Commentary

Bryce Harper's wild ride

Nats' 19-year-old outfielder has had a thrilling rookie season, and it's not over yet

Originally Published: October 6, 2012
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

When Bryce Harper steps to the plate Sunday against Adam Wainwright in St. Louis, he will become the 11th teenager to appear in a Major League Baseball postseason game. The most recent teen sensation, Atlanta's Andruw Jones, slugged .750 in the 1996 World Series and has since hit 434 home runs and won 10 Gold Glove awards. Mickey Mantle and Bert Blyleven are in the Hall of Fame, and Phil Cavarretta and Don Gullett enjoyed productive runs in the big leagues.

He's just a normal guy. We know him as Bryce. He plays center. He's just another guy on our team. You forget sometimes that he's this 19-year-old phenom.

-- Nats outfielder Jayson Werth

Yet in many ways, Harper's story is like no other. He has been destined for the big stage since he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16 and had fame and an accompanying burden of villainy thrust upon him. Much of America came to know him as an eyeblack-dripping, kiss-blowing monument to arrogance and self-entitlement, even though his teammates and people close to him insisted he was hardworking, shortcut-averse, respectful of his elders and everything you might hope for in a young prospect on the rise.

Since his arrival from Triple-A Syracuse in late April, Harper has crossed the threshold from untested rookie to central figure in the Washington Nationals' pursuit of a championship. He has 22 home runs, an .817 OPS and a higher WAR (5.0) than Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, and his strong September planted him smack in the middle of the National League Rookie of the Year debate.

As simple as he makes it look at times, Harper has had hurdles to surmount and challenges to overcome. Before we move forward to his big October adventure, it's time to reflect on all the snapshots, milestones and stray moments that combine to make a season. Sometimes it's best to step out of the way and let the player and his teammates tell the story. We present Bryce Harper and his fellow Nationals, unplugged.

April 27: Welcome to the big leagues, kid

The Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs were at home against Charlotte when Harper received word that he would be joining the big league club in Los Angeles. Ryan Zimmerman's shoulder was hurting, Washington's left fielders were hitting .097 as a unit and the Nationals were in dire need of an upgrade. It wasn't the "optimal" scenario, as general manager Mike Rizzo conceded. But Syracuse manager Tony Beasley delivered the news, and the following day, Nationals manager Davey Johnson plugged Harper into the lineup in left field in the seventh spot in the batting order.

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Jake Roth/US PresswireLike something straight out of a Hollywood movie, Bryce Harper made his major league debut in Los Angeles on April 28.

"We got snowed out that day," Harper recalls. "Beasley took me out of the lineup and I walked into his office and said, 'What's up? Why am I not playing?' He said, 'Zim might go on the DL, and you might end up in L.A.' I looked at him and sort of went, 'OK.' And then I said, "Well, I guess I'll go back and sit down.'

"I can still remember the 5½-hour flight from Syracuse to L.A., walking off the plane and seeing my family, hugging them and seeing my mom cry. That was the best part, being able to enjoy it with my family and taking it all in. I could have gone 0-5 with five strikeouts and looked up in the stands, and my parents would have been happy as all get-out, and I would have been stoked.

"There was that moment where you realize, 'Wow, I'm going to the big leagues.' It was everything I had ever wanted in my whole life, and it was just the beginning of it. It was a humbling experience going into a clubhouse with all these great major leaguers, playing against the L.A. Dodgers and seeing Don Mattingly in the other clubhouse. You got Vin Scully up in the booth. What a great place to open. We were only 4½ to 5 hours from Vegas, and all my friends and family were there.

"I just remember walking into Davey's office and him greeting me and saying, 'Keep doing the things you've been doing. Keep playing the game you've been playing your whole life and don't change.' That was all I really needed to hear to get going."

April 28: The debut

Harper went 1-for-3 in a 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Dodgers, with a double off Chad Billingsley and a sacrifice fly off reliever Scott Elbert. But his first hit was a mere footnote to his most enduring memory from the game.

