Anthony Cosenza, from Staten Island, N.Y., takes a selfie with Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper after a spring training baseball workout, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in VIera, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)Anthony Cosenza, from Staten Island, N.Y., takes a selfie with Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper after a spring training baseball workout, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in VIera, Fla
Here is a fact, from a seemingly mythical place where truth supersedes opinion: In baseball history, 11 players have finished their age-20 season with an on-base percentage of .350 or better and a slugging percentage of .475 and up. The first six are in the Hall of Fame. Vada Pinson sustained a long, underrated career. Ken Griffey Jr. is a first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Famer. Alex Rodriguez, for his many warts, remains an all-time brilliant ballplayer. Mike Trout is the best player alive. Bryce Harper is the 11th.
Here is another fact, from a land in which perception takes a backseat to reality: Three players have logged more than 1,000 plate appearances through age 20 and put up that same .350-plus OBP and .475-plus slugging percentage. The first was Mel Ott. The second was Mickey Mantle. The third was Bryce Harper.
A pattern here exists. The chasm between the opinions that attempt to define Harper and the facts that actually do seems to be getting no smaller. This makes sense; villainy is difficult to shake. It's doubly tough when it wasn't deserved in the first place.
Harper is overrated in the minds of some players because they believe they know something about him from snapshots here, anecdotes there, the same sort that informed another ludicrous opinion, from a Complex magazine story listing the most hated athletes in sports. The two worst in baseball were A-Rod and Ryan Braun, both habitual liars and PED users. Next was Harper.
Fact: Harper is a good kid. Almost everyone around him says so, and they have no reason to lie, not when it's obviously so easy to pile on. Polite. Generous. Doesn't drink. Vehemently anti-PED, which means he's either a phenomenal liar or the sort of person for whom the teetotalers can root. Got a longtime girlfriend. Rather religious. Loves his parents and brother. Plays how his father, a man who tied rebar on the Las Vegas strip for years, asked him to play.
"My dad taught me not to take the game for granted," Harper said. "A lot of people are coming to the park for the first time. You've got to show them why they paid good money for their ticket."
They'll come to Nationals Park this season because Washington is the greatest threat to the defending National League champions, St. Louis, and the biggest-money team in the game, Los Angeles. The Nationals are loaded with starting pitching, big bats and bullpen depth. They could very well host the first World Series game in the nation's capital since 1933.
When they're on the road, on the other hand, like the Nationals are today to kick off their season at Citi Field, they will come out for another reason, one that remains as senseless today as it ever was: to hate the guy who gives them every reason to love him.
Let's make a pledge to end it, right here, right now. All of us. Executives, players, fans, writers and bloviators of all manner and variety. Everyone. Pretty please, with sugar on top, let's stop looking at Bryce Harper through this warped lens the modern media machine manufactured and instead view him for what he is now, entering his third season, poised to win over the non-converts.
"If he was a midlevel player who worked his way up, people would love how he plays," said Tim Soder, who trained Harper this offseason near his Las Vegas home. "He's fiery. He doesn't take any crap. He plays his ass off. You want him to dive for every ball. He runs into walls."
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He is – and this is no exaggeration – the embodiment of what every single baseball player adores, a down-to-the-last-detail archetype: the outlandish talent who prides himself on grittiness and other intangibles beloved inside clubhouses. He is a maniac in the gym, a swing-honing fiend, a wunderkind whose ego did not take him to places untoward. Harper isn't humble in the classic, aw-shucks manner; he is acutely aware of his ability and of ability's limitations.
"You can't survive on talent alone," he said.
For some time, Harper did. It thrust him onto Sports Illustrated's cover at 16 and into junior-college record books during a gap year there and up to the big leagues at 19. He arrived with a reputation. The eye-black war paint. The blown kiss to the minor league pitcher off whom he homered. The dog named Swag. When there is a superstar to anoint and a personality to learn, these become … things. Case in point: This very paragraph. We're still talking about them years later.
