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May 10, 2012
On the Beat
Harping on Harper
When Bryce Harper stepped into the batter's box for his first major-league plate appearance April 28 at Dodger Stadium, the usually laid-back LA crowed booed the Nationals rookie outfielder lustily.
Talk about your reputation preceding you.
By now, everyone had heard about Harper's reputation going back to his high school days in Las Vegas. Those were just three years ago. Cocky, self-centered, and egotistical were just some of the adjectives used to describe Harper.
With that in mind, I half expected to be repulsed when I had my first opportunity to be around the most-hyped rookie in baseball history. I thought he might make my blood boil to the point where I'd grab him by the rat tail coming out of the back of his cap.
Here's the funny thing, though: When you talk to Harper, you quickly understand he isn't the monster he was reputed to be, even as recently as last year in his first minor-league season when he blew a kiss at an opposing pitcher while rounding the bases following a home run.
First and foremost, you get the idea he greatly desires to live up to all the hoopla that has surrounded him since he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old and was hailed as baseball's version of LeBron James. Secondly, he gives a strong sense of having a burning desire to help the Nationals continue their early winning ways. Finally, Harper makes it clear that being accepted and respected by his teammates, all of whom are at least four years older, is of utmost importance.
"I try to go out and play this game really hard," Harper said. "I try to respect the game more than anybody. I try to play the game 110 percent and earn the respect of veteran guys in our clubhouse. As long as I have the respect of the guys in this clubhouse, I know that I have something very special. I don't like to put myself in front of baseball or any guy in this clubhouse. Everybody in this clubhouse plays the game hard and tries to do a good job every single day, and that's all I'm trying to do."
As Ben Lindbergh wrote on Monday, Harper showed maturity last Sunday night when he dropped his bat and quietly walked to first base after being drilled in the back with a pitch by Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels. Harper showed even more maturity when asked to react to Hamels admitting to reporters that he hit the kid on purpose as a welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment. If ever there was a moment Harper could show some cockiness in his fledgling major-league career it was then, but he declined.
"Hamels is a great pitcher," Harper said. "He's an All-Star who does things the right way. It's the game of baseball. Sometimes things happen."
Perhaps Harper was coached by the Nationals' media relations staff on how to answer the question. However, it seemed sincere. While it didn't make for very good copy—or content, as we'd call it in the 2010s—it was the smart thing for Harper to do.
Harper's teammates seem to genuinely like him and go out of their way to say nice things without being prompted. Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche is a nine-year veteran, and outfielder Xavier Nady has played in the major leagues for 11 years. Both are well-respected and good judges of character. Both like Harper and believe he has greatly benefitted from injured Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth taking him under his wing and serving as a mentor.
"He's confident, and he has every right to be confident because he has more talent than just about any player you're ever going to find," LaRoche said. "However, he is not cocky. Sometimes confidence bleeds into cockiness, but it hasn't with this kid and I don't think it will because he's smart."
Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez, a fine young talent in his own right, admits it would be hard for someone so young being blessed with so much talent to not be on the arrogant side. However, he says Harper has already endeared himself to the rest of the Nationals.
"With his personality, he's the type of guy you want on your team," Gonzalez said. "When he puts on that uniform and goes out there, it's fun to watch. He's the type of guy who puts you on the edge of your seat because you don't know what's going to happen next with him. He plays the game hard, he plays it the right way, and he hasn't let anybody down despite all the expectations that have been placed on him."
The expectations are enormous because he has been hyped like no other young player since his junior year of high school, and his every move since making his professional debut last year has been chronicled in every possible medium in today's 24-hour news cycle. So far, Harper has delivered; his slash line is now .265/.381/.441 through 42 plate appearances with a .321 True Average. He also pulled off a straight steal of home plate and made a tumbling catch with his bare hand.
"It's been an unbelievable couple of weeks," Harper said. "It's a blessing to be up here with a team that's good right and is going to be good for the next couple years or longer. That's the best thing about it, being on a good team and having a chance to win every day."
Spoken like a young man who has learned to tone down his act.
A few minutes with Indians left fielder Johnny Damon
On what he can bring to the American League Central-leading Indians: “Hopefully I can teach these guys a few things, but this is a pretty good club with or without me. This team is pretty awesome. They have a chance to win now, but they're also developing for the future and not too many teams can say that. That was very enticing to me to join this club, plus the fact they wanted me. Over the last couple years, I've been a mentor to teams, probably teaching them too much if you look at the Tigers and Tampa Bay. But that's what I do. I want everyone to have a fair shake at this game and approach the way I approach it. Hopefully we'll be very good here this year and these young kids will be great for the future."
On playing on a one-year contract for a third straight year: "I have to go out and do certain things. If I play well, I continue to play. If I don't, contracts are getting tougher and tougher to get, so there's pressure on me every year to perform well so I can stay in the game. But people know what I can do to a clubhouse, what I can do with young kids. I think I can still help a team. If I didn't then I wouldn't keep playing. A lot of teams are trying to get younger. Older players are signing in the past month because teams are trying young kids and then realizing they do need some veteran presence to solidifying another at-bat or another spot."
On the importance of trying to reach 3,000 hits: "That's a big reason why I wanted to continue to play, and there's incentive for me to go out there and give it my all and do my best. I'm more here for my bat than my defense. Hopefully my defense can be adequate or more than adequate, but if I don't play well, it could be the end and I'm not quite ready for that. That's why I wanted to join the Indians and see what we can make of this."
On joining a franchise that hasn't won a World Series since 1948: "I know Cleveland needs something to grasp on to right now. I remember coming here from 1995-2000 and how crazy this place was and how the fans rallied behind the team. It was special and we feel this is a team that can do it, too. Hopefully it happens this year but I know in the years to come they think they can help revive the city."
Orioles right-hander Jason Hammel: "He is a prime example why you're constantly scouting players and updating your evaluations of them. When he was with the Rockies, he was basically a No. 5 guy in the rotation. The Orioles picked him before spring training, taught him a cutter, and he's become a much better pitcher. He has another weapon now, and I have him down as a No. 3 starter off what I've seen so far this year."
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp: "He's going to hit 50 home runs this year, I guarantee it. The pitching in the National League isn't very good on the whole, and it's really bad when you get down to the 11th, 12th, 13th guys on a staff. There are a lot of pitchers who can't get a breaking ball over on the first pitch, so they either have to come in with a fastball to start the at-bat or come in with one on the second pitch. Kemp crushes fastballs, and he's going to get a lot of them over the course of the season."
Blue Jays first baseman Adam Lind: "I've never been able to figure out whether to love him or hate him. There are times when you think he's ready to turn into a star, then there are other times when you wonder why he's even in the lineup."
White Sox left-hander Chris Sale: "It's too bad his elbow started barking because I really like him as a starting pitcher. He's learned to add and subtract on his fastball, and his changeup has become a good pitch. He already had a great arm, and now he has enough pitches to be a very good starting pitcher."
Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija: "He's really surprised me. I never thought he had the secondary stuff to be a starting pitcher. He's been bugging them to start for a couple years, and he's definitely holding up his end of the bargain. "
Bobby Bonilla signed his then-landmark contract with the Mets more than 20 years ago, but it is helping to hamstring the cash-strapped franchise today as ESPN The Magazine's Mark Winegardner writes in this week's Must Read.