"I got on second base and I felt like, 'I have to put this behind me, because I'm probably going to have another at-bat that's going to mean something,'"Harper says. "What really sticks out to me, though, is when Matt Kemp hit a walk-off [homer] to right center and he's going into home plate with that little jigsaw thing, or whatever he does. Crazy moment. Crazy atmosphere. Those fans love that team and it was a cool moment to see that and say, 'This is major league baseball. You're here. Hopefully you stay here and keep playing.' We lost the game, and that sucks. But seeing that happen was kind of cool."

May 6: The Hamels affair

In the eyes of many observers, Harper passed a major test of comportment in a 9-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. In the first inning, Cole Hamels drilled him in the back with a fastball, and Harper advanced to third on a Jayson Werth single before stealing home. After the game, Hamels sparked a firestorm when he confirmed that he had hit Harper intentionally as a welcome-to-the-big-leagues message. Hamels' declaration prompted a stinging rebuke from Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who called Hamels "gutless" and "fake tough." But to this day, Harper chooses to stay above the fray.

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Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesYoung Bryce Harper taught the Phillies a lesson on May 6, stealing home after getting intentionally plunked by Cole Hamels.

"Cole Hamels is a [World Series] MVP," Harper says. "He's a Cy Young kind of guy who's pitched in big-time games. He's a guy I would want out there on the mound in Game 7, so I had the utmost respect for him. What happened that night was totally fine for me. I was waiting for something to happen, one time at least. It happened that night, and I think I got the better of it by stealing home."

In mid-July, Harper got into a mini-spat with Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, who accused him of using too much pine tar on his bat. But any tension and hard feelings quickly dissipated. Harper had already set the tone with the Hamels incident, winning credibility in the clubhouse and around the game by taking the old-school approach to defuse a potentially combustible situation.

"He did a great job of neutralizing it right from jump street," says Nationals teammate Mark DeRosa. "He could have been a typical 19-year-old. Probably a lot of us would have wanted to say some things in that situation, but he didn't. He handled it like a pro, and it went away."

Says first baseman Adam LaRoche: "I think we expected that out of him. The things he said were refreshing, but kind of his style. He's changed over the last couple of years. He's not one to show anybody up or run his mouth. He's handled it on the field, and he's learned to handle it the right way. He's put up with some bad calls at the plate. He's definitely had his share of balls called strikes. But for the most part, he's done well at biting his tongue and taking his lumps. That's going to pay off for him."

May 11: Keep the Band-Aids handy

Harper made headlines in Cincinnati when he smashed a bat and opened a massive cut on the side of his face. The incident was a source of entertainment to his teammates, who regard him as a precocious younger brother even while expressing a sense of wonder over his preternaturally advanced skills.

"I was sitting home and watching on TV and I was hysterically laughing," says Jayson Werth, who was on the disabled list at the time. "I've been there. You don't want to make outs. You don't want to be in a slump. You snap and throw stuff and fire helmets and break your bats. You do all those things. That was just a normal thing, no big deal. But because it's him and you know what kind of kid he is and who he wants to be, you can't do anything but laugh. It's comedy. He's entertaining, on and off the field.

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John McDonnell/The Washington PostBryce Harper learned in May that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Smashing a bat against a wall is not a good idea.

"Just watching him being him, it's funny. I'm 33 years old with almost 10 years in the big leagues, and here's this kid going through it for the first time. He's 19, he's extremely talented, and he's just as messed up as anybody. He's just a normal guy. We know him as Bryce. He plays center. He's just another guy on our team. You forget sometimes that he's this 19-year-old phenom."

Harper's teammates occasionally have to tap him on the shoulder and remind him not to get too revved up while playing in the moment. DeRosa recalls a game at San Francisco in August when Harper took a called third strike in the sixth inning of a game the Nationals went on to win 14-2.

