Senior Baseball Columnist

Harper's debut doesn't put him in Cooperstown, but shows he can play


Harper handles his first day in the big leagues with a more humble demeanor. (Getty Images)  
Harper handles his first day in the big leagues with a more humble demeanor. (Getty Images)  

LOS ANGELES -- If these were Bryce Harper's first steps toward Cooperstown, and let's slow that train down at least until his first post-game meal digests, he took them wearing old-school stirrups.

How cool is that?

Maybe you've heard he's precocious. Maybe you've heard he's cocky. Arrogant? Yep, he's been called that, too. Certainly, the sellout crowd of 54,242 in Dodger Stadium watching The Chosen One's debut -- a 4-3 Dodgers victory in 10 splendid innings -- were well-versed in his faults, real or perceived.

They showered him with spirited boos each of the four times he stepped into the box during a 1-for-3 evening, complete with a sacrifice fly and a laser throw from left that should have cut down Jerry Hairston at the plate in the seventh had catcher Wilson Ramos hung onto it. Each time at bat ... boooo!

Time out here.

He is what he is, a seriously talented baseball rat with swagger who has had infield dirt caked underneath his fingernails since he could walk and burning ambition to play in the majors since he could talk. He loves the game, knows its history, reveres those who came before him (thus, the stirrups). Was it too much that Sports Illustrated put him on its hallowed cover when he was 16? I'll admit it: It sure made me dislike him instantly, before I ever met him.

But the future is no longer the future. He's here, he's still only 19, and how about this for a novel idea: What if we all dispense with preconceived notions and actually give the kid a chance?

How about wiping from the hard drives of our mind those dimly lit YouTube minor-league videos, the ones that tell only a smidgen of whatever story there is to tell, and judge him for ourselves beginning on this day forward?

How about we actually let him play a few major-league games before we decide if he's a Hall of Famer or bust? If he's a gift from the baseball gods, or Satan's revenge?

"I had a pretty good pitcher break in in New York at 19 in Doc Gooden," manager Davey Johnson said upon entering the Nationals dugout before Saturday night's game and surveying the scene. "And I don't remember this many cameras."

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Harper has barely had a chance to breathe and yes, much of that is his own making. Do you know anyone else who skipped on out of high school after his sophomore year, earning a GED so he could move on with his baseball career at a community college?

"The kid had to make a lot of sacrifices to get here this early," Scott Boras, his agent, was saying as Harper was preparing for batting practice. "He left high school, had to skip his prom and other things. ..."

Harper learned of his recall Friday from Tony Beasley, manager at Triple-A Syracuse. He was shocked when he got the news. All he knew was that he had not been in that day's lineup, which surprised him, but then the game was snowed out and it was on to the next thing. Which, as things turned out, was a 7½ hour cross country trip from New York to Los Angeles, from 20-something degrees to a game-time temp of 71.

Harper landed at 12:40 a.m. PT Saturday, went to his hotel, was up by 7:15 a.m.

"There are no words for it," said Harper, who added that he was working on "trying to be as mellow as I can."

When the lights turn on and the stands fill with fans, he allowed, that's when the emotions would start churning.

And did they ever, right through Matt Kemp smashing his 11th home run to lead off the 10th against reliever Tom Gorzelanny to ruin the Nationals' night.

"It sucked," Harper said. "Kemp's bomb, that was terrible. He's a great player, a great hitter ... 11 jacks and 25 RBI?"

Actually 24. But close enough. The kid knows his stuff.

The Nationals say this is a short-term audition. They needed a bat because they had to place Gold Glove third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on the disabled list this week. When Zimmerman returns, they say, Harper likely will be returned to Syracuse.

The other end of that, though, is that the Nats have a black hole in left field right now with Michael Morse out. Combined, their left fielders this season are hitting .093 with 0 homers, 9 RBI and rank last in the NL with a .320 OPS.

So don't necessarily take the Nats at their word when they say Harper will be gone in a couple of weeks. The opportunity is there. All he has to do is take it.

For one night, he handled himself just fine.

"He had an outstanding game," Johnson said.

After bouncing to the pitcher in the second and popping softly to left in the fifth, Harper ripped a double over Kemp's head off of the center-field wall in the seventh, but was stranded on second.

Bottom of the seventh, he picked up A.J. Ellis' single and threw a no-hop strike to Ramos with Hairston bearing down on the plate. But as Hairston slid, it sure looked like his hand slapped at the ball, Ramos couldn't keep it in his glove and he was safe.

"I was trying to make a good throw," Harper said. "I knew I had a good opportunity to throw him out. I did the best I could."

Johnson argued, pleading with plate ump Mark Carlson to get help from one of the other umpires who maybe saw Hairston's slap better. But Carlson wouldn't do it. "It's my call," he told Johnson.

Two innings later, Harper lofted a first-pitch fastball deeply enough into left field to score Rick Ankiel from third, snapping a 1-1 tie. For a moment, it looked as if Harper had racked himself up what once was known as a game-winning RBI. Then things changed again in what was an excellent ballgame.

Someone asked him what he thought of major-league pitching, whether he could handle it.

"It's only one game," he said humbly. "I'm not sure yet."

He did not wear the Dragon Slayer eye black smeared all down his cheeks. He did not blow kisses at Chad Billingsley following the double. He said before the game that he's learned to be quieter, not to "yip yap" so much.

This isn't to say he's suddenly become Mr. Vanilla.

"If you mess with our team, I'm planning to come right back at you," he said before the game when someone asked him about his knack for controversy. "That's how I've always been, and I'll leave it at that."

At 19 years, 125 days, Harper is the youngest player in the majors since 2005, when Seattle's Felix Hernandez debuted at 19 years, 118 days old.

Few think he won't succeed -- excel -- eventually. But 19 is still 19.

"I worry about what the game does to players," Boras said. "I don't think the game particularly likes young players coming in. I think it wants to show them there's something going on up here that's a little bit different than anywhere else you've ever played."

It was Boras who met Harper at the Dodger Stadium gates upon his arrival Saturday -- "the pearly gates", Boras joked.

Which, really, was fitting. Because on the day the Nationals made Harper their No. 1 pick on June 7, 2010, he was in Boras' Southern California office when the late-afternoon pick was made. After which. ...

"He wanted to see a game," Boras said. "So we came to Dodger Stadium. It's kind of come full circle.

"He went relatively unnoticed that day."

He sure didn't on Saturday, as if he could have done something at 19 to warrant the venom. This, by the way, in the same city that welcomed Kobe Bryant with open arms when he was a rookie at 18 years, 72 days back in 1996.

"I knew it was going to be a loud stadium tonight," said Nationals starter -- and 2010 phenom -- Stephen Strasburg, who fired seven innings of one-run ball.

It was, and it's on. One large step at a time, stirrups and all.


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