WASHINGTON — When Bryce Harper slipped off first base into a tailspin, tumbling to the ground and immediately clutched his left knee Saturday night, the mood at Nationals Park was tense — for the players, fans and viewers watching at home.
The feeling was no different for Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, as he watched the horrific play unfold on his phone from across the country, seated at Chase Field in Arizona, as the Diamondbacks took on the Cubs in front of him.
“I was sitting in Arizona watching the Cub game, and of course I have my two phones with two different games on it,” Boras told 106.7 The Fan’s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on Tuesday. “I watch this, so you immediately get up, you leave the stadium.”
Boras accessed his digital Rolodex and immediately began placing calls to anyone who could provide him with more information about the injury.
“I have my orthopedist I call, because I want to know, I need you to look at this film,” he explained. “And then, fortunately, I talked to Bryce’s wife, and then you talk with… Jayson Werth (another Boras client) and I were talking on the phone, and you talk to the general manager and you get a rundown, and then it’s a tense period of time, because the view of it initially was very concerning, to say the least.”
“You know you’re never going to be at ease until you get the MRI,” he said. “And then you get the MRIs transferred electronically to the group of doctors, and then you get the doctors to tell you where we’re at.”
“Once you hear that,” he said, “you’ve got a reason to kind of feel blessed that we really escaped something here that could have been much, much worse.”
In the hours that transpired between Harper’s moment of impact with the rain-slicked base and receiving the injury diagnosis, tensions abound, eventually yielding to a sigh of relief as the scenario shifted from worst-case scenario to best.
“There is a significant bone bruise when he hyperextended the knee,” Nats GM Mike Rizzo told reporters Sunday morning, revealing no ligaments or tendons were damaged in the process.
“You start thinking about all the other things that could have happened to prevent these type of things,” Boras said. “I think in sport, sometimes elite athletes and the potentials that come to them through their performance give us a greater indication of what we must do to make the game better. The positive is maybe that we get a better approach to inclement weather and player safety in this area.”
Boras has now turned his focus to improving baseball’s preventative measures: working to implement “a gradient that determines whether or not you should play the game in the first place,” and ensuring the surface of the base remains dry throughout the game.
Boras surmises first base, one of the most heavily trafficked areas of the diamond, is probably visited 25 to 30 times during the course of a game. That frequency demands Major League Baseball examines the “protection level and the focus on what needs to be done to ensure player safety.”
“We’ve certainly done player safety measures in the game with outfield walls, or using different types of protective caps with pitchers,” he said. “But the interaction with those areas is not anywhere near as frequent as clearly as first base.”
“When you have inclement weather, you need to have, first of all, a gradient that determines whether or not you should play the game in the first place,” he specified. “We don’t have such standards. We don’t have measurements to look at.”
“And, by Major League rule, after the All-Star break, I’m told this decision is handled by someone not at the field,” he said. “So we need inclement weather barometers, standards that encompass player safety, determine whether the game should be played in the first place.
“And then of course as to first base and such, obviously in conditions of inclement weather, we need to have a very clear structure, path, ground crew focus, umpire focus on the base and making sure the surface is dry.”
Beyond that, Boras insists baseball reexamines the texture of the bag, seeking “the materials used on the bag to have a greater traction when players come in contact with the bag.”
“Because obviously, it’s very clear from Bryce’s situation, that that is a very slick surface,” he said. “When you have an elite athlete touching in the very middle of the bag and just sliding across it, it’s like ice on cement. So it’s really something that we need more clarification, and standards and study to ensure player safety.”
“In this situation, what makes it really hazardous, is that the player has no notice, because when you step on the bag, you fully anticipate that it’s going to provide you stability and you have no notice that you may slip, and there’s nothing you can do on a slick surface that preparation provides for.”
“The main theme for me is that a base-runner has notice in advance and can do things that allow for protection,” Boras went on to say. “For example, you can slide feet-first — you have a choice of what you’re doing.”
“In this instance with Bryce’s injury, it’s just that you step on the base, you just cannot have it be that slick,” he said. “And that obviously is caused by precipitation and inclement weather, and the safeguards that are so simple and immediate is that you can certainly have people, the umpire, checking the bag, even pitch by pitch.’
“You can have the grounds crew certainly called in, or you can have it done in between each field exchange by the teams,” he said. “So there’s a number of things that aren’t done that can be done rather simply.”
As for Harper’s immediate future, avoiding catastrophic injury leaves open the possibility that he could return in time for the postseason. That, too, is something Boras will have to manage — the expectations of Harper, the Nationals and doctors.
“Certainly, confronting the desires of a player to play following an injury I’ve dealt with quite a bit,” Boras said with a laugh. “It may be one of the more difficult parts of my job because you hear a lot of things from them you’ve never heard before, you know what I mean?
“Players become doctors very quickly when they want to get back on the field,” he said.