On Monday morning at Space Coast Stadium, Harper sat on a silver bench in the first-base dugout, and with the low-hanging Florida sun beating down on his face, answered question after question from the throng of media gathered around. Unlike a year ago, when his state of the union address spawned the now infamous, "Where’s my ring?" quip, this time around, the reigning National League MVP was infinitely more measured with his words.
For 17 minutes, the Washington Nationals star fielded queries with a barrage of responses so beige that you’d swear he had a cliché incentive in his contract. Not that you can blame the guy. After all, seemingly every time he’s opened his mouth in the past and given an honest, unfiltered piece of his mind -- whether it’s about a ring, a clown question or Nats fans bolting before the final out -- he’s caught flak for it.
On Monday, when someone asked Harper if he viewed himself as a leader on the team, he said that he didn’t. Ask any 23-year-old on any big league team if he thinks he’s a leader, and odds are you’ll get the same response. But Harper isn’t just any 23-year-old. He’s a 23-year-old former No. 1 overall pick who already has four years of major league service time and, oh by the way, is coming off one of the most prolific offensive seasons in MLB history. So if he’d said that, yes, he did think of himself as a leader, we all certainly could’ve lived with that. Instead, this is what he said:
“I don’t think I’m a leader. I think I’m more just a guy playing the game. I think J-Dub and Zimm and all those guys are the leaders, those guys that are going to go about it every single day and do the things that they think is right for this team.”
In case you’re wondering, J-Dub is Jayson Werth, the 37-year-old outfielder who’s spent 13 years in the bigs and who this season will earn $21 million. Zimm? That’s Ryan Zimmerman, the 31-year-old first baseman whose contract will pay him $14 million this season, his 12th in the majors.
Neither of them had the season Harper had last year. Neither of them has ever had a campaign like the one Harper just authored. Never will. But when it comes to the pecking order inside a major league clubhouse, stats aren’t what matter. Not by themselves, anyway. What matters is tenure. And, to a lesser extent, salary. But the two are tied together. And Harper knows full well that Werth and Zimmerman have a whole lot more of both than he does. At least for now.
But three years from now, when Harper signs his history-making half-billion-dollar deal with the Yankees or Dodgers or Nationals or whichever team is the beneficiary of The Decision 2.0, he’ll have plenty of both. Sure, he’ll still only be 26 years old, which sounds crazy young to be a clubhouse leader in the grand ole game with all the weird unwritten rules. But he won’t be just any 26-year-old. He’ll be a 26-year-old with seven years of service time who might have won another MVP or two by then. You know, just for good measure. And that, combined with the supersized contract -- not to mention the inner fire that so obviously burns within him -- should be more than enough to make Harper hierarchically relevant in the clubhouse. Maybe he won’t be The Guy. Not immediately. But at the very least, he’ll be one of the guys.
For now, though, he’s perfectly content to defer to the big dogs. Or so he says. Even if that’s not really how he feels deep down inside (that’s something only Harper himself knows), the fact that he’s publicly willing to say it, especially on the heels of his All-World 2015, is a sign of growth. Just like the clichés, which, like 'em or not, are also evidence of evolution. A sign of maturity. A sign that, when it comes to Bryce Harper becoming a leader in the clubhouse, it’s just a matter of time.