For the love of Bryce Harper

Get ready, Washington. You’re about to fall head over heels for the Nationals’ newest star.

The first thing you do is, you go over and grab one of those iron rods — rebar, it’s called — from the pile. It may weigh 50 pounds, maybe 80, maybe more. You throw it over your shoulder and hump it over to your crew. If it’s 115 degrees in Vegas that day, it’s probably 135 in the hole where you’re laboring, clad in heavy work clothes, building the foundation of another casino, feeding the great beast of the desert. You lay the rebar down just so, tie its ends with 16-gauge wire, and now it’s ready to be encased in concrete, one more grain of rice down the beast’s gullet. They say Las Vegas is a town of phoniness and illusion. Fake pyramids. Fake Manhattan skylines. Fake Eiffel towers. But Ron Harper, for 27 years a union card-holder in Reinforcing Ironworkers Local 416 — a “rodbuster,” as they call themselves — can tell you one thing: For every gaudy, phony facade in this Godforsaken town, a couple hundred men, some of them his men, bent their backs to send it up into the sky. Watch him get one of those monthly shots in his neck to ease his pain, and then tell him everything in Vegas is fake.

“A lot of the new guys today are soft. They want a forklift,” says Harper, 45. “They want a crane. Hey, if you can get it — great. But for me, nothing replaces hard work.”

Once, Harper took the youngest of his three kids, Bryce, then a precocious boy of 11, to a job site with him. It was one of those take-your-son-or-daughter-to-work days, and it was summer, so it was almost unbearably hot down in the hole on the famed Vegas Strip. Bryce put on the hard hat, spent a couple of hours learning what a rodbuster does — enough to know it wasn’t going to replace baseball player atop his list of preferred careers — then declared he was ready to go home.

“I’m like, ‘Bryce, we’re out here six more hours,’ ” Ron Harper says. A stern look creeps across his face. “I wanted my kids to appreciate the hard work, the sweat.”

He’s out in his garage now, on a quiet cul-de-sac on the east side of town. It’s full of snowboards, skateboards and bicycles, but mostly baseball equipment bags. A half-dozen of them — stuffed with bats, gloves, catcher’s gear, cleats — rise halfway to the ceiling. A baseball-size hole in the drywall above the door to the house speaks of some long-ago errant throw. A hand-painted sign above the doorway reads, “We Interrupt This Family For Baseball Season.” A tasteful array of Christmas decorations sits outside on the lawn, this being early December.

Ron digs through the equipment bags — the newest-looking of them emblazoned with a gleaming Washington Nationals logo — and through the dozens of bats, coated with the orange dirt of a thousand ballfields, until he finds what he was looking for: an old, stumpy piece of rebar, maybe two feet long, from some long-forgotten job site.

“Bryce used to swing this — still does,” he says as he hands it over. It’s cold and impossibly heavy. It’s difficult to raise it to shoulder level, let alone think about swinging it. Exactly how heavy is this thing?

“It’s about 25 pounds,” Ron says, taking it back and swinging it effortlessly, with textbook baseball form.

And it is at this point, between the sheer weight of the rebar, and the determination in Ron Harper’s face as he talks about his work ethic, and the amassed detritus of a childhood dominated by baseball, that you begin to see how this happened — how Ron and Sheri Harper, former junior high sweethearts now facing empty-nesthood, came to raise a prodigy.

Bryce is now 18 years old and as hard and honest-to-God real as his old man. But Bryce is also blessed with once-in-a-generation talent to hit a baseball to the ends of the earth, and he is hellbent on greatness, and as winter gives way to spring, the Harpers are preparing to unleash him upon Washington, and upon a world less prepared for him than he is for it.

“People say Bryce is an old-school player,” Ron says. “You’re damn right, he is. He’d better be. And so better his brother. And his sister, my daughter, better act like that in whatever she does. Because there’s nothing wrong with a little hard work. Blue-collar attitude. Strap it on, and let’s go. That’s the way I am, and that’s the way I raised my kids to be.”

***

What if you knew in advance that the love of your life was coming your way? What if you knew his or her identity, and the only thing still unknown was when it would happen? It is that way with Washington — or at least the segment of the metropolis that loves its sports teams and the stars who populate them — and Bryce Harper. Trust us. It is going to be silly, giddy, sloppy, head-over-heels love. We tell you this now as a public service, so you can prepare yourself for it. “My prediction,” says Harolyn Cardozo, the Nationals’ assistant to the general manager and a keen observer of the athletic psyche, “is that Washington ties its balloon to his, and they float away together.”