The intent is illustrative. Harper drew on his face because he was a kid. Harper blew a kiss because he was a kid. Harper gave his puppy a ridiculous name because he was a kid. This does not excuse his choices as much as it does inform them. The paint and Swag are complete non-issues and the kiss one of perhaps a billion stupid decisions by teenagers on that particular day. Harper's, harmless though it was, happened to be captured by video. Everything he does is.
The world is ravenous for people like Harper and for the superlatives they embody. Youngest. Strongest. Best. It is bacteria for the petri dish into which phenoms are placed, and it grows, multiplies, festers and runs the risk of creating a false reality that, through repetition, becomes accepted as the truth. This backward existence plays in direct contrast to the real Harper.
The real Harper runs into walls. Not because he's stupid. Not because he's some meathead. Not because he's careless. It's because he cares, cares too much sometimes, and if that represents a problem, it shouldn't. A collision with the right-field fence at Dodger Stadium last season, after all, sent Harper to the disabled list and curtailed an incredible start. Bursitis in his left knee persisted almost all season, limited Harper and sent him to an operating table this offseason.
In the meantime, his reputation continued to vacillate. Forget the April in which he hit .344/.430/.720 when healthy. Or his 14 walks against just 16 strikeouts that month. He's overrated. Right? Got to be.
Harper knew how it works, how the words act like heat-seeking missiles. He knew one more thing: He would spend all offseason doing something about it.
Back when down time existed, Harper loved nothing more than jumping in a car, hopping on the 15 South, heading from Vegas to Newport Beach, Calif., and taking in wave after wave. He wasn't just some robotic baseball player, programmed to hit like perhaps no prospect ever before him. Harper was a kid, too, and he loved surfing and wakeboarding and all of the things he can't do now because his contract prohibits them.
"Can't surf. Can't snowboard. Nothing," Harper said. "It's part of it. Hopefully I'll be enjoying it in 20 years with the kids."
For now, then, all Harper does is work, and so it went this offseason, when he started the recovery from late-October surgery to repair a bursa sac in his troublesome knee. Every day the alarm sounded at 4:30 a.m., Harper said, and by 5 he was standing at Soder's facility, ready for an intense two-hour workout. For months, Harper focused on his upper body, building himself up to 235 pounds, because he knows he's going to lose about 10 during spring training and bring him to his ideal weight of 225.
The massive look he sported in pictures throughout the spring belied some of the work Harper did. He wasn't all curls and bench presses. He participated in yoga and Pilates classes with other ballplayers training at Soder's. Even at his biggest, Harper still could lean down in a catcher's crouch and practically do the splits, the sort of thing Soder advised against, especially when Harper responded: "It doesn't hurt."
"I always call him an outlier," Soder said. "We'll have top-level guys in there, and they don't have the experiences Bryce does. I always tell people it's hard to get into his mind and do that. Who at his age was on the cover of Sports Illustrated? Who at his age is leaving to do an ESPN commercial and then do one for Gatorade? With all his gifts come all the responsibilities.
"Especially at that age, you want to be bigger, stronger. He sees guys big and strong in the league. He's a competitive kid. He wants to hit the ball harder, throw it harder. It's a difficult balance. At that age, it's tough to think where you're going to be 10 years from now. His goals are to be an All-Star and win a World Series this year."
Soder's job is to think 10 years out. He makes sure Harper isn't 240 or 250 pounds now, knowing it would turn into 260 and 270 – much more than his 6-foot-3 frame could hold comfortably – in another half-decade, when his body fills out. They discuss the future, what Harper wants, how they can achieve it, their sessions sometimes as much about the mental as they are the physical. The two are that intertwined, and Harper's body always has been so special that the mind is forever striving to equal it.
To wait until Jan. 10 to swing the bat, as Harper did because of his knee, took some of that fortitude. He wanted to swing every day, and he couldn't, and it frustrated him, and it's the only thing about the offseason that didn't go right. A swing takes time to refine, like an orchestra that's still a note off here and there after months of practice.
