VIERA, Fla. -- Bryce Harper is only 21 years old, but he seems exponentially more seasoned and mature than the kid who strode into Washington Nationals camp two years ago with that Sports Illustrated cover boy glow. Two hours before a spring training game, he sits at his locker with a growth of beard and his red Nationals cap turned backwards, thoughtfully sifting through a series of questions about his past, present and future in the game.
He's wearing a gray T-shirt with the words "PED Free" blazoned across the chest. You were expecting maybe "That's a clown question, bro"?
The beard grants Harper access to the hirsute brotherhood led by locker mates Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, who've gone full-throttle Zach Galifianakis this spring. And the T-shirt affirms that he will do things according to his own internal compass. If he's going to be anointed as a face of baseball moving forward, he might as well carry the designation with pride and never besmirch the Harper family name.
"Natural is the way to go," Harper says. "I've always said that. I work my butt off and I want to be as clean as I can forever. I pride myself on that. I have a great family and I would never want to put them or this organization through that."
It's been almost two years since Harper and Mike Trout arrived on the same momentous day (April 28, 2012) as bookend East and West coast sensations. While Trout recently made news with a pre-arbitration record $1 million contract and is primed for a much more lucrative long-term deal after two straight MVP runner-up finishes in Los Angeles, Harper has been living a relatively serene existence in Florida. The Nationals play about an hour from the nearest Grapefruit League camp and their budding superstar is -- dare we say it? -- under the radar.
He's coming off a perfectly fine season that in many respects surpassed his Rookie of the Year turn in 2012. Harper's on-base percentage improved significantly (from .340 to .368), and he produced almost identical home run and RBI totals in exactly 100 fewer plate appearances than his first year.
But 2013 was more noteworthy for setbacks, injuries and some teachable moments, all of which coalesced into a YouTube staple during a 6-2 Washington victory at Dodger Stadium on May 13. Harper, pursuing a long fly ball by A.J. Ellis, lost his bearings and did a face plant into the wall before emerging groggy and with a cut on his neck. As a student of baseball history, Harper might have appreciated that the great Vin Scully did the narration.
The play ensured that Harper would continue to lead the majors in Pete Reiser and Aaron Rowand references. It also elicited the standard mix of admiration and concern from scouts, who love ballplayers with big motors but prefer that they remain concussion-free whenever possible.
Learning on the fly
Harper's good and bad experiences are gradually helping him find the right balance between aggressive and reckless. As he's quick to point out, he was a catcher and third baseman before breaking into professional ball as an outfielder with Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League in 2011. Less than 400 career outfield starts later, he knows he still has much to learn.
"I'm sure a lot of people thought, 'Oh, he was playing too hard and he ran into a wall,'" Harper says. "But it wasn't a matter of playing too hard. I had a terrible route and no clue where I was. My feet were messed up and my head was all over the place. It was a freak accident, and I hope it never happens again."
The knee is healthy now after offseason surgery, and Harper is swinging the bat with authority, running with confidence, and always a candidate to spring a surprise. After going hitless in two at-bats against Justin Verlander on Sunday, he came to the plate against Detroit lefty reliever Phil Coke in the seventh inning and tried unsuccessfully to beat out a bunt. Harper did it with the full blessing of manager Matt Williams, who told reporters, "It's a weapon that he has available to him when he wants to use it. It's an option for him at any time. To have that within his arsenal is good. It doesn't mean he has to do it all the time."
The knee injury -- which came with a side order of hip soreness -- did a major number on Harper's platoon splits last year. He posted a slash line of .214/.327/.321 against lefties, and his inability to push off his back leg put a significant crimp in his power.
"My knee gave out when I swung," he says. "Some days it would feel good and there were others when I couldn't walk to first base. I was in a lot of pain. It wasn't a lot of fun."
Oil changes, anyone?
Harper's belief that he can will his way through hard times with hard work is a family heirloom. Several years ago, when he was playing for the College of Southern Nevada, his father, Ron, told reporters that he still has to do his household chores like any other responsible son when he's living under the family roof. That arrangement remains in place even though young Bryce has graduated from teen to adult. When he went home to Nevada during the offseason, Harper took out the trash, pitched in with the yardwork and even mixed in an oil-and-filter change or two.
"Absolutely," he says with earnestness.
Most days, he's at the park by 7 a.m., so when the games are complete, he collapses on the couch at his spring residence with the TV remote and watches sports. In Viera, Harper spends as much time as he can hanging out with his older brother, Bryan, a minor league pitcher in the Nationals' system.
Harper has always had an excellent rapport with his Washington teammates. When he arrived as a hot-shot rookie, his work ethic and effort helped defuse potential resentment or eye-rolling. But two years ago, the media crush was so pronounced that he was destined to be an island unto himself on occasion. Now the vibe is more relaxed, and Harper is less a curiosity or a precocious little brother than a supremely talented peer. He's fortunate to be in a clubhouse with the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Werth and LaRoche, who've helped round out some of his rough edges without killing his swagger.
"The game has changed a lot since I was 20 years old," Zimmerman says. "I got one-tenth the hype that Bryce or Trout got, deservedly so. Obviously, social interaction is great for the game and the fans, but this new generation also has to deal with a lot more pressure and attention than we ever did.
"People have to remind themselves that Bryce is young. He didn't go to [a major] college or spend a lot of time in the minor leagues, so he's basically learning at this level, which is hard to do. Sometimes this seems kind of unfair, but it doesn't matter if you're 18 or 21 or 30. When you've been in the big leagues for three years, you're expected to take that next step."
In contrast to, say, teammate Stephen Strasburg, who is generally friendly and accommodating but seemingly ill at ease with attention, Harper is in his element mingling with the media and the general public. He has an awareness and appreciation for baseball history that are refreshing by modern-day standards, and he understands his place in the big picture.
"I still have people coming up to me and asking me random stuff, and fans going crazy," Harper says. "I enjoy that. It's a blessing to have people ask me for my autograph. When they're not talking to you and asking for your autograph, that's when things go downhill from there."
Even though the expectations might be slightly lower this spring, and the media crunch is less pronounced, and Williams and new arrival Doug Fister are the most prominent storylines at Washington's camp, something is quietly churning beneath the surface in Harper's world.
"I think he loves the pressure and the hype, and when that hype goes down a little, he probably takes it personally," LaRoche says. "I can see him having a huge year if he's healthy. He just needs to be consistent and get to where that 0-for-8 or 0-for-10 doesn't turn into a 2-for-40. He'll mentally get strong to where he knows how good he is and it won't even register what he's done in the past week. He'll have that kind of confidence where he's gonna put up some huge years."
After two impressive, productive, formative years in the majors, Bryce Harper's inner competitor tells him that he has something much bigger on the horizon. There's no better time to prove it than now.