Commentary

Some words of caution for the kid

Harper's Fenway debut comes with reminder: Cooperstown is promised to no one

Updated: June 8, 2012, 9:54 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Welcome to Fenway Park, kid. We like to think you're looking forward to playing here, this being Fenway's 100th anniversary and you being all of 19 years and 236 days old, which makes you young enough to be Johnny Pesky's great-grandson.

Babe Ruth was your age when he played his first game here, though he never was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Chosen One" like you were three years ago. Sports wasn't 24-7 back then; the whole world, in fact, was just about to go to war.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
AP Photo/John BazemoreBryce Harper, 19, will likely be the first teenager to collect a hit at Fenway Park since B.J. Upton in 2004.

The past means something in these parts. Not sure how much history you know, seeing how you bypassed your last two years of high school to accelerate your path to the big leagues, but we recognize how special it is for a kid to arrive here when he still is in his teens.

Heck, Ted Williams, the best hitter any of us ever saw, was 20 before he put on the uniform for the first time. So when a kid like you comes around, we are prompted to pay attention. In 111 seasons, only 40 Sox players made it to the big leagues by your age, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The last was a pitcher named Mike Garman, and that was 1969, the Stone Age to you.

We can just imagine Jimy Williams, who used to manage here, taking one look at you and saying about you the same thing he said about Nomar Garciaparra; "Bryce, he's been here before. He played with Ty Cobb."

Yeah, we know -- a little spooky. But it was Jimy's way of recognizing a throwback quality in Nomar that separated him from his own generation but would be instantly recognizable to guys who played this game in dirty uniforms decades before. We've only seen you on TV or on YouTube so far, but we like to think you have that same DNA. Even if some of us think only Angelina Jolie should use that much black eyeliner.

And the current manager here, Bobby Valentine? In some ways, he was you, except not just in one sport -- maybe the greatest athlete ever to come out of the state of Connecticut. He could have followed O.J. at tailback at USC but instead chose to sign with the Dodgers.

Valentine was 19 when he appeared in his first game with the Dodgers, but he never became the golden boy everyone envisioned. He shattered his leg when his spikes got caught in a chain-link fence, the surgery was a failure, and Valentine was forced to make his mark in another way. That he's still in the big leagues 40 years later is tribute to the fire that still burned even after his leg quit on him.

Which brings us to Tony Conigliaro, about the most star-crossed story involving a teenager you'll ever hear in these parts. Tony C was 19, your age, and a hometown kid when he made his Red Sox debut in 1964, and he hit a home run over the Green Monster in his first Fenway at-bat.

He hit 24 home runs that season and probably would have had 30 if a pitch from Cleveland's Pedro Ramos (a one-time Washington Senator, the team that preceded your Nationals) hadn't fractured his forearm.

How cool was Tony C? Young women awaited his arrival at Fenway like he was the fifth Beatle. (The Beatles were a band; ask your parents about them.)

On July 17, 1964, playing against -- how 'bout that -- Washington, Conigliaro became the first and only Sox teenager to have four hits in a game at Fenway. On Sept. 16 in Fenway, Tony C hit two home runs in a game against the Kansas City Athletics, becoming only the sixth teenager to do so anywhere. Hall of Famer Mel Ott was the first -- he did it twice in 1928 -- and two more players have done so since Tony C: Junior Griffey and Andruw Jones, who duplicated that feat in the 1996 World Series.

By 22, Tony C already had 100 home runs, the youngest player ever in the American League to reach that number. A great career was a foregone conclusion, Cooperstown a formality.

And then Tony C was hit in the face by a fastball -- that was in 1967 -- and was never the same.

So, yes, we know a little bit about how tomorrow isn't promised to you, or any of us. Which will make us lean forward a little further in our seats this weekend when you come to the plate, in hopes that you'll give us a glimpse of what it's like to be so young, gifted and, yes, blessed. A Mozart in stirrups and cleats.

Here are the names of the last three teenagers to come to Fenway Park in a visitor's uniform and hit a home run: Robin Yount, Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle. Hall of Famers all. That's some pretty fancy company you can join by putting one in the seats.

[+] EnlargeTony Conigliaro
AP Photo/HFTony Conigliaro, who like Harper made his debut as a 19-year-old, looked to be on the fast track to Cooperstown before a beanball permanently altered his path.

And the last teenagers to collect hits at Fenway? Try B.J. Upton (2004), A-Rod (1994), Pudge Rodriguez (1991) and Griffey (1989). Another notable crew.

We'll leave you with one more story about one more teenager, the last teen for an out-of-town team to bang out four hits in a game at Fenway. And he did it in back-to-back games while playing for -- here it is again -- Washington, and at that time, 1936, the team was known as the Nats, or Nationals, just like your club. His name was Buddy Lewis. He was a 19-year-old third baseman and he was all the rage in D.C.

The great columnist Shirley Povich asked him what it was like to be so famous at such a young age.

"Gee, ain't it great?" Lewis is said to have replied.

A left-handed hitter who peppered line drives all over the place -- sound familiar? -- Lewis was destined for stardom. He became an All-Star the next season, and by the time he was 24, only Cobb had more hits at the same age.

But a funny thing happened to Lewis on the way to diamond immortality. He became a hero instead. The world went to war a second time, and Lewis joined the Air Force.

It cost him over three years of his baseball career, but Lewis was a difference-maker as a pilot flying a cargo plane over the Himalayas and many times landing behind Japanese lines. He flew 368 missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He came back to play ball after the war, but his heart was never in it quite the same, and he quit while still in his early 30s.

We know this stuff because he died, a year ago last February, and his obituary appeared in the Washington Post, the same newspaper that chronicles all your exploits.

Buddy Lewis was 94 when he died. Why do we tell you this story? Because, kid, just when you think you've got it all figured out, your life can take you on a ride like you never imagined. Maybe it all plays out the way it did for other prodigies like The Mick and Junior, the great Ott and A-Rod, the kind of players you hope one day to be measured against.

But then there is Tony C, Bobby V, Buddy Lewis.

So take nothing for granted. Enjoy every second of it. Own the moment. And be ready for anything.

We can't wait to see you.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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