Harper's swing features hips so fast Shakira would be jealous and bat speed capable of generating a thunderclap. Last week, the swing still wasn't where Harper wanted it. Unlike years past, he sought comfort by relaxing the bat on his back shoulder before lifting his hands into the set position. It wasn't anything like classic Harper – or as classic as a 21-year-old can be – with his bat waggling high in the air.
"My swing is going to be there Opening Day," Harper said. "When the lights are on, it's different."
The lights go on Monday at 1:10 p.m. ET, and there will be a few cheers for Harper, and plenty of boos. New York knows who it's supposed to like and dislike. It hears stories. The one about the throw is a great place to start, one that illuminates the Harper dichotomy.
In the eighth inning of an exhibition game against Miami, Harper chased a double off the wall. Standing on the cusp of the warning track, he had a choice: hit the cut-off man, like he's supposed to, or try to throw to the catcher, who is standing more than 300 feet away, to nab the runner coming home.
"I knew I should've thrown it to third base," Harper said. "Before I even threw it, I thought, 'Go three, go three.' "
A mischievous grin spread across his face.
"And then," Harper said, "I was like, 'Ah, I'm just gonna let it go.' "
What came next doesn't defy description as much as it was a see-it-to-believe-it situation. Harper reached back and threw the ball.
"Felt great," he said. "It felt so good."
It wasn't a line drive, not from the warning track, and it wasn't a lollipop, the sort that dies around the shortstop, but a parabola without much arc and with a lot of velocity. And it kept going and going and going.
"It felt great," he reiterated. "I'm gonna tell you, it felt good."
He watched it fly, as did everyone else in the stadium, right into Wilson Ramos' mitt, and no one knew exactly how to react. Did he … did he just do what it looked like he did? That was … how did that happen? He really threw the … noooo. Nobody can do that. Seriously? For real, that's what he did?
"Most guys go, 'Well, there's no chance for me to throw him out at the plate,' " said Matt Williams, the Nationals' new manager. "His brain goes, 'Wow, I have a chance.' That's what young, special talent does."
Thing is, Harper didn't throw him out. Jake Marisnick was safe at home, and Donovan Solano advanced to third on the throw. It was the sort of thing Harper ignored last season, and he vowed improvement this year.
"I wouldn't do that during the season," Haprer said. "I don't want to do that. I did that a lot during the season last year. I gave it up. But this spring I hadn't let a ball go. So …"
So he's still 21, still a kid, still going to push boundaries because one of the hardest things to do is pocket a gift. Harper could make that throw every game because his arm allows it, and it would always be fascinating, seeing a human being so stretch the limits of what his body can produce. The Nationals struggle with this, like they're still breaking the most unruly of colts.
"If you take away his aggressiveness, you take away from his ability as a player," Williams said. "Yeah, we want to keep that guy at second base. But do you understand where he threw that ball to the plate from? It's almost the warning track. So, I go, 'Wow.' …
"Wrong move. It's phenomenal talent. He's well on his way to harnessing that when he needs to and being aggressive when he needs to."
That will come sooner than later, perhaps quickly enough to crown Harper the youngest Most Valuable Player in history. His health is back. His talent is unbeatable in the NL.
Overrated? End it now.
The skepticism comes from an ugly place. Does Harper draw ire because of how he acted as a kid? Because never since he appeared in the big leagues has he once embraced this ideal of embracing the heel character that he so easily could adopt. Does he play a role the modern consumer seeks, a vaguely fratty-looking, easy-to-rip perma-target? It's not like he's Bieber.
It's OK to dislike a player because he's great, and that ought to fuel whatever dislike exists. Harper is not A-Rod and he is not Braun. He is much more like Trout, only instead of a $144.5 million extension, Harper carries around expectations.
Despite what his peers may think, he is meeting them. He hit some bumps, swallowed some hiccups, underwent the usual humbling every athlete, even the best, runs into at some point. This is Bryce Harper, 21, left fielder for the Washington Nationals, primed to unleash his best season yet. And that's a fact.
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