|VIERA, Fla. – During his first spring with the Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper answered to a different name.|
Harper was 18 years old, owner of a $9.9 million contract and came into camp proclaiming he wanted to make the Nationals without having played a single game in the minor leagues. The placard above his locker that should’ve said HARPER 34 was replaced by a veteran who wanted to ensure the kid recognized who he was and where he stood.
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Though just 19 years old, Bryce Harper is already a larger-than-life figure in the Washington Nationals organization.
This spring, go-around No. 2, the first full-squad workout greeted Harper with a kinder, gentler and still-inaccurate nameplate: NAMATH 12.
Hey, it’s better than Bitch Boy.
“I’m just gonna wear it,” Harper said. “It’s going to go on for awhile. It’s part of the game. It’s your initiation.”
The veterans around the clubhouse feel the responsibility to humble Harper because humility doesn’t exactly come naturally to him – nor, frankly, would it to anybody splashed across the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, setting junior-college records when he should’ve been in high school and getting the endorsement of none other than the Nationals’ manager himself to start the season in Washington.
“I want to make the decision hard for them,” Harper said. “I don’t want to be in the minor leagues. That’s always been me. Everyone knows that. I don’t want to be there. I want to be up in the big leagues, and I want to stay there.”
One thing is almost certain: Whether it’s on April 5 against the Cubs, like manager Davey Johnson hopes, or sometime after June 1, as most of the baseball world expects, Harper is going to arrive in the major leagues as a 19-year-old. And he’ll do so shrouded in hype exceeding that of his soon-to-be teammate, Stephen Strasburg, whose buildup created enough of a frenzy around Washington that locals took to calling days of his starts Strasmas.
Not only is the list of position players to get at-bats in their age-19 season over the last quarter century short, it’s distinguished: From Mike Trout to the Upton brothers, Adrian (Beltre) to Andruw (Jones), a World Series MVP ( Edgar Renteria), a pair of Hall of Fame Rodriguezes (Alex and Ivan), a two-time MVP (Juan Gonzalez) and the most beautiful swings of their generation, Ken Griffey Jr. (lefty) and Gary Sheffield (righty). Gregg Jefferies carved out a nice 14-year career. The only near-busts are Wilson Betemit and Karim Garcia, and even they lasted a decade in the major leagues.
All of which is to say: Harper is going to be a star. A big, mega, thousand-watt, Sirius-bright star. He has the skills. He has the temperament. He has the brand. He has the look – on this day, a Cristiano Ronaldo fauxhawk covered by a trucker hat with skinny jeans and white Chuck Taylors.
A teammate rolls his eyes, cognizant that Harper is only 19 and aware, too, that youthful indiscretion remains no excuse for wearing a trucker hat. Harper’s persona, and his willingness to cultivate it, is why he gets flambéed in the clubhouse. Baseball, a sport that demands uniformity, respect and adherence, spits at individualism, especially if that individual is the one perpetuating his own legend.
Harper’s ascent, remember, was every bit as organic as Jeremy Lin’s or Tim Tebow’s, borne of curiosity – Lin’s as someone who looked different, Tebow’s as someone who played and sounded different, and Harper’s as someone who simply was different. A baby. A child. A teenager. Few things fascinate us like prodigies. They are cherished and treasured, and at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, with a left-handed swing that launches balls 500 feet, Harper is a gold claim that struck.
[ Big League Stew: Bryce Harper pulls plug on controversial Twitter account ]
With Nationals owner Ted Lerner finally spending money commensurate to the team’s market size – among the $126 million investment in Jayson Werth, the $100 million extension for Ryan Zimmerman, the trade-and-sign of Gio Gonzalez and an $11 million outlay for one year of Edwin Jackson – Washington is saying: This is the year. Or at least the first of many.
“We’re really, really good this year,” Harper said. “And next year. And the next, the next, the next. The plan is to win a division.”
It’s not far-fetched. Strasburg looks close enough to his old self after Tommy John surgery for one scout to suggest he’d win the NL Cy Young this year if not for an expected innings cap. The Nationals’ rotation runs deep with Gonzalez, Jackson, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler. And with a strong lineup (Zimmerman, Werth, Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos) and perhaps the best back end of the bullpen in the league ( Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard), the rest of the team complements the starters quite well.
So the insertion of Harper into the lineup a year after he hit .297/.392/.501 between Class A and Double-A could well be that separator between Washington and Atlanta or Miami or even Philadelphia. When presented with the scenario of Werth starting in center field with Harper in right or a mish-mash of Roger Bernadina/ Rick Ankiel in center and Werth in right, one veteran National didn’t hesitate: “The kid.”
Bryce Harper waits his turn during batting practice at Washington Nationals spring training in Melbourne, Fla.
They’ll take the trucker hat, the smirk Harper wears, the likelihood he’ll infuriate someone since everyone in the game is looking for the tiniest reason to beat the kid given – or at least gifted – everything. Harper’s blessing is his curse. Because he can’t help himself, not yet, he’s poised to take the mantel from A-Rod as the ballplayer simultaneously most respected and loathed. It’s a burden for even the most strong-willed.
For now, Harper’s got such nerves. Harper had no problem telling his Twitter followers he was a Dallas Cowboys fan even though Washington considers the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles the real axis of evil. Harper loves the Yankees as well, to which Nationals fans simply had to shake their heads and hope he doesn’t end up in pinstripes after the 2018 season.
When Harper went to Washington’s NatsFest , nobody recognized him. So he walked around the city, taking mental snapshots of where he’d be spending at least the first six years of his career.
“It’s a great town to be in,” Harper said. “You’re around politics, and … “
Hold on now. Bryce Harper angling for guest hits on CNN already?
“Noooooo,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about politics at all. I have no clue.”
[ Hot Stove Daily: A lot must go right for Washington to make playoffs ]
Maybe he is learning. Harper nuked his Twitter account last week. He’s getting nice reviews for his hustle during preseason games. Chances are he’ll end up in Harrisburg or Syracuse or some other outpost before the Nationals come calling for good.
And they will. Soon enough, Bryce Harper will be a major leaguer. And maybe, just maybe, by then they’ll let HARPER 34 hang above his locker.