Bryce Harper has skipped a lot of steps in his baseball career: most of college, his last two years of high school, anonymity. Harper is that rare person whose talent is so outrageous that the rest of him has to catch up to it.
He decided at 16 that being the No. 1 pick in the draft was not enough -- he wanted to be the No. 1 pick a year ahead of time, because he could, and if you watched him hit, it almost seemed rude to make him wait. This is risky territory. Sometimes you end up with Tiger Woods dominating the Masters at 21 or Mozart composing an opera when he is 11. Sometimes you get Todd Marinovich, who never overcame his demons, or Jennifer Capriati, who finally did.
The Washington Nationals think they have Mozart. And if you want to know why, look at what happened Wednesday night, when Harper faced a man who had intentionally hit him, then gleefully admitted it. The rematch came in one of the harshest sports cities in the country, in a budding almost/sort-of/potential rivalry, in just Harper's 24th big league game ... and, well, what happened is this:
Bryce Harper just played baseball. It's all he really seems to want to do. The world reaches conclusions, and he just wants to reach base.
"He's a polarizing figure," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said this week. "When he is on your team, you love him. When he is playing against you, you hate him -- and you don't even know him."
This brings us to Cole Hamels, the Phillies star who beaned Harper on general principle in their first meeting. The amazing thing was not that Hamels threw at Harper. Pitchers have been doing that for as long as they have been pitching. No, the amazing thing is that Hamels admitted it afterward, without fear of repercussions, as though throwing a baseball at Bryce Harper was a perfectly normal social activity. Which it may be.
For Harper, being hated comes as naturally as hitting. This is what happens when you are young and too good -- and you know it.
Harper is 19. Most 19-year-old men are either doing stupid things or wondering why the guys who do stupid things won't hang out with them. For most of his life, he was in the same grade as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, those ridiculously talented Kentucky freshmen who won the NCAA title this year. Remember the Kentucky players putting hands to their eyes and holding three fingers up to make "3 goggles" when they sank a three-pointer? Cole Hamels would have tried to put them on their asses.
Basketball culture encourages stardom from a young age. Baseball culture puts paying dues above everything else. In baseball culture, Harper forfeited the right to be 19 when he was 16. That was when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "Baseball's Chosen One" ("that may have rubbed people the wrong way from the get-go," Rizzo said) and that was when he decided to chase his talent instead of putting it on a leash. A year later, he skipped his senior year of high school to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Pretty soon he was blowing a kiss at a minor league pitcher after taking him deep, and it was caught on video, because everything is caught on video now. Somebody should really start a YouTube channel of people taking video of YouTube videos.
Rizzo says: "I've never met a young player with as much baseball history knowledge and respect for baseball history as this guy [has]."
Yes, this is his general manager speaking. Rizzo is tied to Harper, practically glued to him. But this is part of the Bryce Harper story. He constantly talks about the game's great players, and not just the current ones -- he talks about George Brett, Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle, guys who were not just stars but gamers. This is why he did not complain when Hamels plunked him. Would Pete Rose have complained? Hell no. Rose would have snarled and stolen home on Hamels. And that is what Harper did.
The narrative started to change then. But to the Nationals, Harper didn't change. The kid who blew the kiss after his home run is the same guy who stole home.
"All you saw was film after film of the kiss," Rizzo said. "To this day it is brought up by media outlets. The kid showed me the restraint that he showed, rather than immaturity -- because of all that led up to that that nobody knows about."
Rizzo would not go into detail. But Harper was baited in the minor leagues, because that's baseball culture too. Your team pays you, but the other team makes you earn it.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson compared Harper to Darryl Strawberry, not because Harper has an enormous capacity for self-destruction but because they were both prodigies. Johnson managed Strawberry with the Mets. At the time, Strawberry was supposed to be "the black Ted Williams," back when people figured if we had a White This and a Black That then we were making progress. Our racial attitudes have grown, thankfully -- otherwise Harper would be the white Darryl Strawberry, Jeremy Lin would be the Asian Steve Nash and scouts would scour America's playgrounds looking for the half-Mexican, half-Japanese Mike Schmidt. ("I'm tellin' ya, Dusty, he's gotta be around here somewhere!")
Anyway, Johnson said that, like Harper, Strawberry put so much pressure on himself to succeed at the minor league level that he played better when he got to the majors, because he knew he had made it and could just play baseball. Well, memories can be funny. And Johnson's memory of a young Strawberry do not mesh with the record.
In 1982, his last full year as a minor leaguer, Strawberry batted .283/.419/.602 at Double-A Jackson. The next year he started at Triple-A Tidewater and was even better: .333/.465/.596. Then the Mets called him up. He was undoubtedly ready.
Harper's ascent was not quite as clear. In 82 plate appearances at Triple-A Syracuse this year, his numbers were nothing special: .250/.333/.375. He hit one home run. I looked at the numbers when Harper came up, and I thought: He isn't ready. But the Nationals know him better than I do.
Rizzo scouted Harper and said, "he was taking pitches great, squaring the ball up, hitting the ball extremely hard. To me, the numbers in the minor leagues didn't mean anything." Rizzo thought Harper would succeed in the majors, but more importantly, he knew Harper would survive failure.
"He is so confident in his abilities," Rizzo said. "Even if he were to struggle, it wouldn't beat him up mentally."
Harper has not struggled. It's early, but his .267/.350/.467 line is very good for a rookie. His play has been another reminder that we can reach our conclusions about Bryce Harper, but his team knows him better than we do. Cole Hamels and the public can hit him. That's not the same as knocking him down.