It took all of one inning to realize what a giant mistake I’d made. Here it was, Sunday night, and after I’d spent the last week pimping Bryce Harper to my Twitter followers, telling them to watch him play any chance they got, here Harper was on national TV, and I was nowhere to be found. I was plenty busy doing other stuff, sure. But still, there are no excuses. Shame on me for not heeding my own advice.
As we now know, not tuning in right away turned out to be a big mistake. Within one inning Harper quite literally got the baseball world buzzing when, on a whim, he decided to, umm, steal home. Yes, you read that correctly. In the first inning, of the eighth game of his career, Bryce Harper stole home. It wasn’t pre-planned and no one told him to do it. He did it because he’s Bryce Harper, and when you’re Bryce Harper, you decide to do things like “steal home on a whim.” The play itself was totally awesome, and more importantly, totally out of the ordinary. At the same time, there is nothing ordinary about the way Bryce Harper plays the game of baseball.
Like most of you, I’ve known about Harper since long before his Major League debut two weeks ago. I read the Sports Illustrated profile back on him in 2009, the one that called him the “LeBron James of baseball. I watched as he got his GED, skipped his junior year of high school to play junior college ball, then went on to be the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 2010 draft, at a time he was supposed to be getting ready for his last year of high school ball.Of course as I tracked him on the field, I also tracked him off the field too, through the weird emotional odyssey that he endured, as he became arguably the most watched minor league baseball player ever while still trapped in the body of a teenager. And admittedly, as the reports began to surface about him, I began to worry. Could what everyone was saying be true? Could he be as cocky and entitled as everyone said he was? Could a kid that seemed to have such a good grasp of baseball history in that SI article really play the game in such a “wrong” way? Forget pure baseball talent, did Harper have the mental make-up to handle all the gifts bestowed upon him?
After watching these last few games- and Sunday night in specific- the answer is an unequivocal yes. From a purely statistical standpoint, Harper has proven to fit in just fine in the majors. Through eight games he’s batting .309 in 26 at bats, with a .424 on-base percentage, and five doubles to boot. Just watching him, you can see the talent seeping from his pores like leaky gas from a busted tailpipe.
Sure, socially Harper doesn’t fit the mold of what the traditional baseball establishment wants from its superstars, but then again, does anyone take what the baseball establishment wants seriously anymore? They’re soooo 50 years ago, and Harper is so decidedly new school. Yes he’s a little loopy, and that design on his head that he calls “hair” probably needs to go. Then again, he’s also 19-years-old, and let’s be real here for a second: If the worst thing you did at 19 was walked around with a hideous head of hair, then chances are you’re probably doing pretty well as an adult now. Right?
Regardless, it’s safe to say that after just a few games in the big leagues, my assessment from the last few weeks was correct. In a sport that doesn’t lend itself to individual characteristics like brashness, confidence and flair, Harper has them all. If the Dos Equis guy is “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” I’d already argue that Harper is already possibly “The Most Interesting Man in Baseball.”
Going back to that last point, let’s talk about baseball as a whole for a second, because the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s a sport that actually lends itself to being a bit of a boring dude. Think about it. You play day in and day out for six months straight, ride emotional highs and frustrating lows. Even the best players go through slumps that players from other sports could never imagine. As we all know, the best players fail more than twice as much as they succeed.
Really, that’s what makes baseball different from every other sport. All the overemotional, over exuberant stuff you see in other sports just doesn’t fly in baseball. It can’t. In football, a 240 lb. linebacker can “give it his all on every play.” In basketball, a wing can “relentlessly attack the basket.” In baseball, you simply can’t play with that kind of emotion. If you don’t have a level head, if you can’t keep your emotions in check, if you can’t handle failure, well, you’ll never make it. In a lot of ways, if you’re not boring, the sport of baseball will basically eat you alive.
Only Harper isn’t boring, and if anything plays more like a fierce middle linebacker than plodding left fielder. He doesn’t take innings off, he doesn’t take plays off, heck he doesn’t even take pitches off. Every single play, of every single game, on every single day he steps on the field, Bryce Harper is going 100 mph. Then again, would you expect anything different from a guy who modeled his game after Pete Rose’s?
And never was there a better display of that exact attitude than on Sunday night against the Phillies. On national TV, Bryce Harper let everyone know exactly what he’s all about.
I already mentioned the steal of home earlier, but it’s worth repeating here, if only because… the dude freakin’ stole home!!! The play itself also symbolized a lot about Bryce Harper than just one swiped bag, or one run on the scoreboard.
