What if Trout and Harper are better than the Three Bite Rule?

When my grandfather passed away last spring, the family had to clear out and sell the wonderful little house in northern Virginia that he had lived in (with my grandmother, until 2008) since sometime in the sixties. Among the few things that I ended up with, being the baseball guy, was my pick of whatever I thought was salvageable of a large, worn stack of sports magazines that had belonged to my dad and uncle — primarily SPORT Magazine, with some Sports Illustrateds, Sporting Newses and Athlon Baseball Season Previews mixed in — with dates ranging from 1963 to 1969. 

I ended up keeping most of them, and I’ve been saving them in a stack in my basement, sure I would want to look through them and write about them eventually. And I’m still sure I will, but what brought them to mind just now was this: when they focused on baseball (as most issues did, with much less competition in those days), their covers were dominated by two men. Two men who, by that time, were old news. 

Start with any given issue of SPORT (or so it seemed to me — what follows is an exaggeration, but seriously, I’m not far off; check the actual list here), and Willie Mays might be on the cover. The next month, it was probably Mickey Mantle, then the month after that, it could be Mantle again. Then maybe there’s a month where it’s Hank Aaron or Sandy Koufax or something about football or boxing. Then Mantle again, then Mays again. Mantle and Mays were plainly the two stars in all of sports at that time. And the bulk of the magazines I have are from 1966 through ’68, when both were fifteen-plus-year veterans in their mid-thirties — Mantle was essentially done, and Mays was pretty clearly slipping.

I bring this up because Jeff Sullivan has written a characteristically good piece over at SBNation, titled “Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, And What’s Sadly Fleeting,” in which he likens baseball fandom’s current relationship with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout to the early, “discovery” stages of a romantic relationship, and — more illustratively, I thought — to something called the Three Bite Rule:

The first bite you have of something is the best. The second bite confirms the first bite, the third bite is to be savored, and then it all comes down. After three bites, whatever it is isn’t special anymore. The rule seems a wee bit simplistic, but, in general, it’s easy to believe.

It is, and I think in most cases, it’s right on. Great new things seem to fascinate us less because they’re great than because they’re new, and once we’re used to them, they could be just as great as ever, but they become a lot less interesting. And that’s probably going to be true for Trout and Harper, too. 

Probably, but not necessarily. And I’d like to think about another possibility for a second. What if it’s Mantle and Mays all over again?

It seems to me that one of the biggest, most unfortunate effects of what has foolishly been dubbed “the Steroid Era” in baseball is that it’s made us forget what it’s usually like to follow the careers of really elite, all-time-great talents. Almost every single player who might have qualified for that label over the past 20 years has eventually become diminished in one way or another. Barry Bonds is the most obvious example, of course (and maybe the only one who was a “really elite, all-time-great talent” in the same way Mantle and Mays were), but a lot of his greatness went largely unappreciated; for most of his career, Ken Griffey Jr. was considered the definitive player of the era. But it’s a pretty similar story with McGwire, and Sosa, and Clemens. It’s not just steroids, either; Griffey himself was derailed by injuries. A-Rod has the steroid thing, but even before that, he was “diminished” to some degree by the various perceived flaws in his character (fair or not) and his reputation as a postseason choke artist (decidedly unfair).

And the reality is, most players, even great, Hall of Fame players, aren’t that great for that long. The luster wore off of Pedro Martinez at roughly the time he stopped being PEDRO MARTINEZ (which was really only 1999-2000) and became just a pitcher (a truly great one for a few more years, but one of several, not the one). Greg Maddux was really only gotta-see-him good for those four consecutive Cy Young years; most of his tremendous value comes from his being simply very, very good for a ridiculously long time. Randy Johnson’s starts were always an event, though some of the shine probably came off with the turmoil from his years in New York.

Most of our other love affairs fade even more quickly, many because they were never that great to begin with. Most top prospects are like that (and Harper and/or Trout may well be too). Even the super-hyped prospects that develop into really good players — Mark Teixeira, for instance — are rarely quite as good as they look when people first start raving about them; the fascination fades because there’s just nothing quite that fascinating about them. It probably also helps that players change teams much more often than they used to (Mark Teixeira, for instance), so there’s rarely a single fanbase that keeps pumping a guy up.

