Harper in company with legends as teenager in All-Star Game
WASHINGTON -- In a little more than two months in the big leagues, Bryce Harper has never been far from the spotlight. His debut in Los Angeles in late-April was one of the season's most buzzed-about games. He was at the center of controversy when he was drilled by Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels in May just for being a rookie. And he coined the now famous phrase "That's a clown question, bro," in response to a reporter's question in Toronto.
Oh yes, he also has hit monster home runs, flashed impressive speed on the bases, played all three outfield positions while shutting down opposing runners with a cannon arm and generally lived up to the massive hype that has surrounded him since even before he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in 2010.
Over the weekend, Harper, 19, added a history-making plank to his resume: He became only the third teenager to be selected to the All-Star Game, following pitchers Bob Feller in 1938 and Dwight Gooden in 1984, thus making Harper is the youngest position player ever in the Midsummer Classic.
"It's a pretty cool deal to be the youngest guy in there,'' Harper said Sunday before the Nationals lost 4-3 to the Colorado Rockies. "I don't look at age. I'll go in there and play my game. It's going to be a lot of fun. I love the game of baseball.''
Washington manager Davey Johnson, who also managed Gooden with the Mets in 1984, says, "I don't look at them being young. I look at the talent. When Dwight was 17, he looked like a big-leaguer. Harper does everything a little bit better than average. You never know what to expect, but you know it's going to be special.''
Harper was supposed to get 250 at-bats at Triple A before coming to the majors this year, but injuries forced the Nationals to bring him up on April 28 for his debut in Dodger Stadium. Since then, he's become a key player as the 49-34 Nationals go into the break with a four-game lead in the NL East and the best record in the league. Harper is hitting .282/.354/.472 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs and has stolen 10 bases in 13 tries.
After he finished third in the fan voting for the NL's final roster spot, Harper, who had problems with pain in his lower back, said he was looking forward to the break and spending time with his family in Las Vegas. But an injury to Miami's Giancarlo Stanton opened up a roster spot for Harper.
"Going home would have been good,'' he said. "But I still get to see my family out there and that's the biggest thing. I'm still going home after the game and that will give me a day and a half at home.''
In Kansas City, Harper will join teammates Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez as representatives of the Nationals (shortstop Ian Desmond was selected but isn't playing because of an injury) but despite the presence of such luminaries as Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones, future Hall of Famers who are twice his age, Harper says he won't be in awe.
"I don't get star-struck,'' Harper said. "I'm going there with open ears, to hang out and have a good time.''
That's an attitude that both Feller, who died on Dec. 10, 2010, and Gooden would appreciate.
Feller's first All-Star Game was in 1938, when 27,607 fans watched in Cincinnati's Crosley Field as the National League beat the American League 4-1. Feller didn't pitch, but he was warming up and would have relieved Lefty Grove if the game had gone into the bottom of the ninth.
Ironically, earlier in the season, Feller had beaten Grove for his ninth win on the same day that he was selected to play for the AL. Back then, managers of the eight teams in each league selected the players.
"It's a good thing they didn't pick the rosters as the end of July,'' Feller said in an interview in April 2010, eight months before he died at age 92. "Because I didn't have a good month. I got knocked out of the box five of six starts.''
When Feller walked into the AL All-Star clubhouse, his teammates included Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and Joe Cronin. Another young star on his way up was Joe DiMaggio, playing in his third All-Star Game.
Two of the NL's pitchers were Cincinnati's Johnny Vander Meer, who had electrified the baseball world with two consecutive no-hitters that June, and the New York Giants' Carl Hubbell, the screwballer who was famous for striking out five consecutive eventual Hall of Famers -- Babe Ruth, Gehrig,Foxx, Al Simmons and Cronin -- in the 1934 All-Star Game.
The 19-year-old Feller, who made eight All-Star teams in his career and was also destined for Cooperstown, was awestruck, but he followed his dad's advice: Believe in your abilities, stay in the background, show respect and do what you're told.
"I was excited to see all those guys, but I wasn't going to pretend that I was one of them,'' Feller said. "I was nervous warming up, but I knew if given the chance, I could pitch. Turns out I had to wait to pitch in my first All-Star Game.
"People were asking what it was like to be on the same field as Johnny Vander Meer and Carl Hubbell. It was a moment I'll never forget. It was an honor to see those guys. They were legends.''
Likewise, Gooden, who finished his rookie season in '84 at 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and a league-leading 276 strikeouts, will never forget the feeling of having his baseball heroes as teammates for one game. Mike Schmidt introduced himself on the bus to the workout at San Francisco's Candlestick Park.
Gooden walked by his pitching hero, Nolan Ryan, in the clubhouse and Ryan posed with him for a picture. So did Dale Murphy. Gooden visited with Gary Carter in the outfield during batting practice.
"These were all guys that I idolized a year before when I was in high school,'' Gooden says. "Mike Schmidt came up to me and said, 'I didn't like facing you, so I can't wait to see you against the American League hitters.' And, it was overwhelming to have Nolan Ryan tell me he knew who I was.''
Gooden didn't expect to pitch, but he did and put on one of the signature performances of the NL's 3-1 win. He entered in the fifth inning and, just as Fernando Valenzuela had done in the fourth, struck out the side, giving the NL six consecutive strikeouts 50 years after Hubbell's legendary feat.
"I was nervous warming up,'' Gooden says. "It was a surreal, out-of-body experience. I had butterflies, out-of-control anxiety and everything was moving so fast. I was just trying to breath properly. When I got to the mound, I threw the first pitch for a strike, and I said to myself, 'OK, I know I can do this.'''
Gooden whiffed the AL's Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon and Alvin Davis. "A great moment you never forget,'' Gooden says. "I remember walking off the mound and Gary Carter was pumping his fist.''
In the sixth inning, Gooden retired Lou Whitaker on a grounder and after allowing a double to Eddie Murray, he got Cal Ripken to ground out and Dave Winfield to fly to left.
"I relaxed more, but it still wasn't an easy task,'' Gooden says. "I remember guys like Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield stepping into the box. I didn't realize how big they were.''
When he got back to the hotel room, Gooden was too excited to sleep. He called back to Tampa to share all the details with his parents, Dan and Ella, and also his best friend, Troy Davis and his 13-year-old nephew who would go on to play in nine MLB All-Star Games: Gary Sheffield.
"It made me happy to hear my dad was so happy,'' says Gooden, who made three more All-Star teams. "I could feel his excitement.''
If Harper is awestruck about a trip to Kansas City, he's not showing it. He wouldn't talk about his favorite players and says he wants to treat it as just another game.
Perhaps that's because he knows this will only be the first of many.