Bryce Harper elicits awe

With one feat afield, the home debut of The Phenom filled the bill for Nats fans

Originally Published: May 2, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- It was just another fly ball hanging in the night, on the first Tuesday in May. But that's not all it was. Not really. For the lucky occupants of Nationals Park, it was more. Much more.

It was, in fact, the first moment, live and in person, when they truly found themselves in awe of the breathtaking talents of Bryce Harper.

We should let you know here that, in the first home game of his Nationals career, The Phenom didn't pound any defenseless baseballs 9,000 feet off the Capitol rotunda. He went hitless, in fact, with a strikeout and two hard ground-ball outs in three trips, in a 5-1 loss to those Arizona Diamondbacks.

But what makes Harper such a magnetic player -- at 19 years old, no less -- is that, even on a night when his box-score line read 3-0-0-0, he could still find a way to make thousands of people turn to their friends and loved ones and say: "Whoa. Did you just see THAT?"

THAT, in this case, was a glimpse of the rocket launcher attached to Harper's right shoulder -- a bionic invention that will make every throw this teenage superhero makes a must-see attraction.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Brad Mills/US PresswireBryce Harper was home, but it wasn't his night at home plate.

So as this aspiring sacrifice fly off the bat of Justin Upton floated toward The Phenom's spot in left field in the seventh inning, the thrill began to take shape before the baseball had even come down in Harper's glove.

It began as a murmur. Then it elevated to a buzz. Then it crescendoed to an official roar as Harper gathered himself underneath this fly ball in deep left field and prepared for liftoff.

"The cool thing was, they knew it," said Harper's teammate, Drew Storen. "It was this 'OOH-OOH,' like you were at a football game, watching a kickoff."

As the sound of that OOH-OOH grew steadily in volume, so did the anticipation that something special was about to take place, in front of all their eyeballs. The runner on third base, John McDonald, positioned himself to tag and attempt to race Harper's throw to home plate. He'd already been told, he would report later, that this guy had the kind of arm every baserunner would have to respect.

"We went over him in the meeting," McDonald said. "We know he's got a 'plus' arm. I can't even say it's a 'plus' arm. It's better than that. It's a very good arm."

Finally, the baseball landed in Harper's glove. McDonald took off for home. People began rising to their feet. It was only an insurance run in a 3-0 game. But it was awesome theater.

We would love to be able to tell you that Harper gunned down McDonald at home plate by 25 feet. But sorry, this is real life. So all we can tell you is what actually happened. Harper unleashed one of those superhuman, beam-of-light throws that carried nearly 300 feet on the fly. His catcher, Wilson Ramos, hauled it in a step in front of the plate, then lurched toward the runner and appeared to tag McDonald on the left leg.

The replay said: "Out." But home-plate ump Jeff Nelson said: "Safe."

So on the stat sheet, this would go down as merely a sacrifice fly and an RBI for Upton. But sometimes in sports, the stat sheet isn't adequate to describe what just happened. This was one of those times. What happened on this play was a moment everyone who witnessed it would walk away from the park talking about -- including the occupants of The Phenom's own clubhouse.

"This guy's just got that excitement factor," Storen would say of Harper afterward. "It's game-changing any time he's involved in something. There are very few guys in the field that, at the end of the night, you come back here and say, 'Man, remember what he did in the field?' There just aren't a lot of guys who can make you say in the dugout, 'Oh, my God.' But Bryce is one of them."

And that, friends, sums up what the never-ending buzz about this young man is all about. Every night, when he pops out of the dugout, he has a chance to give you one of those OMG kind of moments.

He's still 5½months shy of his 20th birthday. He has played only 60 games, and made just 238 trips to home plate, above Class-A ball. And his combined numbers in Double-A and Triple-A are shockingly pedestrian: a .254 batting average, .388 slugging percentage, only four home runs in 201 at-bats (or one every 50.25 ABs).

