Commentary

Bryce Harper arrives, shines

The future belongs to Harper, but Kemp owned Saturday night

Updated: April 29, 2012, 4:57 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- For the better part of three hours, Saturday night belonged to Bryce Harper. His major league debut, the one that had been promised and preordained since he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old prodigy, had gone incredibly well. He was calm, or so he says. He backed up the hype with a lightning bolt of a double to center field. He contributed to what was shaping up as a Nationals win with a sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Jake Roth/US PresswireBryce Harper steps in for his first big league at-bat.

Afterward, there would be hugs from his family and handshakes from his teammates. He'd proved himself. He'd played hard, as always. He'd risen to the moment, as you'd expect. He'd given long-suffering Nationals fans every reason to believe in the promise and future of both himself and pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

It was just about perfect ... until Matt Kemp stepped to the plate in the bottom half of the 10th and cranked a monstrous walk-off home run to right-center field that gave the Dodgers a 4-3 win.

There was a little more drama before that. Something about Nationals closer Henry Rodriguez giving up two runs in the bottom of the ninth with 104 mph wild pitches in the dirt.

But as Harper walked slowly in from left field, you couldn't help but notice how closely he watched Kemp round the bases and celebrate as 54,242 Dodgers fans screamed "M-V-P" at the top of their lungs.

Harper never walks anywhere on a baseball field. He never even jogs. Hustle is as much a part of who he is as the wild mane of dark hair he conceals under his baseball cap.

But this was something he wanted to see long enough to always remember how it felt. A reminder of where he really wants to go in this game and what kind of player he can be.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Jake Roth/US PresswireAfter he went yard to win the game, it was entirely Matt Kemp's party.

A good major league debut is nice, but he's aiming quite a bit higher. So it was fitting that Kemp -- who also possesses the kind of otherworldly talent Harper is trying to live up to -- delivered the message.

"That sucked," Harper said, still shaking his head about the end of the game 45 minutes later. "Seeing him hit that bomb, that was terrible. But he's a great player, a great hitter, he's hitting like .480 right now. Eleven jacks and 25 RBIs.

"I know if I had a No. 1 pick, he'd be it. He's unbelievable, he knows how to play, he knows how to hit. He's an unbelievable player. I can't say enough about him."

You feel Harper wants to keep talking. To go on and on about Kemp, and how great it is to finally measure himself against competition like this and not the high school players who were so scared to even pitch to him that he had to get his GED early and go straight to junior college. You hear the passion rising in his voice as he talks about how different it is to play in front of a crowd like this on a perfect night in Los Angeles instead of finding a way to get up for a Triple-A game in Syracuse in 25-degree weather against 30-somethings who never stuck in the bigs.

But in his brief time as a professional, Harper already has learned that less is more. Talk gets him nowhere closer to what he wants to be. Only the way he plays the game matters.

So instead he pulls back, and talks about taking this process one game and one at-bat at a time again. It's cliched but also kind of perfect.

"I came in this year trying to make a team, keep my mouth shut and play," he said. "I think you earn a lot of respect from not talking and things like that. I just try to play my game, give 110 percent every day."

This is a strange balancing act Harper is playing. Dreaming big, but thinking small. But it is probably the only way to go about it.

His advisers preach patience and process. His teammates share their experiences and stories. The Nationals push him in one breath and protect him in the next.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Jake Roth/US PresswireFor once, a Stephen Strasburg start wasn't the Nats' center of attention.

"He just got here. Let's just let him play," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said before the game. "Let him express his talent and have fun. We're in the middle of the season. This not about him. This is about the Washington Nationals, and he fits right in."

The thing is, Bryce Harper isn't here to fit in. He's here to contribute while third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is on the disabled list. If he were here just to get his feet wet, the Nats would have stuck with the original plan and let him get another couple months of seasoning in Triple-A before calling him up.

No, this was definitely a gamble. He's got the talent to be here. And he certainly looked ready to be here Saturday night. However, the game is filled with players who had all the tools but never put them together in the right way. Look no further than Kemp's disastrous 2010 season for an example of that. Kemp ended up bouncing back from that, but the tale still gives you pause.

"I worry about what the game does to players," Harper's agent, Scott Boras, said before the game. "I don't think the game particularly likes young players coming in. I think it kind of wants to show them that there's something going on up here that's a little different than any other place you've ever played."

It's why Boras, no matter what you think you know about him and who he is, is always nervous before a game like this. Two seasons ago, when Strasburg made his debut, Boras could barely watch. It wasn't until Nats catcher Ivan Rodriguez looked over at him, held up two fingers and got Strasburg to smile as he shook off the curveball sign, that Boras finally relaxed a little.

"Days like this, they're [a] once-in-a-lifetime event. There's nothing routine about it," Boras said. "You have the hope that a lot of things get out of the way, one being that he gets to feel the success."

Boras has a routine for days like this. The morning before the game, he leaves the player to be with his family at the team hotel. That's important. He'll be waiting for him at the entrance of the clubhouse.

"That's kind of my thing," he said. He's done it for all his biggest clients: Strasburg, Alex Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar. On Saturday, he was there when Bryce Harper arrived at Dodger Stadium.

"We walked in together, and he says to me, 'Well, looks like the grass is still green,'" Boras said with a little smile. "I guess that kind of tells you something."

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Jake Roth/US PresswireBryce Harper's stroke seems sure to deliver more in the years to come.

It tells you even more that Harper spent the first hour of his first day in the big leagues creasing the bills of his new Nationals caps, stretching out his new batting gloves and writing three words on the bill of his hat in silver marker.

"Win."

"Mom."

"Pops."

It's hard to say how far back that routine goes. Harper wasn't about to disclose any of his superstitions before this game. But that part doesn't matter.

Enough people along the way have taught him how important it is to have a routine. To worry about the little things and let the big stuff take care of itself. To dream big but keep his focus small. Harper has listened.

Another of those men was waiting for him behind home plate Saturday. Dodgers great Steve Garvey, who coached Harper and his son Ryan Garvey on a travel team growing up, drove in from his home in Palm Desert for the occasion.

"We've been blessed, those of us who have had a chance to play the game, to share it," Garvey said. "How remiss would we be not to share this knowledge and experience and understanding?"

Every person who watches Harper tends to have an opinion on who he reminds them of and what kind of player he could develop into. Garvey sees him as Josh Hamilton. Boras usually cites Larry Walker. Harper has always idolized Mickey Mantle.

"The great thing about Bryce, the one thing I can actually say about him, is he's a baseball player," Garvey said. "He understands the game, understands how to play it.

"I keep telling him, 'Don't worry about others' expectations. Just worry about yours.' His are so high because he drives himself because he's so into the game that at times he has an edge [that can be mistaken] for being cocky. All great players have that edge, borderline cocky. The best thing you can say about him is he has the potential to be a transcendent player."

On Saturday night, he looked like all of those things. Young, talented, nervous, calm, excited, passionate and poised.

He can be all of the things people think he can be. All of the things he wants to be. But you can't rush greatness. The game decides that timetable.

"I thought he did great," Strasburg said. "You go out there and you kind of back up all the expectations. But then there's another game tomorrow."

There will be. And Harper will be hitting seventh.