PHOENIX – Before Bryce Harper(notes) descended into the dugout at Chase Field, a security official tapped him on the shoulder and told him to look up. There stood Judy the Brownie Lady, who fattened up Harper during last year's Arizona Fall League with her delectable foodstuffs. Every game she would arrive with a tin of brownies, and every game she would catch Harper and his teammates stuffing their faces.
She had come to the All-Star Futures game with four batches for Harper, the 18-year-old who is the most touted prospect in the game since Alex Rodriguez(notes), and his Team USA teammates. Harper accepted them with a smile. When Manny Machado, another star in the making, asked what he was carrying, Harper said: "The best brownies I've ever eaten."
Judy lives in Phoenix and used to bake for the police who did DUI patrol. She said, with the horror that would make sense only to a Phoenician, that the poor cops sometimes spent evenings in 32-degree weather, bless their hearts, and to tide them over she'd bring some treats. She loves baseball, too, and wants players out on their own for the first time – even the ones who signed for millions of dollars like Harper and Machado – to taste a piece of home.
"I just do it because they're kids," she said. "You know?"
Technically, Harper still is a kid. He is the youngest player in Double-A after his recent promotion from Class A, where he was among the youngest. Had he not nitro-charged his path, he would've graduated from high school a month ago. And blowing a kiss to a pitcher off whom he homered a month ago didn't exactly reek of maturity, no matter how much it was goaded.
In skill and deed, Harper is very much a grown man. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he pummels home runs and glides about the outfield. While plenty of his Futures game teammates enjoyed the amenities of a major league clubhouse and the attention that accompanies it, Harper sounded every bit at home. He said he planned on being at the All-Star festivities in Kansas City in 2012.
"Maybe," Harper said, "in the big league one."
Expectations differentiate Bryce Harper from the rest of the world. Reasonable people set reasonable goals. Harper wants to be an All-Star at 19. Reasonable people see the world through a reasonable prism. Harper picked up a ball near the left-field fence, turned and threw it on the fly to home plate because, he explained, "I was trying to get on top 10 [plays] today."
Harper turns every dial in his baseball life to 11, and he does it with a refreshing nonchalance. He is cocky, and he backs it up. He is special, and he knows it. He can quote Ted Williams, and he doesn't sound like a punk.
"I can't imagine what it's like for him," said Jurickson Profar, a shortstop in the Rangers' organization who is the youngest player in the league from which Harper just graduated. "I've seen a piece of it, and it's crazy."
Before Profar was a million-dollar bonus baby, he hit a home run to win the Little League World Series. It wasn't the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 or a $9.9 million contract or 500-foot-plus home runs – all Harper specialties – but it gave him enough sense to recognize that Harper's triumphs amid the hoopla he creates for himself take an acre of fortitude.
He was hitting .318 with 14 home runs and a .554 slugging percentage before his promotion to Double-A, where he's batting .357 in his first four games. When he talks about the All-Star game next season, it's not far-fetched. If Harper hits at Double-A this year, it's possible to think he could make the Washington Nationals' roster early next season. And if Jason Heyward(notes) can get elected as a rookie, surely baseball's uberstar can as well.
In the meantime, Harper is learning what he can and can't do, from the way he dresses to how he acts on the field. Something as benign as the kissing incident weaseled its way into the national news, rekindled questions about Harper's attitude and welcomed the dissection-by-kilobyte that replaced lynch mobs of old.
"Everything you do, everything you say, everything comes up," said Brian Harper – "no relation," he notes – the manager for the Chicago Cubs' Double-A affiliate, Tennessee, and himself a fast-tracked prospect who made the major leagues at 19. "It's like Bryce and the home run where he blew the kiss at the pitcher. They didn't show the first 10 seconds, when the pitcher was following him around and cussing at him. The pitcher incited the whole thing."
That's not a tidy part of the Bryce Harper narrative, though, so it doesn't find its way in. Nor does the 0 for 4 Harper took during the Futures game on Sunday, with two strikeouts and no fastball slower than 93 mph crossing the plate against him. He is about bigger things, bigger dreams, bigger moments – expectations unencumbered by traditions and morés and all the other things Harper delights in ignoring.
He didn't exactly ignore everyone in his clubhouse with Judy's magical brownies. Still, Machado, Harper's old roommate on the USA Baseball 18U National Team, didn't partake. Neither did the game's MVP, Oakland shortstop Grant Green(notes), who helped the U.S. to a 6-4 victory. They all realize this is soon to be Harper's game, Harper's world, and these were Harper's damn brownies.
He's still just a kid. You know?
- Arizona Fall League
- Bryce Harper