But there's something about him that seems to say that where he has come from has nothing to do with where he's going. And his manager, Davey Johnson, sees it too. So on Tuesday, the manager compared Harper with another upwardly mobile young player he once managed, a fellow named Darryl Strawberry.

They were both examples, Johnson said, of guys who felt more pressure in the minor leagues, trying to climb the ladder, than they would feel once they reached the big leagues, because once they arrived, they knew they were where they were supposed to be.

"A little difference -- actually, a lot difference -- in personality, in Bryce," the manager said. "I mean, he's not just happy he's here. He's thinking, 'What took so long?'"

And you don't need to be a mind reader to know Johnson is exactly right. So it made perfect sense that Harper described his demeanor in his first two games in the major leagues -- over the weekend, in a packed Dodger Stadium -- as "calm," even though, from the outside, that would seem to be the last word you'd use to characterize him.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesNow that Harper's up, the Nats will decide whether he looks like he belongs.

"When I got to L.A., I got really comfortable," Harper said. "In Triple-A, it was like, 'God, I've got to prove [myself]. I've got to do stuff to get back up to the big leagues.' So once I got up there, it was like a calm came over my body. And now that I'm here, I'm just like, 'Play your game. Play the game you know how to play, that you've always played.'"

So for two electrifying days in Dodger Stadium, that's what he did: Doubled for his first big-league hit. Slammed a ninth-inning sacrifice fly that gave his team the lead in his first game in the major leagues. Made a fabulous, wall-rattling, kamikaze catch in the alley. Unfurled the first Web Gem-ish throw of his career. It was something to see.

All that happened in the first 24 hours of his big league life. And that wasn't all that happened. He was also greeted by a sound that let you know this kid carries as unique a presence as any teenage player who has ever lived. We can sum up that sound in three telling letters: B-O-O.

"I wasn't expecting that," said his general manager, Mike Rizzo. "Not for a minor league guy. I know he's well-known and all that. But to get that kind of thing, to get those villainous boos, like he's a veteran player who's been killing them for years, that surprised me. Those types of boos are usually saved in L.A. for the Giants stars or the Giants stars of the past."

This, however, is a kid who has never been a Giant, never been a Celtic, never been anywhere or done anything that you would think would turn him into an instant villain -- certainly not in Los Angeles, of all places.

But it's a different kind of world now, a complicated world, where reputations spread like tumbleweeds. So clearly, Harper has some work to do if he's going to convince that world he isn't as cocky, isn't as arrogant as he has been made out to be.

There were no boos, no jeers, no heckling to worry about on this night, though. The 22,675 people who showed up in Washington on Tuesday were people who have been waiting for two long, hype-filled years for this night.

"It was nice not to hear boos," Harper laughed afterward. "It was good to go out to left field and hear everyone yelling and screaming."

So now all he has to do, if he wants to stick around for, oh, about the next 20 years, is to keep giving them as much stuff to yell and scream about as humanly possible.

He hasn't been promised he is here to stay. He has been told he wasn't supposed to be here at all -- not yet, anyway -- but a bunch of injuries and this team's .225 team batting average caused a slight change in The Plan.

Now the powers that be will sit back and watch him carefully. Which means it's up to Harper to prove he is exactly where he is supposed to be.

"He just needs to show he belongs here at this time," Rizzo said. "We know he's going to belong here in the very near future. As I've said, we had a distinct developmental plan for him. But … he may throw a wrench into those plans by playing well. And I hope he does. And if he doesn't, then he'll go down and finish off his 300-350 minor league at-bats. And the next time we bring him up here, he'll be here to stay."

But you wonder -- after nights like Tuesday's, after watching the tremors that rippled through their park over the mere sight of this young man throwing a baseball -- whether the men who run this team can resist the urge to just keep running Harper out there and see what happens.

Asked what will determine whether Bryce Harper will be sticking around, Davey Johnson saw no reason to take out his binoculars.

"I don't look that far down the road," the manager said. "He belongs here right now. He fits."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com