The game's future is biding his time in the minors, where he's raking the pitchers and riling his critics. Is Bryce Harper ready? Definitely—but are we ready for Bryce Harper?
It took four at bats into the Double A career of Bryce Harper for a pitcher to throw at him—three pitches in a row, the last causing him to spin his head out of harm's way—and for the opposing dugout to scream that he is overpaid and overrated. Harper was booed at the Class A South Atlantic League All-Star Game. He was booed at the Futures Game during the major league All-Star festivities in Phoenix. He has been heckled in his home ballpark.
Jim Bowden, the former Nationals general manager, chided Harper for "immaturity issues." Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, sensing a lack of humility from Harper, said opponents will "police" such a scofflaw of baseball protocol. Few are the nights that pass when Harper is not challenged by opponents, chased or cursed by autograph collectors, criticized by media or insulted by fans. He says there was a stalker in junior college.
Bryce Harper is 18 years old. He is younger than Nick Jonas, than the dissolution of the Soviet Union and than the World Wide Web. He should have just completed his senior year of high school. Instead, having already destroyed junior college and Class A pitching, he is playing Double A ball for the Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators with teammates who all are at least three years and as many as 11 years older than he is.
July 31, 2011
Already both famous and infamous, Harper, the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft by the Nationals, is the future of baseball—which explains his enormous potential value to the game and industry of Major League Baseball. Not since Barry Bonds played his last game in 2007 has baseball had a true every-day drawing card. But sitting on top of a picnic table outside the Senators' home clubhouse—out of uniform, without the shades and the gobs of eye black, without the number 34 he bought from a teammate for $600, without one of the most freakishly fast and powerful swings ever seen from a prospect—Harper looks every bit the teenager. He is strong (6'3" and 225 pounds) but more fast-twitch-fiber strong than heavily-muscled strong. There is little thickness to his body. A comically modest attempt at a mustache, the karmic accompaniment to a hitting streak, is gone.
"Some of the stuff I hear, I can't say," he says. "It's bad stuff. I do hear stuff like 'moneymaker,' 'moneybags.' ... I get 'overrated' a lot—that's just old. It comes with the territory, I guess. I'm not going to let it bother me."
Ron and Sheri Harper's youngest son, the kid brother to Bryan and Brittany, is growing up as a ballplayer and a young man with the world watching, if not always rooting for him. When he blew a kiss at a pitcher during a June 6 home run trot, for instance, the video and the criticism of his perceived arrogance (with little understanding of the circumstances) went viral. Almost nobody stopped to think about the lab-rat quality to the episode. This was not a grainy cellphone video. For a Class A ball game between the Hagerstown Suns and the Greensboro Grasshoppers in Hagerstown, Md., a hardscrabble town of 39,662 tucked into a valley between the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny mountains, Comcast Sports Network isolated a camera on an 18-year-old kid playing his first professional season.
Harper, a travel-baseball phenom out of Las Vegas at 10, an SI cover boy at 16 and a $9.9 million signee at 17, is the most well-known minor leaguer since Michael Jordan. But Jordan was a novelty, not a prospect. Harper is the most scrutinized prospect since....
"Jackie Robinson," says Tony Tarasco, a former major leaguer and a Nationals minor league coordinator who has become Harper's player-development Yoda. "You have to go back to Jackie Robinson to find anybody who goes through this much scrutiny. It wasn't like this for [Stephen] Strasburg. Wasn't like this for Alex Rodriguez."
Jackie Robinson? Surely Doug Harris, the Nationals' director of player development, with 21 years in pro ball as a player, scout and executive, would find a different comparable for Harper. Independent of Tarasco, Harris offered, "This is really unfair and it's totally different, but if I can make a comparison to one guy that has been scrutinized like this, it would be Jackie Robinson. And it's unfair because it was a different standard. He was under a microscope in an era when we didn't have Internet, didn't have cellphones.
"Now, Jackie Robinson had his life threatened. I'm not comparing Bryce to that. But as far as nonstop scrutiny? Absolutely. Day to day."
Harper's skills alone are fascinating enough to watch. He swings the bat with a ferocity that borders on felonious. The modern subtleties of "working the count" or "seeing pitches"—the popular passive-aggressive approach to hitting—have no room in his throwback world of blunt-force trauma. Said Erie SeaWolves manager Chris Cron upon watching Harper scorch the first pitch he saw in Double A for a line-drive single, "You can tell he's ready to hit, and I mean do damage, at all times. He's figured that out at 18 when some guys never do."
