Bryce Harper and Mike Trout were teammates once, the future of the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Angels finding kinship and shade in the same dugout for the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League.
They'd talk about the game before them, the pitcher out there, legs that were growing heavy over a long season and how to keep going.
Sometimes, they'd talk about making it to the big leagues. Trout had been there for a short period. Harper had not. That was a year ago.
On Monday evening, they became the youngest pair to be named Rookies of the Year – Harper, 20 last month, in the National League and Trout, 21 in August, in the American League. Trout is the AL's youngest Rookie of the Year, Harper the NL's youngest position player to win the award.
Called to the major leagues on the same day in late April for franchises separated by a continent, they were united in the ferocity with which they attacked the game. One in his teens and the other just out, they bore the bodies and skills of grown men. They did not take on the game as much as the game was forced to take on them, and that was the brilliance of their rookie seasons.
From a sweltering dugout for prospects one fall to unfathomable expectations and big-league pennant races in the next, they'd made the game uncomfortable. For the five months they were granted, Trout and Harper piled speed upon power upon instincts upon grit. Trout led AL rookies in batting, home runs, RBI, stolen bases and runs, and Thursday will learn if he also is the league's Most Valuable Player. He was the Rookie of the Year by unanimous vote. Harper, who'd once given up two years of high school to chase this season, did not have Trout statistics, but beat out several fellow NL rookies in a close vote.
"Mike Trout is unbelievable," Harper said. "He is one of the best players in baseball right now, if not the best."
Of the two, Harper had taken the more public route. In a sport that honors experience and the hard-won daily battles, he'd thrown back his shoulders and forsaken the routine path.
The bleachers were hot, the air thin and the vitriol pervasive at Grand Junction's Suplizio Field three summers ago. Nature provided the first two, Harper the third.
The folks not in College of Southern Nevada colors made what they would of the 17-year-old catcher and outfielder, the big kid with the decorative face paint and showy batter's box routine. He was underrated, overrated, too much, kinda reckless, a little frightening, a lot cocky.
Mostly, he made them uncomfortable.
Up in those bleachers, I wondered how all of that would play in pro ball, in the big leagues. So, from third base in a juco game, he could time up a lefty's move to first base once, maybe twice, then steal home on a lazy pick-off throw. Nobody did that in the big leagues. Nobody tried.
Not two years later, Bryce Harper did.
In his eighth major-league game, five months before he'd turn 20 years old, Harper lined up Cole Hamels, measured his move to first base and stole home. That Hamels had hit Harper in the back for no other reason than being Bryce Harper fueled the moment. Harper's skill and training – speed, instincts, preparation, maybe anger – propelled him those 90 feet.
More, courage did.
What parts of Harper's game wouldn't play? The swing? The swagger? The risks he took?
They all played. Turned out, he was a humble – if somewhat impatient – kid and a good teammate. In Washington, he batted a respectable .248 for four months. For the next five weeks, the last five of the Nationals' season, he batted .341 with 10 homers and 22 RBI.
"From my heart," Harper said Monday, "this game is unbelievable. I'm going to play it with everything I've got and I'm going to play every game like it's my last."
That's what challenges the game, what makes it uncomfortable for its establishment. The season is long and relentless enough to be unbearable. So Bryce Harper takes an extra base, and Mike Trout refuses to allow a casual play go unpunished.
Trout was the 25th pick in his draft, in 2009. Twenty-one teams chose before the Angels, two of them – the Nationals and the Arizona Diamondbacks – twice. The Angels had the 24th pick as well, and took Trout second, in part as a negotiating strategy. At the end of the day, Trout was left to prove he was worthy of better, that a player from a small town in south New Jersey, where early-season practices might start with pushing snow off the base paths, would make it. And make it big.
This was the year. For him and for Harper, it was the start.
"Both of us had the same intentions coming into the league," Trout said. "You know, doing our thing. We play the game the right way. We're always running out balls … we're doing everything we can to help the team win.
"Coming in this year, getting the call-up and playing every day, I knew I had some confidence in myself, what my potential was."
Turned out, it was just what he suspected. What they'd both suspected.
"We'd always talk about our one goal was to get to the league this year," Trout said. "We knew what we could do."
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