"The zone is going to get a little wider toward the end of a game like that," DeRosa says. "He ended up striking out on a borderline pitch and was really upset about it, and made it pretty obvious he was upset about it. I said, 'You have every right about feeling the at-bat has been taken from you. But hide it a little bit more in a 14-2 game -- you know what I'm saying? Your at-bat isn't the be-all and end-all of today.'"

May 14: The inaugural trot

In his 54th big league at-bat, Harper launched a 2-1 slider from San Diego's Tim Stauffer an estimated 429 feet for his first big league homer. The ball doesn't travel well to center field at Nationals Park on cool nights, and Cameron Maybin was in center, so Harper half-expected to see a miraculous leaping catch at the wall.

Regardless of how far Harper hits the ball, he's conditioned to sprint around the bases. According to the Tater Trot Tracker , he has the two fastest home run trots in the majors this season, at 16.2 and 16.35 seconds Conversely, he rarely hits wall-scrapers. ESPN.com's home run tracker gives him seven "no doubter" home runs, tops among the Nationals and tied for seventh in the league.

Harper's natural power is enough to make even his teammates haul out time-tested scouting bromides.

"Obviously he has incredible bat speed and he's a strong kid for 19," Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman says. "He's only going to get stronger as he grows and matures. When some guys hit the ball and take BP, it's just a different sound. He's kind of got that. There are a few guys on each team in the big leagues who hit a different way."

But if you think Harper rushes back to his hotel room to dig himself on the highlight shows, you don't know Bryce.

"I don't like watching my homers," he says. "I never have. I've always said to myself, 'Everybody else can watch them. I don't need to.' I just need to get my butt around those bases and move on to the next one."

May 26: Testing Heyward

Canvass the Washington clubhouse, and Harper's teammates light up the most when discussing his baserunning exploits. He made a lasting impression in an 8-4 loss to Atlanta, when Braves right fielder Jason Heyward made a slight bobble on a single and Harper rounded first and steamed into second base.

His Baseball IQ is something you can't teach.

-- Nationals pitcher Tyler Clippard

"There have been plenty of times when he'll run and I think he's out, but he's way safe," says Nationals closer Drew Storen. "I've heard people say, 'It's like he's in a Little League game,' and that's exactly right. It's incredible that he's able to do that and not completely get thrown out by 30 feet.

"There's no way you could have thought of that as a double off the bat, but he just kept going instead of Cadillac-ing it to first. He had all gears going. He just doesn't ever shut it down at all. He's going to get the most out of a hit, instead of letting the hit determine where he goes."

Harper captured everyone's attention recently when he took a big secondary lead off second base to draw a throw from Milwaukee's young catcher, Martin Maldonado. As the ball sailed toward second, he quickly gunned it to third and made it easily. At first glance, it appeared that Harper had strayed too far from the bag and was fortunate to outrun his mistake. But from their time together in the Arizona Fall League, he knew Maldonado was an aggressive catcher, and he essentially baited him into making the throw. The play embodied what Nationals coach Trent Jewett calls "a neat blend of hunger and recklessness and an instinctual knack" that define Harper as a baserunner.

"His baseball IQ is something you can't teach," says Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard. "He just has that innate sense to know when a guy is getting ready to bobble a ball so he can take third. Or he'll watch a ball at all times in the gap and know how close an outfielder is to it so that he can turn it up a notch and catch the guy off guard and take the extra base. There are guys who've played this game for 25 years who can't pick up on that kind of stuff. He's a sparkplug."

Veteran players around the National League have warmed to Harper's style of play. Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, as competitive as they come, told Werth that he likes the way Harper plays the game. LaRoche hears similar sentiments expressed by opposing players at first base. At this rate, Harper will set a standard for hustle like no one since Pete Rose.

"On ground balls to the pitcher, he's going 110 percent down the line, sprinting through the bag at the end of it," Rizzo says. "It's infectious. Now it's not the exception. It's the rule, and everybody's doing it, from the most veteran veteran to the youngest rookie.