Then again, counterexamples:

(1) Sullivan refers to Stephen Strasburg in his piece, noting that he’s just as amazing now as he was when he captivated the country two years ago, but that now he’s “old hat.” I don’t think that’s true. I know I still try to watch as many of Strasburg’s starts as I can, and I’ve seen a lot of talk this season about how thrilling his stuff is. He’s certainly less of a story than he was, but I think that’s a function of Harper and Trout being even better (and not simply newer) stories. Without them, I think Strasburg is as much of a sensation now as in 2010. And:

(2) I don’t think most people ever lost that whole dumbstruck, wow-can-you-believe-we’re-watching-this thing with Albert Pujols, at least until last year, when he seemed to come back to the pack a bit (the pack of other great players, that is). Even if he’s more or less human now, he’s still a huge star, someone ESPN or MLBN is going to mention every single night that the Angels play, and I expect that will remain true for the rest of his career, no matter how it goes. Even Pujols, though, has been dogged by age questions and “PE”D whispers, the two darkest shadows of the skeptical era we’re apparently on our way out of.

What happened, or seems to be happening, with Pujols is pretty much what happened with Mantle and Mays, only not to nearly the same degree (Pujols, after all, is in the “best 1B” conversation; Mantle and especially Mays got into the “best ever” conversation). They were crazily good at young ages, could do everything, and did it on big stages. They did it well enough and memorably enough for long enough that even as their skills finally, inevitably faded, that sense of wonder never did; you’ll find people who clearly remember seeing Mantle at age 34 playing first base with basically no knees, or Mays at 42 stumbling around center in a comically off-looking Mets uniform, and they’ll readily admit that he wasn’t anything like the player then that he had been, but if it’s the only time that that person got to see him, he or she will talk about it in just the same star-struck way that people right this moment are talking about Harper and Trout. Mantle and Mays kept making the covers of magazines and what-have-you right to (and beyond) the very end, because they kept on being the players that fans couldn’t wait to read about (and in a genuine, excited way, not the tabloid schadenfreude that so often gets A-Rod in the news). Mantle and Mays were walking demigods, and were well above the Three Bites Rule.

Harper and Trout, or at least one of them (but both would be so much more fun), could be that, too. Probably won’t be — almost certainly won’t be — but could be.

And really, the Mantle-Mays/Harper-Trout parallels are a bit startling. Mantle and Mays were both rookies in 1951; Mantle was in his age-19 season, Mays his age-20. Harper is 19 and Trout 20, as you probably know, both technically in their rookie seasons — though they’re over a year apart, while Mantle and Mays were closer to six months. All four players have been centerfielders, and in both pairs, the older of the two appears to be the more defensively gifted and more likely to stay and excel there long-term (in fact, Harper’s already played more right than center). In both cases, the younger appears to be the slightly better hitter, while the older has stolen base titles in his future. In both cases, the younger had been hyped as a golden boy from well before day one, while the older took the sport somewhat by surprise (Mantle was hailed as the deserving heir to Joe DiMaggio, while the Dodgers passed on signing Mays not long before his MLB debut because he couldn’t hit the curveball). 

They’re superficial comparisons, but there’s an eerily large number of them to be made. In the end, they’re totally unfair. Trout and Harper are still much more likely to go the way of most young phenoms and, exactly as Sullivan expects, become “old hat” in a sense — because while it seems clear that both are very good, they probably aren’t the two best players in the game, and even if they are, they probably won’t stay the two best players year in and year out for more than a decade. But they could, and they could do it in the same, breathtakingly exciting way in which they’re doing it right now, and the way Mantle and Mays did it for years: by doing simply everything there is to do, by being players you feel like you’re not safe taking your eye off of at any time, whether they’re at the plate or in the field or on the bases or in the on-deck circle. They could dominate the baseball news (in a good way) for the next twenty years, even if they’re only great for the next ten or twelve or fifteen, because they could be just that damn fun to watch at their best, as fun to watch as they have been for these past six or seven weeks.

We’ve forgotten that that’s the sort of thing that can happen, because the media’s and fans’ reactions and overreactions to the most recent era have (wrongly, insanely) taken Bonds and most of the rest of its greatest heroes from us, and because, Pujols aside, it hasn’t really happened in the timespan encompassing most of our lives (or at least our memories). But it can happen. It might. Trout and Harper, like Mantle and Mays, might just go on astounding us just as much on the fourth bite, and the fortieth, as they have on this first one. Sullivan’s view of things is very well-reasoned and certainly more realistic, but this one (to me) is a lot more fun, so it’s the one I’m sticking with for just as long as it feels like a possibility.

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