For those who missed it, it all began in the bottom of the first inning, when Cole Hamels- seemingly tired of the Bryce Harper buzz- decided to show Harper what “being a big league ball player” was all about, and hit him with an inside pitch. In Hamels’ defense, there was nothing malicious about it, and if anything it was more like a “Welcome to the big show” moment for Harper, who quietly took his base. It was intended as an old-school “lesson” for Harper, yet ironically, the whole thing turned into a lesson for Hamels, and baseball fans everywhere.
And after Harper advanced to third on a Jayson Werth single, that’s when “it” happened. A few pitches later- with Harper the last thing on anyone’s mind- Hamels attempted a lazy pick-off throw to first, when—BAM— just like that, Harper took off. Before anyone realized what was going on, Harper was halfway home, and slid in safely ahead of Laynce Nix’s throw. It was the first stolen base of Harper’s career. Just a hunch, but I’m guessing it won’t be his last.
You know what the craziest part of all of it was? For most players, their night would’ve been complete right then and there. Steal home, score a run, make Sportscenter, goodnight. Not for Bryce Harper though.
Nope, instead Harper kept his fingerprints on the game all the way through the ninth, when the game eventually went final. He made a huge catch in the seventh inning to save a run (and in the process keep Washington in the game), and later turned a bloop single into a double by sheer hustle. As soon as the ball landed in left field Harper was around first, and the second he saw Jimmy Rollins loafing after it, he was on his way to second, full-steam ahead. By the time Rollins could pick up the ball fire it in, Harper was diving safely into second base.
And truthfully, it was when Harper turned that single into a double, when it seemed like a lot of fans had their light bulb moment, and realized “Hey, maybe this Bryce Harper kid ain’t so bad after all.”
It was also at that moment that we realized that everything we’d heard about the kid was actually wrong. Seeing Harper chug into second base proved to me that the guy isn’t a showboat; if anything he just plays so hard that it makes everyone else look bad. He doesn’t play the game the “wrong” way, but if anything, plays it the “right” way, almost to a fault. Yes, Bryce Harper has talent, but we’ve seen a million guys with talent who don’t play like he does. What makes Bryce Harper, well, Bryce Harper, is the ability to blend that talent with an almost maniacal work-ethic and a will to simply be better than the guy playing against him. To which I ask, who can’t get behind a player like that?
It was also at that same moment, that I had my own light bulb moment, and wondered, “Wait a second, is Bryce Harper already the most interesting player in baseball? Please note: I’m not saying he’s “the best” player in baseball, just “the most interesting.” And honestly, I think he might be.
I’ve already mentioned the way Harper plays the game and the imprint he leaves every time he steps on the field. How he goes for the extra base when no one expects him to. How he goes balls-to-the-wall on defense. How… he stole home plate night!!! Simply put, when Bryce Harper is on the field, you can’t take your eyes off him. Heck, you can’t even walk to the kitchen to grab a beer, for fear that you’re going to miss something. You don’t know what exactly that “something” might be. But you’re afraid, none the less. It happened to me last night when I turned off the game for 10 minutes and Harper stole home. And it’ll happen to you if you’re not careful. You’ve been warned.
Which brings me to the biggest question on Harper: How many other guys are there in the big leagues right now can you say the same about? How many guys can you genuinely say “I’ve to pay attention to this dude every time he steps on the field or I’m afraid I might miss something.”
Well, for starters there’s Matt Kemp. Then…
Umm, well actually, that’s it.
Sure, there are other great players, but nobody elicits the “he’s capable of anything at any moment” pit in your stomach like those two do. Derek Jeter doesn’t, and neither do Big Papi or A-Rod. Evan Longoria plays as hard as Harper but isn’t as physically gifted, and Ryan Braun might be as talented as anyone, but doesn’t play with the sheer reckless abandon Harper does. As for everyone else, well, Miggy Cabrera is an excellent hitter, and a guy that I can’t turn away from when he’s at the plate; who also makes me cower under a desk like a dog during a rainstorm every time he takes the field. To a lesser degree, it’s the same with Albert Pujols. Yes, Pujols is an insanely talented hitter and an underrated fielder. He isn’t the kind of guy who can potentially change a game on every single pitch however.
Other than Kemp, Harper is the only guy in baseball who makes you feel that way. He’s the only guy who makes you feel like something great can happen on any given play. He’s the only guy who makes you feel like he might do something you’ve never seen before, every single time he takes the field. And the best part? He’s only 19-years-old.
Just about the only question left on Bryce Harper is how long it will last. The talent is there undoubtedly, and he’s only going to get better. And the will is there right now, but I guess I wonder, will he be able to hold up mentally? Even if he does, will his body handle the uber-intensity he plays with day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out? Tough to say.
But in the meantime, am I enjoying everything right now? The answer is an unequivocal yes.
I hope you are too.
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