“We never really talked about that at all,” Harper said. “It never really came across as, ‘Oh, wow, we’re both number one picks, and now we’re on the same team.’ We just came and played.”
They were teammates for the first time last year. Independently, they both said the same thing about their interaction.
“It’s much like any clubhouse,” Strasburg said. “The pitchers kind of hang out with each other, and the position players hang out with themselves. There’s always going to be little cliques in the clubhouse. I respect him as a player. At the same time, I usually go hang out with all the pitchers.”
The 162-game season presents endless chances for friendly chatter. The two talk about golf, which Strasburg loves and Harper took up this winter. (He will not play during the season for fear of spoiling his baseball swing.) They chide one another about the basketball rivalry between San Diego State and UNLV, Strasburg’s alma mater and Harper’s hometown team.
Off the field, their differences arise more often than their similarities, usually in how their experiences shaped their reaction to fame.
‘Different in how we handle it’
From the time he reached Little League, Harper traveled across the country to play against kids older than him. During one tournament, he walked to the plate to face a kid one year his senior who ranked among the best in the country in his age group. A crowd flocked behind the chain-link backstop. With the game on the line, Harper blasted a homer over the eucalyptus trees beyond the right field fence.
He was 11.
“When he did that, you knew that something just was not normal about Bryce,” said Lorenzana, his coach at the time. “You kind of knew before, but that cemented it.”
Harper’s appearance, at 16, on the cover of Sports Illustrated exploded the attention around him. His decision to skip his junior year of high school to enter the draft a year early placed him under more pressure than he had — and still has — ever felt. By the time the Nationals drafted him, the maelstrom around him seemed normal.
“I didn’t embrace it, but I had to deal because I was at such a young age,” Harper said. “Everybody came and watched my team play, because we were the number one team in the country. I really had to try to impress them at such a young age. It was over and over again, at every single level.”
Strasburg matriculated through the youth baseball ranks under the radar. He attracted local attention, and big-time college programs such as Arizona State and Stanford recruited him. But his fastball sat around 90 mph, no major league teams drafted him and any sign he may have possessed all-time talent remained hidden. “Growing up, everybody thought I wasn’t good enough,” Strasburg said. “That was kind of the thing that kind of fueled the fire.”