How shall Washington, starved for a baseball champion for 87 years, love Harper? Let us count the ways. Scouts call him the best hitting prospect to come into baseball since (take your pick) Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Darryl Strawberry or Mickey Mantle.Bryce Harper has laid waste to every league he has ever seen, despite almost always being several years younger than his opponents and teammates. Tales of his prowess — 500-foot home runs, the cover of Sports Illustrated (with the headline, “Baseball’s Chosen One”) at age 16 — are legendary. Though he grew up playing catcher, he can handle almost any position on the diamond; the Nationals settled upon making him a right fielder.

He has pursued his dream relentlessly, leaving Las Vegas High School after his sophomore year, taking (and passing) the GED, and enrolling at the College of Southern Nevadato move up his eligibility for the Major League Baseball draft to 2010 — an unprecedented and somewhat controversial move at the time — where his fate intersected with that of the Nationals, whose woeful 59-103 record the year before afforded them the privilege of drafting him with the first overall pick.

At CSN, which plays in one of the few wood-bat conferences in the country, he hit 31 homers in 2010 — crushing the previous school record of 12. And he was at least two years younger than every other player on his team.

Off the field, he is polite, charming and self-assured. When he showed up for his introductory news conference at Nationals Park last August, after signing a $9.9 million contract, he was sporting a half-grown-in mohawk. He explained that his sister, Brittany, is a beautician and likes experimenting on him — and anyway, he added with a rakish grin, “The ladies like it.”

“The best way I can put it,” Cardozo says, “is that he has stage presence.”

This love, for now, is mostly a one-way street. Harper simply doesn’t have enough experience with Washington to love it back. He is dutifully loyal to the Nationals but admits to a lifelong devotion to the Yankees. And, anyway, his love is bigger than any one team — and he speaks about it as only a moonstruck teenager can.

“I love the game of baseball,” he says in the living room of the Harper house. “I’m getting chills right now about it. I absolutely love the game of baseball. If you took it away from me, I’d die tomorrow. Seriously. I’d want to kill myself. I absolutely love the game of baseball.”

He is ruggedly handsome (he stands 6-foot-3, 220 pounds), clean-cut (a devout Mormon, he says he has never had a drink or a cigarette, and never gambles despite having spent his entire life in Sin City) and is comfortable with the notion of fame without being consumed by it. He is also cognizant of the scrutiny he will be under as baseball’s latest bonus-baby prodigy.

When he left for Viera, Fla., to join his Nationals teammates for spring training, he did not bring his brand-new Mercedes, the one indulgence he allowed himself after signing his Nationals contract, but the black Toyota truck with 130,000 miles on it.

“That’s my work truck,” Harper says. “I want everyone to know I’m there for work.”

He deftly straddles the line between childhood and adulthood, just as an 18-year-old should.

He loves his dog and his mama, and says his dad is his best friend. He sleeps with his bats. He has a thing for female soccer players. At home, he’s prone to invading the kitchen at 1 a.m. and helping himself to a bowl of Fruity Pebbles — the empty bowls frequently found in his bedroom days later. A month before he was to report to his first professional spring training, he attended a high school Sadie Hawkins dance with his girlfriend — a soccer player, of course.

This winter, three times a week, he rose at 4 a.m., drove half an hour across town and reported to a 5:15 a.m. workout with San Francisco Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand, a 33-year-old former all-star. After a late-morning nap, Harper often dropped by his old high school team’s practice, hoping to get in a few cuts in the batting cage. Though he looks like a man among boys in that venue, he is with his peer group: He would be a high school senior right now had he not left early.

He has a worldliness that comes from extensive traveling — frequently without his parents and occasionally overseas — for youth baseball tournaments, but a groundedness that can come only from strong parenting.

He somehow manages to pull off possessing an everyman sensibility while acknowledging his supreme gifts and sharing, with matter-of-fact bluntness, his outrageously lofty goals. This explains how his best friend and former Las Vegas High School teammate Tanner Chauncey can say, “He’s real humble — a lot of people don’t get that about him,” then moments later reveal that Harper has often told him, “I want to be the best player ever to play the game.”

“I want to be the best,” Harper says with a shrug. “I want to be perfect in every aspect of the game.”

