|Nats phenom Bryce Harper seldom speaks with reporters after games. (US Presswire)|
AKRON, Ohio -- There's a video out there of baseball phenom Bryce Harper. It happened only 10 days ago, but you've probably seen it. You know the one -- he gets called out on strikes, angrily bounces his batting helmet off the ground and gets ejected. Ring a bell? Here it is again.
But there's another video out there of Bryce Harper, and I know you haven't seen this one. It happened only nine days ago. It happened, in fact, one day after the ejection. Bright and early the next morning, Harper showed up at a fantasy camp for hearing-impaired kids. He threw them batting practice, talked to them, spent time with them. Here's that video.
There are two Bryce Harpers, you see. There's the one you think you know, and you don't like him. The Bryce Harper you think you know is the arrogant egomaniac drafted No. 1 overall by the Nationals in 2010. He's spoiled, selfish, immature. A punk. That's what everyone says, and everyone couldn't be wrong. Could they?
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But there's the Bryce Harper you don't know. This Bryce Harper isn't all that interesting. He signs autographs. He runs out ground balls. He declines interviews because he doesn't want to give off the vibe that he's better than his teammates, even if it's common knowledge that Bryce Harper is, in fact, better than his teammates.
The Bryce Harper you don't know? I saw glimpses of him over the course of three days this past week in Akron -- and I like that Bryce Harper. I hope it's the Bryce Harper we're going to see when he hits the big leagues and stays there, putting up monster numbers like the ones his Double-A manager gave me in a prediction. Later on in the story, when I tell you how Harrisburg manager Tony Beasley finished the following sentence, you won't believe it.
"One of these days," Beasley said in the visitors' clubhouse in Akron, "it wouldn't surprise me if he ..."
Beasley finishes that quote later in the story. Meantime, there's a video out there of Bryce Harper. It happened more than two months ago, and I know you've seen it. Harper was playing for Class A Hagerstown on June 6, when he hit a home run off Greensboro's Zachary Neal. Harper tracked the ball's flight for a few steps before going into his home-run trot. Between third and home he stared down Neal and blew him a kiss. You saw it, I know you did. See it again.
What you won't see -- what you don't know -- is that something had been brewing all game between Zachary Neal and the Hagerstown Suns. After strikeouts, Neal would stare into the Hagerstown dugout. How it started is unclear, but this thing wasn't Neal vs. Harper. This was Neal vs. Hagerstown, and it escalated for several innings until Harper put an end to it with one swing, one trot, one kiss.
People came down hard on Harper, because you just don't do what he did. You don't "show up" an opposing pitcher, in the baseball vernacular. Beasley wasn't there to see it -- again, that happened at Class A, before Harper was promoted to Harrisburg -- but he talked to people up and down the organization to find out what happened.
Understand -- Beasley is a baseball lifer. He rode the buses for nine years in the minor leagues, hanging around so long that he ended his career as a player-coach in Double-A. He never got to The Show as a player but made it as a third-base coach with the Pirates. He has managed six years in the minor leagues, all in bus leagues. He knows baseball. He knows the vernacular. He knows you don't "show up" an opposing pitcher.
And he says Bryce Harper wasn't the villain on June 6 -- but has been a victim in the aftermath.
"That's the sad part about him," Beasley said. "It's disappointing to me that the media takes bits and pieces of what happens and uses that to make him look bad. He's a good kid -- I mean it, he's a good kid. It's sad to be 18 years old and have to fight those types of demons."
Harper fights them with silence. It's his best weapon, because there's nothing to gain from opening his mouth. He once told Sports Illustrated that he tried to pattern his game after Mickey Mantle -- what was he supposed to say, that he patterned his game after Kurt Bevacqua? -- and for that, he has been roasted. According to an MLB.com reporter who also was in Akron recently to watch Harper, that issue of SI was floating around a major-league clubhouse, where a big leaguer said, "What a ridiculous comment. This guy's going to get eaten alive up here."
Like he's not getting eaten alive down on the farm? Minor leaguers don't get booed on the road, but Harper does. He's famous, for one. Rich, for two. And everyone says he's cocky and arrogant -- did you know he once hit a home run and blew a kiss at the poor pitcher? -- so that's it. Three strikes and you're out, Bryce Harper.
"Boooooo," yelled a guy in Akron, every time Harper came to the plate. It was only one guy, not the whole crowd. Akron is not a mean place, but this was a mean guy. In the third game of that series, when Harper injured his hamstring on the bases Thursday night and was carried off the field -- his first professional season possibly over -- that same guy sneered, "Walk it off, Harper!"
