LOS ANGELES – Bryce Harper arose early Saturday morning, eager as he was for Saturday evening.
He found stuff to do. He went and bought a suit, which he'd need Sunday night for the Washington Nationals' flight back to D.C. He waited for a Boras Corporation staffer to come around and run him from the hotel down to Dodger Stadium.
What's a young man to do with the final few hours, the hours he believes lead to the rest of his life? When his first big-league hit – a line-drive double scorched to the base of the center-field wall in his third at-bat – awaits?
At 19, they are bulletproof. They'll never grow old. They'll play forever. Life holds only love and blown kisses and wind-aided home runs.
And so Bryce Harper, at 19, reached the major leagues in a blue-purple dusk, palm trees at attention, the San Gabriel Mountains standing guard, the way all debuts – big and small – ought to be celebrated. In the pregame clubhouse, he'd curled the brim of a new cap to a sturdy arc, folded red stirrups to his knees, and rolled his pants above his calves. He'd play left field and bat seventh against the Los Angeles Dodgers, not a year after his high school class had graduated – his high school class, that is, had he hung around for graduation and prom and even class. Had he not instead run off on this baseball odyssey, seeking games and players that would challenge him.
"I'm actually not very nervous right now," he'd say.
Bulletproof, you see.
Ron Harper presumably knows better.
An ironworker for going on three decades, Ron is Bryce's father. He, along with Bryce's mother, Sheri, signed off on baseball, on Bryce's desire, and on Scott Boras' scheme to push Bryce into the system before the system typically would have him.
The parents sat during batting practice Saturday about 15 rows from the Dodgers’ dugout. Along with family friend Steve Garvey and a dozen or so others, they watched Bryce stride from his own dugout, stretch his legs, tap his cleats and immediately bomb three BP fastballs into the right-field bleachers.
What seemed a wild idea a few years ago had put their son in a big-league uniform, No. 34. Gone were the garish eye black, the exaggerated front-leg kick, and a bat-dropping, dirt-rubbing routine upon arriving at home plate that served to announce his presence.
What remained was a kid hoping to get a hit. Yes, still the 2010 first overall draft pick, still the multi-millionaire, still the best prospect many had ever seen and still a player whose presence brought MLB officials to L.A. so they could authenticate the baseballs that marked Harper's arrival. And still a kid in a big, hard world that would absolutely love to send him back bowed.
Ron Harper watched it all.
"Honestly, I'm just so proud of him," he said. "Just proud. All I want him to do is work hard and live with the results."
Just before the anthem, Ron and Sheri moved for a time to a pair of seats in the first row behind home plate. Scott Boras sat to their left.
Boras had first heard the name "Bryce Harper" going on five years ago, when one of his staff – former big-league shortstop Kurt Stillwell – called to tell him about this wonderful talent he'd seen in Las Vegas. The power, Stillwell said. The speed. The arm. The gift.
"Oh, by the way," Boras recalled Stillwell saying, "he's 14."
"I think he was 15," he said.
On draft day in 2010, Boras had brought Harper to Dodger Stadium. And here they were again. Already. This wasn't necessarily the plan. Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals' third baseman, is on the disabled list. The club needed a corner outfielder and a left-handed bat, screw the arbitration clock and screw the notion 19-year-olds belonged on buses somewhere in middle America. When the team arrived at its hotel Thursday night, there was a key for Harper. On Friday, he was called up from Triple-A Syracuse, where the Chiefs' game had been postponed due to snow.
"It was 26 degrees out," Harper said. "Which is a little different than this weather."
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Boras, of course, has represented plenty of phenoms. One – right-hander Stephen Strasburg – was on the mound for the Nationals on Saturday night. He went first overall in the draft before Harper's.
But, this, a high-school kid who wasn't really, a one-and-out junior college kid, this was different.
Boras was asked, amid the celebration and hyperbole and endorsement contracts, what worried him.
"I'm worried about what the game does to players," he said. "I don't think the game particularly likes young players that come up here. But I think Bryce knows that while this may be his first day, it's certainly not the only day."
Harper sat amid dozens of reporters some 2½ hours before the PA man would announce, "Coming to the plate, making his major-league debut …"
The rest was drowned in boos from the largest crowd here since opening day.
"I'm just going to take it one step at a time, one day at a time, one pitch at a time," he'd said.
He'd said he was not overly "amped," that he was really feeling pretty "mellow."
"Just play the same game," he'd said, "I've been playing every day."
In the Nationals' half of the second inning, Harper took the first pitch he saw – against Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley – for a strike. The ball was rolled out of play for someone's keepsake. Harper would ground out to the pitcher.
In the fifth, he flied softly to left field.
Then, in the seventh, still against Billingsley, Harper worked the count full. The next pitch was a fastball, middle-away, maybe a little up, and he lashed it straight over Matt Kemp's head in center field. Harper broke from the box, pushed off his helmet as he rounded first, revealing what could be described as half-pompadour and half-mohawk, and blew into second base.
Still, there was a game to win, and Harper gave that a shot in the ninth. Runners at first and third, one out, in a 1-1 game, and along came the seven hole. Harper rode a fastball into left field for a sacrifice fly and the Nationals' second run in what would become a 3-1 lead that didn't hold up. Matt Kemp's walk-off home run in the 10th inning sent Harper – and the Nationals – away losers, 4-3.
"That sucked," Harper said.
So, on Day 1, a new suit, a hit, an RBI and a loss, along with two fans mooning his first career hit from behind the plate and another who charged from right field and toward Harper in the bottom of the ninth. The man gestured wildly as he neared Harper, then was hauled down and smothered by security personnel.
Whatever happens Sunday, whatever might happen next, his first day was altogether eventful and perfectly routine.
He's still 19, still a long way from what he'll be. And still, you can be sure, feeling bulletproof, the way it ought to be.
Afterward, he sat in the dugout. The stadium was empty. Four hours before, waiting on the game's first pitch, he admitted he'd had one thought: "Wow, I'm in the big leagues."
It hadn't changed with the loss, or the sound of trash being swept from the aisles, or the music dying in the background, and it wouldn't change if he stayed for 10 days or forever.
"Oh man," he said, "this is beautiful."
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