Cole Hamels' nickname is "Hollywood." He's into fashion. He carries his dog in a backpack. As Ted Berg correctly points out, he's not the first person you think of when you think of hard-nosed, old-school baseball tough guys. As a villain, he's perfect, though he's better suited to play the rival in the Nationals' summer-camp movie who is defeated through teamwork and montages. As a tough guy, he's a little wanting*.
But as a marketing genius, he's unparalleled. Just amazing. To recap, Hamels hit teenaged messiah Bryce Harper on purpose, and then he admitted it. He gave rambling, tough-guy reasons. Before this happened, here was a list of the Nationals' rivals:
- Disgruntled Québécois who won't stop writing nasty letters
- Guys in foam John Wilkes Booth costumes
- Mark Prior, when used as a metaphor or cautionary tale
You can't plan a t-shirt promotion based on any of those rivalries. And even worse, there were reverse counter-rivalries, where the fans of their opponent filled the park. Nationals Park was so overrun with Phillies fans, that they made a big deal about "taking back their park." They weren't going to sell tickets to Phillies fans. They created the wildly popular "Natitude" slogan, which was wildly popular with the Nationals marketing people who got to cut out early and hit the happy hour at Señor Pepito's after spending 17 minutes on the slogan part of their job. The Nationals released this press release before the Phillies series.
They were honest attempts at stirring the passions of Nationals fans and working them into a lather. But that isn't how it works. A rivalry has to be organic: The best ones in baseball history had to do with borough vs. borough, regional pride, or periods of intense success and competition. The Yankees and Red Sox didn't take out bitchy ads to snipe at each other before Opening Day, 1925. That rivalry is just something that happened.
The Nationals are a team with a substantial buzz around them. Their ownership has been spending money, building a competitive team. They stumbled into two of the top amateur talents of the past 20 years, who are both arriving and coming into their own at the same time. This is the kind of roster that could make D.C. a baseball town over the next decade. All it needs is a spark to light the tinder.
"I'm not going to injure a guy," Hamels said. "They're probably not going to like me for it. But I'm not going to lie and say I wasn't trying to do it."
There you go. Take the talented, smarmy guy whom only his own fans could love, and have him wing a pitch at the teenager who is supposed to drive the golden chariot that leads the franchise out of obscurity. Then have him admit it. Then have the Nationals G.M. call the smarmy guy "fake tough." It was the baseball equivalent of the USS Maine -- an incendiary turn of events that gets people worked up beyond reason. It was perfect for the Nationals. That one pitch did more than any slogan could possibly hope to.
It's not like the Nationals had a passionless fan base on Friday, where now they have frothing-mad partisans ready to sell out every game. But it was the start of something organic -- an unscripted part of what could be a classic rivalry. The Phillies and Mets had a thing going before the Mets started eating paste. The Phillies and Braves never really got off the ground. But the Phillies and Nationals … this has a chance to be a thing.
But it needs building blocks. The most important part of the nascent rivalry is for both teams to enjoy concurrent success. After that, though, little things like this are necessary. Forget the natitude. You need Cole Hamels getting tough and Bryce Harper stealing home. You need Cole Hamels, marketing genius. I wonder if he gets a bonus for this.
* I realize he's 6'3" and could pull my lungs through my nose if he wanted to. I'm talking about him being an unlikely tough guy relative to his peers.