Before the first game of the series, Beasley had told me that would happen.
"I find it disheartening that 50-year-old men show up to boo him," said Beasley, who has a teenage son of his own. "He's 18 years old. Come on."
Notice how I'm quoting Beasley, but not Harper? That's the silence I told you about. That's how he defends himself -- by sitting it out. He didn't talk to the media in three days in Akron, which is fine. Beasley says Harper doesn't want to set himself apart from his teammates, who also are scratching and clawing to get noticed, to get promoted, to get to the big leagues. What kind of message would it send to the rest of the clubhouse if, on a daily basis, the media walked right past Eastern League home-run leader Tyler Moore just to have a few words with Bryce Harper, who's hitting .256?
Harper won't let it happen. He told Harrisburg's media relations folks that he would talk only after games in which he had played a pivotal role. That has happened exactly once since Harper was promoted to Double-A on July 4, and the bar was set high. Harper hit a walk-off home run, a blast estimated at 500 feet, over the 30-foot batter's eye in center field. He spoke to the media that night, but after all others he has politely declined. And I'm supposed to dislike him for that? Hell, I love him for that.
I also love the way he plays, running hard up the line on routine groundouts. Looking for entitlement? You won't find it in his body language. What you will find is ridiculous talent. In the three games I saw, Harper played twice and had the two hardest-hit balls of the series -- laser singles, like he's swinging an aluminum bat -- and added two outfield assists. One was a rising fastball he threw from medium left to the plate, the ball getting there without a bounce, the runner out by three steps. The other was a one-hopper from the corner in left, where Harper tracked down what looked like a routine double, played it off the wall and rifled a throw to second for the out. Both throws had me stifling a scream.
That, too, Beasley had predicted before the series began.
"You're here for all three games? He'll do some things that will make your eyes pop out of your head," Beasley had told me. "It's no secret -- he's physically gifted, and he knows that. If he didn't think he was really good, he wouldn't be here at 18. He'd be in the Gulf Coast League or something. But he's a special talent, and we have to recognize that."
And here is where Beasley is about to finish that quote I teased you with earlier. I asked this baseball lifer if he'd ever seen anyone like Harper, who skipped his final two years of high school to play in a wooden-bat junior college league at age 17 -- and hit 31 home runs with 98 RBI in 66 games. In a postseason game with an aluminum bat, Harper went 6 for 6 with a double, triple and four home runs.
"Seen anyone like Bryce? Not to his degree, his age," Beasley said. "No, I've never seen anyone like him. People always use the phrase, 'The sky's the limit.' But with him, the sky really is the limit."
So I'm looking at Beasley and I ask him, "What does that mean? How good is Harper going to be?"
Beasley looked at me for a second, probably pondering whether he should say what he was thinking. Screw it, he must have thought, I'm going to say it.
"One of these days," Beasley said, "it wouldn't surprise me if he hits 50 home runs and steals 50 bases."
In the big leagues? In the same season?
"Absolutely," Beasley said. "Something like that. It wouldn't surprise me if he gets up there and just puts up gigantic numbers, numbers that make you go, 'Wow, how did he do that?' "
Meantime, there's the other stuff. The attitude, the ego. The kiss to the pitcher. The kid's a jerk -- that's what people say, but in three days that's not what I saw. What I saw was Harper catching a routine fly ball for the final out of an inning, tossing it to a kid in the crowd, then running to the dugout.
The kid dropped the ball, and it rolled back onto the field. Harper was long gone, but somehow he knew what happened. Maybe he heard a few people in the crowd groan, I don't know. But he stopped running, turned, went back to the ball and tossed it again to the kid, who held on this time. Nobody cheered Harper for that -- but he was booed by that one guy in the next half-inning.
After the game, after he gunned down the potential tying run at the plate in the eighth but still hadn't done enough to meet his meet-the-media standard, Harper was eating licorice in huge chunks at his locker. He was packing his stuff into a hot pink backpack, including a small computer of some sort, probably the one he uses to get on Twitter. Harper sent Akron native LeBron James two tweets before the series, got no response, then sent a third one assuring James he loved him anyway.
"Best of all time!" Harper tweeted James. "Always will be on your side no matter what! #muchrespect"
He's such a kid, Bryce Harper. He's 18 going on superstardom, but try to remember something. Superstardom is tomorrow.
Today he's 18.