on one side of it, and then put Bryce Harper— Mormon and freshly minted "conservative hero"—on the same side.

This probably shouldn't have bothered me as much as it did, but it did. Suddenly Bryce Harper, who never asked for this, became a microcosm of the way people more intelligent and reasonable than Mark Judge—the article's author—view Mormons. You know this stereotype—it is a sort of caricature of "conservative hero," in that it's homophobic, more generally intolerant, ignorant, fundamentalist, and other dubious attributes that, when repurposed into neo-traditionalist Fox News-speak, people like Mark Judge might consider compliments.

Obviously, I have no idea if Bryce Harper fits into any of those descriptors. No one really does—he mostly talks about baseball in interviews, and anyway is barely into his twenties and may not know what he thinks about any of these things. He may not think anything at all. He may adhere to Judge's Mormon stereotype. Many Mormons do, which is the reason such stereotypes even exist. But I never believed that I did. And what I—and a great many others—like about Bryce Harper had a lot to do with the sense that he never seemed to fit into that mold either.

***

A year later, he still doesn't. When Bryce Harper is a jerk, it's because he's a jerk in his own, Bryce Harper-ish way, and not in a typically Mormon way. Back when Jimmer was riding the wave of a sublimely successful senior year and heading into the NBA Draft as a potential lottery pick, a frequent discussion among my Mormon friends centered on whether Jimmer would become the kind of conversation-starting icon among Mormons that Tim Tebow had become among evangelical Christians. Gradually, this sort of talk died down, both about Tebow and Jimmer—neither, ESPN's best efforts notwithstanding, was good enough as a pro athlete to deserve that much talking about.

Recently, after Tebow signed with the Patriots and re-entered—much to the dismay of everyone not named Skip Bayless—the daily sports conversation, I had a conversation with a friend about Jimmer, and whether it was a disappointment that he hadn't become the Mormon Tebow, or even an especially good NBA guard. We talked about Jabari Parker, the Mormon high-schooler ranked as one of the top prospects in the 2014 NBA Draft Class. We talked about Steve Young, too, but we didn't talk about Bryce Harper.

That’s because Bryce Harper plays baseball in a swashbuckling, recklessly exuberant way that has never once, aesthetically at least, been reminiscent of anything that could be stereotyped as culturally Mormon. It's still impressive, and inasmuch as I watch baseball to be impressed and surprised, Harper is a fascinating baseball player. And it's certainly a worthwhile pursuit to figure how athletes, in their performance and personae, fit into a greater cultural context or represent a given community.

Of course we can do this with Bryce Harper, as we can with any other athlete. For those who think about him this way, he remains outside the standard cultural paradigm for Mormons in a useful and exciting way; he might open the eyes of those inclined to associate an athlete with the stereotypes of his or her faith. But perhaps the greatest compliment a Mormon fan could pay Bryce Harper—the thing that makes him not a liberal or a conservative hero but simply a fascinating and brilliant athlete—is not that he represents Mormons well, but that he doesn't represent us at all. He's just a really good baseball player, just as Mormons are just people. That's a lot, and that's enough.


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