"The energy he leaves on the field has kind of rubbed off on everybody in our clubhouse -- and even the other teams, when they play against us and see guys bust it down the line. At first people thought it was fake. It was almost showboating to hustle like that. But Bryce has shown, because of his consistency in the way he does it, that it's the only way he knows how to play."

Bryce HarperJeff Curry/US PRESSWIREWalk off a hero? Been there, done that. Bryce Harper had his first such moment in the majors in June.

June 13: Pop culture icon

After Harper doubled in a 6-2 win at Toronto, a reporter asked if he planned to mark the occasion with a "celebratory Canadian beer." Harper, who refrains from alcohol in conjunction with his Mormon faith, glared at the reporter and deadpanned, "That's a clown question, bro." Under Armour quickly churned out T-shirts to commemorate the encounter, but Harper seems mystified that a term tossed around so casually by his old buddies at the College of Southern Nevada would become a national catchphrase.

"I was kind of shocked," Harper says. "It just popped out. That's the way me and my buddies talk. That's how baseball players talk. Clown is a huge word in the baseball world. Looking back, I wish I had said, 'Don't be a clown, meat."'

Aug. 15: Bottoming out

Harper went hitless in five at-bats against the Mets on July 19. When he looked up almost a month later, a 15-for-96 slump had dropped his average from .278 all the way to .245. After he went 0-for-7 with five strikeouts against the Yankees' Andy Pettitte in an interleague game in mid-June, teams began feeding him an oppressive diet of breaking balls on the outer half of the plate.

He's not a numbers guy. He's an 'I'm gonna beat you' guy. His first priority is winning a baseball game every single night, and the other stuff takes care of itself.

-- Nats broadcaster F.P. Santangelo

Contrary to the public perception, Harper claims it's not the first time he's gone through a funk offensively.

"I've had games where I went 0-7 with six punchouts at a young age, and I said to myself, 'What the heck am I doing out here? I need to go play football,"' Harper says. "This game is humbling, and you have to learn how to deal with failure at a young age and take the good with the bad.

"My freshman year of high school, I think I was 2-for-24. My first four weeks in college, I was 2-for-60. Going into every single day, you need to have that mentality, 'Hey, I'm getting two hits. I'm getting three hits. I'm getting four hits. I'm trying to win this ballgame for this team. I'm trying to make a diving catch. I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that.' The minute you get comfortable is when you start going downhill."

Struggles, of course, are all relative. Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond hit .247 for the Class A Savannah Sand Gnats at age 19, and left fielder Michael Morse batted .227 for the Bristol White Sox in the Appalachian League. Harper is taking his lumps at a completely different level.

"The funny part about him is when he relates what's going on now to what's happened in the past," Werth says. "I always get on him. I tell him, "I don't want to hear about Little League anymore.' He'll say, 'I always do this,' or, 'I used to do this.' And I'm like, 'Little League is over. You have no big league experience. Just sit back and enjoy the ride."'

Aug. 29: "I passed the Mick tonight"

Harper hit two home runs in an 8-4 win over Miami to give him 14 on the season. That vaulted him past Mickey Mantle, his baseball hero, to fourth place among teenagers behind Tony Conigliaro (24), Mel Ott (18) and Ken Griffey Jr. (16). Harper has since passed Ott and Griffey on his way to 22.

"I sit on the aisle and he sits on the aisle on the plane, so I talk to him all the time," Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo says. "I'm probably as close to him as anybody on the team. The first thing he says on the plane after the game is, 'I passed the Mick tonight.' How often do you hear that? I get goosebumps now just saying it. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life: 'I passed the Mick tonight.' He said it with respect and reverence and maybe a little bit of astonishment, all wrapped up in one."

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Howard Smith/US PresswireWith Bryce Harper (22 homers in 139 games), there's no such thing as a home run trot. He practically sprints around the bases.

Santangelo has spent much of this season filing away Bryce Harper moments for posterity. He played with Barry Bonds in San Francisco and says he sees Harper do things that Bonds never did. In May and June, Santangelo groped to find new superlatives for each highlight film moment. Now he just throws up his hands and laughs.