Moreover, Harper is a base stealer with above-average speed (the SeaWolves respectfully pitched out the first time he reached base) and has a throwing arm that would rank among the best of major leaguers. (The first time he threw to bases in Double A in pregame practice, there were audible whoops and gasps from his teammates.) In his second game for Harrisburg, Harper fielded a hit in the extreme leftfield corner by the foul pole and, on a fly, threw out the batter trying to reach second. Two innings later, on a ball hit to his left, deep in the gap, Harper threw another no-bounce laser to the bag to nail another batter trying for a double. In the Futures Game on July 10 he threw from the leftfield foul pole to the plate on a short hop, though off-line.
What makes Harper more fascinating, however, is not what his development says about him, but what it says about us. In another, less invasive time—say, 1951, when Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle arrived in the majors—his youthfulness and talent would serve as gossamer wings to let our optimism soar. Today those same traits—and the idea, shaped by an Internet video clip, that he is too much, too soon and too confident—are reason to tear him down.
"Jealousy," says Senators second baseman Josh Johnson. "People are jealous. There are people in this clubhouse who are jealous of him. And they are totally wrong about him.
"I got to know him in spring training. I like to get in the cage early. I'm typically the first one in there—6:30, quarter to seven every morning. Who's the one guy who shows up every day that early? Bryce."
Says Harris, "This is a wonderful kid. Don't mistake his intensity and his passion for a guy who doesn't have a care or concern about other people. Because that's not the case at all.
"Watch the kid prepare. Watch his intensity and then come back and tell me you have a different opinion about him. Most parents, if they had a son out there in that situation, they would hope that their son prepares and goes about his business the way he does."
Major league attendance fell each of the last three seasons. Scoring is at its lowest level since 1992, and batting average hasn't been this poor since the American League added the designated hitter in 1973. And the game has an 18-year-old who is a once-in-a-generation hitting prospect, who reads the Bible, who has MOM and POPS tattooed on the undersides of his wrists, who doesn't drink or smoke, who visited a children's hospital upon arriving in Phoenix for All-Star weekend, who signs autographs every day for kids (even minutes before the first pitch), who is such a respectful student of baseball history he can tell you the hitting styles of 1970s stars and who plays the game so hard, in the spirit of Pete Rose, one of his playing inspirations, as to rankle opponents.
And this is the kid we choose to boo and, turning the tables on him, to kiss off.
LeBron James went straight to Cleveland. Sidney Crosby went to Pittsburgh. Bryce Harper went to Hagerstown. He took an apartment by himself a half hour away in Waynesboro, Pa., in part to enjoy the unwinding ride home, listening to country music in his pickup truck, then griddling himself late-night pancakes. Baseball requires such a wide array of skills and such a deep understanding of terabytes of game information that even the most talented players cannot be rushed.
"My job," Tarasco says, "is to take this rare metal—something in its raw form that already has great value—and forge it and shape it and polish it into a sword. It takes time."
That is why there is a place like Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium, one of the last remnants of a time when minor league baseball was a pastime more than commerce. It is a quaint ballpark (capacity: 4,600; this season, for the first time, some seats behind home plate have actual chair backs) and the third-oldest minor league stadium in the country. (It was built in 1930, in six weeks.) Ridges of Stonehenge limestone run beneath Hagerstown, and the stone was quarried to construct some of Hagerstown's oldest buildings.
One of the limestone ridges also runs smack through leftfield of Municipal Stadium. It made the task of leveling the land in 1930 so difficult that the builders of the ballpark threw up their hands and left it as is. And so the Nationals sent their $9.9 million investment to a ball field as Salvador Dalí might have imagined one. The outfield slopes noticeably in two directions: It rises from shortstop to the leftfield wall while falling from leftfield to centerfield.
The Suns and the Grasshoppers, both battling for the first-half division championship, had an intense game on June 6. The Suns were peeved that the Greensboro pitcher, Zachary Neal, a 22-year-old righthander, was staring down their dugout after every strikeout. There was trash talking on both sides. Hagerstown hitting coach Marlon Anderson, a former big leaguer, shouted to his players, "Someone's got to do something about this!"
Harper decided he would be the one. He would try to hit a retaliatory home run. "I had to do something for my team," he says. "I hit it out. I think that is probably the first ball where I attempted anything like that.
"There were guys on my team that got shown up that night, and I wanted to back them up. It's all part of baseball."
Neal's gaze remained fixed on Harper as he rounded the bases. After Harper passed third base, sensing the pitcher's eyes on him, he turned his head to Neal and gave him an air kiss in stride. That was it, a gesture so subtle that Harris, who was in the stands that night, didn't see it and didn't know what the fuss was about until manager Brian Daubach called him later that night. But when word spread about the kiss, Bowden and Schmidt were emboldened to lash into Harper, and the prospect was branded as a "monster" (New York Daily News)—and worse in the blogosphere.
"It was heat of the moment," Harper says. "I didn't want to run around the bases and cuss him out and have little kids see that, have my family see that. I'd rather them see me blowing a kiss than mother-effing him."
Says Harris, "I think people vilified him and it was unfair. It was very unfair. I'll tell you honestly, the pitcher's lucky it wasn't worse than that. There are other guys who would not have blown a kiss and would have gone out and kicked his ass. That's the reality of the game."
Oddly, at least in a world where sports and jurisprudence mix regularly, the worst criticisms of Harper have come not from anything he's done off the field, but from inside the white lines. (His transgressions from junior college included a game during the Junior College World Series when he spiked an opponent and got ejected for drawing a line with his bat in protest of a call.) He left high school after his sophomore year, getting his GED, to chase better competition. (How did that work out? He hit .443 in junior college, .343 in the Arizona Fall League, .389 in major league spring training and .318 in Hagerstown before a slow start in Harrisburg, where he batted .208 in his first 15 games.) He is enthralled by the game, its competition and its history.
Rose had already been banned from baseball for three years by the time Harper was born, and yet it is Charlie Hustle, who once said, "I'd walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball," who provides Harper's playing template—he plays hard enough to make enemies. "I'm going to take you out at second base," Harper says. "I'm going to put your catcher in the seats. That's baseball. Look at Pete Rose and the  All-Star Game. It sucks that [catcher Ray Fosse's] career was never the same after that, but that's how [Rose] played. That's what I want people to know about me. I'm going to go out and give 100 percent every single day no matter what."
The Fourth of July was a big day for Harper. It was his first day in Harrisburg after his promotion. One of his first orders of business was to acquire the number 34, which he wore at the College of Southern Nevada (the school retired the number), in spring training and in Hagerstown. Harper likes the number because the digits add up to seven, the number of Mantle. The number in Harrisburg belonged to Hassan Pe√±a, a 26-year-old pitcher. Pe√±a told Harper it would cost him $1,200. Harper countered with $600.
"Deal," Pe√±a told him. "That's a car payment."
Five minutes before the first pitch on the Fourth, Harper signed autographs for fans along the rightfield line and, without prompting, jumped into the team photo for a youth baseball club that was on the field. Harper's appeal to youngsters is enormous. He has reenergized the baseball card industry. (One of his cards sold last October for the very adult price of $12,500.) When he wore his Ultimate Warrior facade in high school—garish triangles of eye black underneath each eye—the look quickly spread throughout youth baseball. Of the 50 or so fans who wait outside the Senators' clubhouse after games for his autograph, almost all of them are preteen and teenage boys. "I'll tell the adults, 'I'm signing for the kids, and maybe if I have time I'll get you guys later,' " Harper said. "They may start cussing me out or telling me I'm terrible, and the next day it's, 'Oh, we love you. Sign this.' It's going to happen, I guess.
"I love taking time with little kids no matter what, because those are the guys that are going to be watching me the rest of my life. Those are the ones who are going to be looking up to me in the next couple of years, and hopefully I'll be playing this game for a while. Those are the type of guys I need to sign for. I want them to look up to me and say, 'Hey, Bryce plays the game the right way.' "
Playing the game too hard, at least according to its unwritten rules, is why Erie welcomed Harper to Double A by treating him like a pyramid of wooden milk bottles at a county fair. Five innings into his first game at that level, with the Senators up 8--0, Harper was on first base and broke on his own to steal second. When the batter chopped the ball to shortstop, Harper kept running, moving up two bases on a ball that traveled about 75 feet. It was an impressive piece of baserunning, but exhibiting that kind of aggressiveness with your team holding such a big lead goes against the game's honor code. Harrisburg manager Tony Beasley, who also coaches third base, immediately advised Harper of his error. Angry players in the Erie dugout did the same. "I was just locked in and not thinking about the score," says Harper. "I just got caught up, I guess."
His next time up, Harper was nearly hit three times by pitches from Tyler Stohr, an Erie righthander six years older than Harper. After Stohr's third attempt at justice missed, SeaWolves manager Cron ran out to the mound. "I told him, 'O.K., now it's time to get him out,' " Cron says. Harper walked.
"If I was pitching, I probably would have done the same thing," says Harper. "A kid going first to third with the score eight-nothing? If I was up on the bump, I would buzz the tower too."
