As the Game Changes, So Should the Rules

The Washington Nationals sit atop the National League East, thanks to the spark that 19-year-old phenomenon Bryce Harper has given the team. Harper earned his GED in 2009, after his sophomore year of high school in Las Vegas; making him eligible for the MLB amateur draft in 2010. He was one of the most highly touted prospects in the history of the league, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was only 16 and drafted first overall by the Nationals, who signed him to a $9.9 million, five-year deal. This year, he makes $500,000, pretty good for a 19-year-old.

Harper’s salary at his age is unheard of, but even more surprising is that he’s playing as well as he is, establishing himself as one of the best hitters in the league since he was called up. This has inevitably stirred up the media hype machine, as well as Harper’s ego. Some say Harper looks supremely confident, while others say cocky. In the minors last year, Harper blew a kiss to the opposing pitcher after hitting a home run.

This came to a head last week when Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels hit Harper in the back with a pitch . After the game, Hamels freely admitted that he intentionally hit Harper, trying to continue the old-school tradition of baseball.

“That’s something I grew up watching, that’s kind of what happened,” Hamels said. “So I’m trying to continue the old baseball because I think some people are kind of getting away from it.”

He went on to criticize the league, saying they are “protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.”

Hitting Harper, he said, was just a “welcome to the big leagues.”

Hamels’ admission earned him a five-game suspension and $400,000 fine, ironically close to Harper’s annual salary. Obviously Commissioner Bud Selig and the league don’t agree with Hamels’ old-school play.

This again brings up the tension between the so-called old-school and modern forms of baseball. It used to be accepted as part of the game for pitchers to throw warning pitches to get the batter to back off the plate. Hitters used to literally take hits from pitchers so they could get on base, but now they just twist away. The trend can also be seen in basketball and football, where the league is cracking down on physical play and hard hits. The question is whether this helps or damages the game. Does less physical, or some would say violent, play make for a better sport?

This is such a common discussion in sports these days. To hear people argue about the old way versus the new way, but I think it’s almost an apples and oranges comparison. Players today are bigger, faster and stronger than the average player was 30 years ago. When professional leagues add regulations to restrict the pegging of players, it’s because they know the consequences today are bigger than they were years ago. The $400,000 fine on Hamels is excessive, especially since he wasn’t anywhere near Harper’s head and bean-balls are still part of the game. However, the game isn’t changing completely, or diverging wildly from its roots. The players are evolving to make the game more entertaining and the rules have to evolve right along with them.