"One night I said to Bryce, 'Do you realize how lucky you are to be on a team like this with the best record in baseball?"' Santangelo says. "And he looked right at me and said, 'I win wherever I am.' It's like he was thinking, 'I'm not lucky, you dumbass. I win. That's what I do.' He's not a numbers guy. He's an 'I'm gonna beat you' guy. His first priority is winning a baseball game every single night, and the other stuff takes care of itself.

"He's been screamed at by coaches since he was 10. He told me stories about how he was in the batter's box at 10 years old and the adult coach was screaming at him, 'We're going to strike you out.' He's always been the target, whether he was 13 playing with 16-year-olds or 14 playing with 17-year-olds. Now he's 19 playing with 30-year-olds. What's the difference? He's built to handle anything. He's already experienced more than most 19-year-olds will experience in their whole life."

Sept. 21: The arm on display

Harper elicited some gasps from the crowd in his home debut in early May with a 300-foot heave from left field that nearly nailed Arizona's John McDonald. It was the first of many memorable throws.

Two weeks ago, Harper cut down Ryan Braun at the plate with an absolute bolt from center field. He has eight outfield assists this season, but that's largely a reflection of third base coaches exercising caution and runners staying anchored to the bag when he's in the vicinity. Word gets around.

"Rick Ankiel played here, so we've seen good throws in D.C. from center fielders," Santangelo says. "I played with Vladimir Guerrero for all those years in Montreal. To me, the most impressive thing about Bryce is his accuracy. He's throwing it right on the money with a lot of velocity. He doesn't hang a catcher out to dry. He doesn't hang anybody out, ever. It's just right there. Vlady was nowhere near as accurate, and I don't think Rick Ankiel was as accurate, even though he was pretty amazing."

Harper's cannon arm and desire to force the issue can lead to displays of irrational exuberance. But his teammates are trying to break him of that habit.

"He's made some good throws," Werth says. "He's missed his cutoff man a lot, too. That's one thing I have been on him about. He hasn't played the outfield much, so most of my work with him has been basic, fundamental stuff. But he's a really fast learner. If you show him something on video and take the time to prove your point, he fixes the problem right away. He still wants to throw the ball all the way from the fence, but that's just a product of who he is. He plays with his hair on fire. If that's all we have to deal with at the end of the day, that's a victory."

Oct. 7: The next chapter

As Harper continues to navigate opposing scouting reports, clown questions and the occasional Sun Monster (as he calls it) during afternoon games at Nationals Park, the scrutiny will only increase. Like Mike Trout, his West Coast bookend, he will never have the luxury of conquering the learning curve and going about his business in solitude. Baseball's rookie sensations are too big for that now.

"It's roped off at Nationals Park when they take batting practice, and 15- and 16-year-old girls will come up with their parents, and they're literally shaking," Santangelo says. "Some of them are crying, like he's Justin Bieber. I swear to God, it's the most awesome thing. It's the same when they ask him for a picture in the hotel lobby."

He's built to handle anything. He's already experienced more than most 19-year-olds will experience in their whole life.

-- F.P. Santangelo

The dynamic in the clubhouse is constantly evolving. A few months ago, the Washington veterans were telling Harper to ditch his unsightly Mohawk haircut and look professional. Now they pay rapt attention if he spots a flaw in their swings that might be at the root of a slump. He's just Bryce, the center fielder, content to be part of the group on his way to doing some amazing things in his chosen field.

"It's different for him," DeRosa says. "When I got to the big leagues, it was about proving I belonged and sticking around, and kind of finding my niche and grinding it out. For him, he's got Hall of Fame on his mind. I didn't think like that when I came into the league.

"In his mindset, that's his goal. That's what he's gonna try to accomplish. He wants to be one of the best players ever. That's a big burden to carry, but what he's doing at 19 is pretty unbelievable. I look forward to being at home 10 years from now and seeing where he's at. I really do."

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer