A year ago, on the Fourth of July, Bryce Harper came to the plate in the first inning at Nationals Park, ready to face San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. In his hand, he carried a customized bat adorned not only with stars and stripes but with the Washington, D.C., skyline in silhouette. He promptly homered.
On Monday, Harper posted a photo of another patriotic bat - this one bearing a likeness of the Statue of Liberty, with an inscription: "Freedom is never given. It's won." Yet when he came to the plate in the first inning against Milwaukee, he had one of his regular-issue bats. On his feet, he wore special stars-and-stripes Under Armour cleats, outfitted with the logo of the U.S. Army. By the second inning, he had changed.
"One day I hope players in the @MLB can express the way they feel and give thanks to everybody that makes our lives possible and safe every single day through bats or cleats or anything to that point," Harper wrote in the post that accompanied the picture of the bat on Instagram. ". . . No I will not be using this bat today to respect the rules of @MLB! #Merica."
Harper has kept quiet about the bat since the Nationals' 1-0 loss that day to Milwaukee, and he declined to comment Wednesday afternoon. But he clearly has strong feelings on the issue of how players should be allowed to express themselves, feelings that sometimes differ with the regulations of Major League Baseball.
Those regulations are clear: Rule 3.02 (d) of the official rules of baseball reads: "No colored bat may be used in a professional game unless approved by the Rules Committee." Writing isn't allowed on the bats. Bat manufacturers know this.
"There are bat regulations that are in place," an MLB spokesman said. "Any bat that is different than a bat that has been approved must be submitted, or it can't be used."
In this case, though, three people with direct knowledge of the situation said the company that made Harper's bat, Victus Sports, received a communication from officials at MLB reminding the company of the ramifications for not complying with baseball's rules. In short, their license could be suspended. For a small company that has more than 50 major leaguers using its products, that could be devastating.
Jared Smith, a co-founder of Victus Sports, would not comment on any warnings from the league. But he did think the bat his company came up with was perfect for Harper.
"I know how passionate Bryce is, and I know he would've loved to have been able to do it," Smith said Wednesday in a phone interview. "There's no difference from that bat and any other bat he swings. It's just the look of it."
To MLB, the look matters. Officials are concerned not just about one player using a non-conforming piece of equipment but with how clubs might want to commemorate any special occasion, from a holiday to a tribute after a tragedy to a promotion.
Harper, though, has spent part of this season talking about an effort to "Make Baseball Fun Again," as a hat he wore during interviews at spring training said. Those close to him said this week he wanted to use the patriotic bat not as part of that effort but to honor the military - just as MLB did by staging a Sunday night game at Fort Bragg.
"To the soldiers who keep our land safe and free," Harper wrote on his Instagram post, "this was going to be for you, to tell the true story of the amazing life that I have growing up in such a beautiful country."
The patriotic bat's performance a year ago on the Fourth: 3 for 4 with the homer and a double. The regular old bat's performance on this year's Fourth: 0 for 3 with a walk and a strikeout.
Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Barry Svrluga