Sunday, it was the latter. Guillen’s managerial opponent was Davey Johnson of the Nationals, and the issue of the day was pine tar.
Apparently, Bryce Harper likes to use a lot of the stuff on his bats—more than the legal, 18-inch limit. The eyeball test puts that mark at about the bat’s logo, which makes the infraction relatively easy to spot from a distance.
Guillen noticed. Unlike Johnson, however—who just under a month ago got Rays pitcher Joel Perralta kicked out of a game and subsequently suspended for using the stuff—Guillen showed some restraint. After Harper’s first-inning at-bat, he quietly requested that the umpires make sure the problem was taken care of, in a way that nobody in the viewing audience would even notice. (Short of embarrassing Harper, it’s largely a moot point; unlike Perralta’s situation, the worst penalty Harper could have incurred had he been officially checked was being forced to get a new bat, which is ultimately what he did, anyway. This is partly because pine tar on a bat has less effect than it does on a ball, the theory being that the extra tack could add backspin, leading to extra distance on flyballs.)
The umpires followed through, much to the disgruntlement of Washington’s young superstar. When the left-handed-hitting Harper came to the plate in the fourth inning, he pointed his new bat toward the third-base dugout—something he does as a matter of course when settling into his stance—which happened to be where Guillen and his team were sitting. This time, though, Harper stared daggers as he did it. It was a clear message, and Guillen took it as such, although because nobody’s really talking, the context remains muddled.
Guillen, clearly feeling disrespected after having gone out of his way to keep his initial criticism low-key, spent the next few moments informing Harper about new ways he could violate his own anatomy, while waving a bat of his own. Johnson shouted right back from Washington’s bench. (Watch Guillen taking his grievances to the umps here.)
“Ozzie complained that the pine tar was too high up on Harper’s bat, so we changed it,” said Johnson after the game in an MLB.com report. “Then, he was still chirping about it. It got on the umpire’s nerves. It got on my nerves.”
Davey Johnson as the voice of well-intentioned reason. Bizarro world, indeed.
Johnson guessed that Guillen was trying to intimidate Harper, which could well have been the case. Of course, he’d have to have willfully ignored the 19-year-old’s history with such tactics, lest he consider that Harper tends to respond to bullying by taking extra bases as a runner, then stealing home.
After the game, Harper rose above the fray. “Yeah, I switched bats,” he said, “but I just didn’t feel comfortable with the first one, so I moved to the second one.” (Also, this: “[Guillen] is a great manager to play for, and he’s going to battle for you no matter what. That’s a manager you want to play for.”)
Guillen, for perhaps the first time, kept some of the details to himself. “I was just telling him how cute he was,” he said.
Left to break it all down was Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison.
“Ozzie did it the right way,” he said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to make a big deal about it,’ and he told him to watch out about that pine tar. . . . [Ozzie] did him a favor by not going out there and saying, ‘Hey, your pine tar is too high,’ to the umpire. . . . He did it in a way that wouldn’t show Harper up, and Harper showing him up was kind of a slap in the face, I guess.”
Ultimately, Morrison’s right. Fault Guillen for his response to Harper’s bat pointing, a display that seemed benign and would have been a simple matter to ignore, but when it came to handling the initial situation, he was the antithesis of Billy Martin having George Brett’s bat checked, or Johnson with Perralta’s glove. In other words, tone perfect.
Update (7-16): Guillen says that if Harper keeps this kind of thing up, “he might not make it.” I love Ozzie Guillen—love him—but from where I sit, however, Harper doesn’t have much to worry about in that regard, having consistently taken the high road through the course of whatever big league tests have come his way. Except for maybe his All-Star spikes. Not much humble-rookie about those.