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Sports Commentary: Bryce Harper Is Living The Life Mickey Mantle Wasted

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To baseball now and Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper. Harper is one of the most exciting talents Major League Baseball has seen in years, so much so that people are comparing him to Mickey Mantle, the hard-partying New York Yankees legend. But commentator Kevin B. Blackistone says, not so fast.

KEVIN B. BLACKISTONE, BYLINE: I never saw Mickey Mantle play, but I did see him die. It was in Dallas in 1995 in the middle of a typically blazing Texas summer. He was just 63 years old, but as withered as a cypress tree in a West Texas drought. Don't be like me, the hard-living Mick implored of kids just a few weeks before he died. God gave me the ability to play baseball, and I just wasted it.

His liver, by then, was ravaged by a lifetime of 12 o'clock tales. That moment sticks out to me now because of the growing comparisons being made between Mantle and young Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper. On paper, there is some merit to the comparison. Just 22 last season, Harper's numbers mirror The Mick's through the same age.

Both with career batting averages just under 300, both with just under a thousand total bases and both league MVPs under the age of 25. But beyond that, it falls apart. Harper is living the life The Mick wasted. His stiffest drink is an occasional Mountain Dew. And the last time he was seen carousing was three weeks ago. It was in the middle of the day at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

There he was snapping a hilarious selfie with an unsuspecting kid in the background sporting his number 34 jersey. Rather than Mantle, I think Harper is more like great black players Willie Mays and the recently Hall of Fame-minted Ken Griffey Jr. It isn't so much the numbers that link them. It's the mirthful way they promote the game.

Mays was a say-hey kid. He sang a song named in his honor and orchestrated by Quincy Jones. Griffey was just the kid. With his signature smile and backwards baseball cap, he helped restore fans' faith in the game after the 1994 season and World Series was canceled by a labor dispute. Like them, Harper wants to make baseball fun again.

That's his 2016 Trump-inspired motto. He's turned it into an acronym stamped on the knob of his bats. And the Nationals are selling T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan. In his book "October 1964," on the Yankees-Cardinals World Series, David Halberstam suggested why Mantle gained hero status. In part, it was because he was viewed as the last standard-bearer of the '50s-era Yankees.

Power baseball built around home runs, hit with grim determination, mainly by white players like The Mick. Harper can hit the long ball, and he's white. But the players he expresses admiration for are part of the modern game. They include Manny Machado, Dominican-American, Andrew McCutchen, black-American, Cubans Yasiel Puig and Jose Fernandez.

Players with flair, players the next generation of fans are attracted to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY HEY (THE WILLIE MAYS SONG)")

THE TRENIERS: (Singing) Say hey. Say who? Say Willie.

KELLY: That was Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and sports columnist for The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.