Even Harper’s most blatant imperfection — a competitive arrogance that borders on a mean streak — is likely to endear him to Nationals fans. Former teammates and Harper loyalists universally adore him; it’s opponents who can’t stand him. Why would they? And why would he want them to? He was prone to smearing copious amounts of “eye black” — ostensibly used to reduce the sun’s glare — across his face, with the effect of war paint. He runs hard, slides into bases harder and barrels into obstructing opponents harder still.

“I’m a real mean person on the field,” Harper concedes. “I play the game hard, real hard. I respect everyone on the field. But if you’re on the other team, even if we’re buddies, I hate you. I’m trying to beat you. I’m going to knock your teeth out. I’m trying to win.”

He counts as his primary baseball heroes Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle — and it is perhaps best to forget for the moment that this hard-nosed triumvirate is also, respectively, a convicted tax-evader and gambling addict who remains banned from baseball; a notoriously ornery cuss widely considered to be the dirtiest player in baseball history; and an alcoholic and serial philanderer who died of liver disease at the age of 63.

“Bryce knows one way to play, and that’s, ‘I’m going to go as hard as I can all the time,’ ” says Sam Thomas, Harper’s coach at Las Vegas High. “If someone says he’s a dirty player, I say, ‘No, he plays the game hard.’ He’s an old-school kind of guy. If his goal is second base, and you’re in the way, you’re gonna want to move. Trust me.”

It was Thomas who, along with a couple of assistants, took a tape measure to one of Harper’s gargantuan home run blasts during the latter’s sophomore year in high school. By the time they traversed the outfield fence, a pair of trees, another outer boundary fence, the five lanes of traffic on South Hollywood Boulevard and a sidewalk on the other side, the tape measure said 570 feet. Though Harper used an aluminum bat to hit it, for comparison’s sake the longest home run in the majors in 2010 came in at 485 feet.

For most of his baseball-playing life, he has been the best player on the field, and his body language has sometimes suggested he thought the umpires are beneath him, as well. And sometimes this has ugly consequences. Last June, in the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., five days before the Nationals would draft him, he protested a called third strike by drawing a line in the dirt with the end of his bat, to demonstrate how far outside he thought that particular pitch was. The umpire ejected him, and because it was Harper’s second ejection of the year — the earlier one was for taunting opponents — it came with a two-game suspension.

And so it was that Harper marked the end of his amateur career alone in a hotel room while his CSN teammates lost an elimination game without him. Unable to sleep, he text-messaged his coach after midnight, saying, “I love you coach! I’m sorry!”

When stories began appearing before the draft quoting unnamed scouts as saying Harper was a “bad, bad guy” and possessing a “disturbingly large sense of entitlement,” the Nationals reacted with a mixture of amusement and indignation — suggesting privately that the unnamed scouts were from the teams that would pick directly after the Nationals and hoped Washington would pass on him.

“I like the edge he has about him,” says Kris Kline, the Nationals’ scouting director. “He’s wired right. He’s ultra-confident in himself, and he’s super-aggressive.”

The baseball clubhouse is a self-policed arena, with veteran players making sure rookies conform to the code. Over time, Harper’s rough edges will almost certainly be smoothed — but not so much as to make him indistinguishable from the others. For this to be a singular love, Harper must remain a singular figure.

Of course, in baseball, as in all professional team sports (and, well, for that matter, life itself), you fall in love at your own risk. There is a defined window for Harper’s time in Washington, running roughly from the summer of 2012 — the best guess as to when he could arrive following his minor-league apprenticeship— to the end of the 2018 season, when he would reach free agency.

After that, of course, love is conditional.

The question was about LeBron James, the basketball star, and it would have been understandable had Harper chosen not to answer it. The question was: How do you avoid what has happened to James — who in the span of about seven years has gone from the most heralded teenager ever to enter the NBA, to the poster-child for the spoiled, detached-from-reality modern megastar?

The links between James and Harper are obvious and well chronicled. Like Harper, James appeared on the cover of SI as a high schooler — with the headline “The Chosen One.” (Inside the magazine, the Harper piece had another headline: “Baseball’s LeBron.”) James turned pro at 18 and made his NBA debut two months shy of his 19th birthday.

Though few would argue that James, now 26 , has been a bust, he failed to lead his Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title in his first seven years in the league, and this past off-season, he jilted the Cavaliers in favor of the Miami Heat — announcing his move in an ill-conceived, embarrassingly self-indulgent made-for-TV extravaganza called “The Decision.”

