VIERA, Fla. — With the time on my Florida clock running low, I had an opportunity to make one final stop in the Grapefruit League. And where else could it have been but Washington Nationals camp, nestled away in relative isolation on the state's space coast? There's real optimism surrounding the Nats for the first time since they moved to D.C. in 2005 and all of it has to do with the team's young core. There's the recently locked-up Ryan Zimmerman, there's a trio of pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez) that form the bedrock of a top rotation and there's, of course, 19-year-old Bryce Harper waiting in the wings out there in right field.
For the past three or four years, Harper hasn't been much more than a famous SI cover, a since-deleted Twitter account and cherry-picked clips on YouTube that showcased either his brilliant talent or brazen side. Or at least he wasn't much more than that to people like me, who had never the chance to see his swing, his outfield routes or his everyday demeanor in person. It's one thing to read breathless dispatches from places like Double-A Harrisburg and the Arizona Fall League, it's another to go and see them for yourself. I needed knowledge for all these radio hosts who routinely ask if Harper is ready to start the season with the big league team. (My stock answer to this point has been that he won't, even if he is or isn't.)
Not that I was expecting to form a lasting impression of Harper from one Friday afternoon start against Georgetown in the first game of spring. While a future NBA star can wow us with every AAU start or a star NFL prospect can create headlines at will with a 40-yard dash time, baseball doesn't work that way. The game, not the athlete, dictates the opportunities to shine and true stardom is measured in the ability to take advantage of those opportunities over the long haul.
And so Harper was limited in such a manner on Friday. The super phenom made three plate appearances — a four-pitch walk, an unsuccessful attempt at a leadoff bunt single and a high flyout to right field, for those scoring at home — and made two plays in the outfield before being pulled for a replacement. A Saturday start against major league pitching — the Houston Astros version of it, anyway — awaited in Kissimmee.
Still, with all the hype surrounding Harper, it's hard not to project and believe this was far from my last time playing witness to a Hall of Fame career. Just as it was hard not to draw conclusions after watching Harper meet with the media after the game. With a camouflage Duke cap pulled over his rat-tailed and mohawked head, he looked every bit of 19 years old. As he gave short answers, the tendency was to read into his anywhere-but-here body language and affix him with the primadonna label that everyone's been eager to place on him.
But both his age and the absurdity of the situation — the size of the media crowd suggested he had just hit a walkoff against the Phillies, not gone 0-for-2 against a college team — made me realize that it was a wholly unfair action. As has been said time and again, Harper is still a kid more than a year away from legal drinking age. There may be a time and place for the jerk label, but it should come after the kid has had a bit more life experience. I hate to think what my heady late-teenage self would have done if blessed with similar athletic talents.
Not that everyone will be as patient as myself or others. With A-Rod on the back end of his career, the baseball media will be looking for a replacement as the sport's resident lightning rod and the role is there for Harper's taking if his talent is truly All-Star worthy. But he has to be careful. In today's snap judgment world, the first impression can often be the last. He'll have to take care not to grease the wheels into a public life of being considered the antagonist.
In the end, I'm glad I got to watch Harper for an afternoon, regardless of what his career turns out to be. So much of baseball reveals itself over the course of the marathon, but that race wouldn't possible if it weren't for all the small moments along the way. I was witness to one of those early chapters on Friday and I suppose it'll forever be a notable memory, no matter how Harper's career turns out.
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