Learning when not to run, learning how to throw from the outfield without the ball cutting, learning how pitchers are trying to get him out, learning how to stay mentally and physically sharp for six months with precious few off days ... those are but a small part of the minor league curriculum. Harper's education is obvious already. He has scaled back the huge swing he took in high school, a "kind of slo-pitch-softball swing" that the lower velocities of high school pitchers allowed him to get away with. He has ditched the Ultimate Warrior look for a more traditional application of eye black. When Harris saw him in April, Harper ran the bases like a high schooler, trying to bait throws. In June he saw a smarter runner stealing bases with textbook technique.
Even his quotes are less outrageous. Asked if he needed to change, Harper says, "I don't think I do. I think maybe when I was younger I did, coming out of high school. My mentality was, Hey, I'm better than you. Better than everybody in the world.... Thing is, if you don't have that mentality, you're not going to perform. When you step in that batters' box, you have to know you're better than that pitcher."
Nationals G.M. Mike Rizzo has said that Harper will not play in the major leagues this year. On July 3 in Hagerstown, after Daubach told Harper he was being promoted, Harris, just to make sure the kid understood, said to him, "Bryce, what if you hit .500 in Harrisburg?"
"I'm staying in Harrisburg," Harper replied.
"What if you're hitting .800?"
"Staying in Harrisburg."
"And what if you're so good you hit a thousand?"
"Staying in Harrisburg."
The Nationals don't want him looking ahead. They want him immersed in the learning process, tutored by Beasley, Tarasco, the coaching staff, Harris (who lives 15 minutes away) and a winning, veteran team in Harrisburg. They want him to touch each minor league level, which would mean starting next season in Triple A, an assignment, given his talent and learning curve, that could be brief. "You don't get it every night," Harris says, "but there are 'wow' moments, where you go, 'This is special.' "
Learning the game is complicated enough. Learning it as a famous 18-year-old pro with this level of exposure, with the world watching, filming, recording, cussing, stalking, booing and cheering, is an unprecedented experience. A long time ago Ron Harper taught his son never to drink anything from a glass or open container if he was unsure about its chain of custody.
"I still do that," Bryce says. "I don't drink [alcohol] at all. When I'd go to parties with my buddies—it's Vegas—I'd always bring a water bottle with me. I'd keep it in my hand no matter what. I still do. Anytime I go to anybody's house, I always have it in a closed container. I open it up, drink it right away or keep it close, just in case. Things happen, and I don't want to take a chance."
Sitting on the picnic table outside the clubhouse, having finished a series of interviews and in the middle of another, with another workday scheduled to begin with on-field drills four hours before game time, Harper is interrupted by a man holding forth a baseball and a pen and this disclaimer: "Only if you don't mind. I don't want to bother you." Harper grins and signs the ball, BRYCE HARPER, 34, LUKE 1:37. ("For with God nothing shall be impossible.") He has come to accept interruptions, as well as the booing, as the wallpaper to this great big, loud life.
"I guess I've got to get used to it," he says. "If I want to go into Yankee Stadium, they're going to be all over me. Philly is going to be all over me. Everybody is going to be all over me. That's baseball. That's what the fans are there for."
In Hagerstown, Harper sometimes would be jeered in his own ballpark. Daubach, who coached third base, said the beer garden behind him could be a particularly troublesome spot. Sometimes he would turn around in the coaching box and ask the especially loud ones to cool it, and shake his head in wonder that some people didn't understand their good fortune to have a player like this assigned to their town.
So this is the nexus of talent, money and information technology in a sports-hungry culture. It is an 18-year-old kid, the best hitting prospect in baseball, preparing himself to be booed when his dream of being a big leaguer comes true. Civility may wane, but Harper does not.
"I'm not going to complain about anything," he says. "I'm doing something I love to do. I'm not going to say, 'I hate the media, I hate this, I hate that.' Because I have a life I really love. I get to do something I really love doing. I wouldn't take anything back at all."
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HARPER, ALREADY BOTH FAMOUS AND INFAMOUS, IS LIKE A MINOR LEAGUE LAB RAT—HE MIGHT BE THE MOST SCRUTINIZED PROSPECT SINCE JACKIE ROBINSON.
"MY JOB," SAYS TARASCO, HARPER'S MENTOR, "IS TO TAKE THIS RARE METAL ... AND FORGE IT AND SHAPE IT AND POLISH IT INTO A SWORD. IT TAKES TIME."
LEARNING THE GAME IS COMPLICATED ENOUGH. DOING IT WITH THIS LEVEL OF EXPOSURE IS UNPRECEDENTED.