Upon hearing the above question, essentially about how to remain grounded amid the trappings of fame, Harper launched into a defense of James — both the decision (to leave Cleveland for Miami) and “The Decision.”

“Maybe he should have done it in a different fashion,” Harper said. “But I don’t think people know he donated all the [proceeds] from ‘The Decision’ to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. That’s primarily why he did it. Well — and also, he just wanted to go to the Heat. Who wouldn’t? It’s South Beach! Let’s see — South Beach [or] Cleveland? Hmmm. I mean, he just did it to better his career.”

The next day, when I spoke at length with Ron Harper, Bryce’s dad, he brought up my interview with Bryce and, in particular, the question about James.

“Bryce is still learning how to speak to the media. I’m trying to teach him to be upfront and say what’s in his heart,” Ron Harper said. “And I want him to. I asked him how things went with you — I’m not gonna lie to you. I want to know. He’s my son.

“He said you asked about LeBron and stuff. I told Bryce, ‘People can twist things and turn them when they read something, so just be careful with your words and make sure you’re being respectful. If you say, hey, you think LeBron did the right thing, say he did the right thing for LeBron.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s what I meant.’ And I said, ‘But did you say it?’

“Bryce has already been compared to LeBron. So [fans] probably figure as soon as he gets done [with his contractual commitment to Washington], he’s going to bolt. That’s not Bryce. That’s not me. That’s not us. I want him to be a National for the rest of his life. I would love that for my son.”

Forget for a moment the opinions of a sports-crazed 18-year-old in regard to James, and go back to the original question. In this day and age, can a prodigy such as Harper achieve epic greatness and mega-fame without losing himself in the process?

Fact is, the recent history of athletic prodigies — those preternaturally talented teenagers who appear on the sports scene periodically, seemingly fated to rewrite the record books in their respective sports — is not all that great, at least in terms of image, off-the-field fulfillment and personal journey. They may fulfill their athletic destinies, but they rarely survive with their images — if not their souls — intact.

There’s James. Who else? Well, there’s Tiger Woods. There’s Jennifer Capriati, a former tennis prodigy who made her pro debut at 13 and won three major titles but struggled throughout her career with injuries, drugs and other off-the-court issues.

In baseball, scouts once spoke of Josh Hamilton the same way they do of Harper. Twelve years ago, Hamilton was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft at the age of 18. He is now one of the best players in baseball. But in between, he battled an addiction to drugs that had him banned from the game for the better part of three years.

“To predict what a kid’s going to do [when he leaves home]? You just don’t know,” concedes Thomas, the high school coach. “There are a hundred things that could wrong.”

It isn’t easy to ask a man, particularly a man such as Ron Harper, why he thinks his son won’t go the Josh Hamilton route when he leaves home. But Harper isn’t insulted by the question. In fact, he has thought long and hard about this issue.

“I think he’ll be fine,” he says. “I really do. I trust him. If he was going to do something bad, or do something against us, he would’ve done it by now.”

Sheri Harper, who works as a paralegal and has learned over the years there is no denying the Harper men their baseball fix, has thought about this, too. She’s about to turn her baby loose into a mean, hard world, but other than some standard maternal angst — “I’m going to miss him like heck,” she says — she has no trepidation about it.

“It starts with love in the home,” she says. Give them that, “and they will respect you and be honorable. They will not purposely disgrace the name on their back.”

Indeed, if something is going to save Bryce Harper — if something is going to allow him to be the one to write the blueprint for turning a prodigy’s talent into both a historic athletic career and a successful personal journey through adulthood — it is the same thing that has carried him this far: family. Upbringing. Parenting.

“I think Bryce is used to being part of a larger unit,” says the Nationals’ Cardozo. “That unit has been his family. It hasn’t all been about Bryce. He’s one of three kids, part of the unit. And if indeed that’s what he’s used to, and if he maintains that philosophy throughout his professional career, he’s going to be fine.

“It’s the athletes who come to think of themselves as the unit who get into trouble.”

They were friends first, Ronnie Harper and Sheri Brooks, all the way back in junior high. They were 13 when they started dating and 21 when they got married. Neither came from any money. During high school, Sheri sometimes worked the graveyard shift at a truck stop before going straight to her first-period class. Ronnie passed up athletic scholarships — in addition to excelling at track and football, he says he was a nationally ranked BMX rider — to get his union card and go to work to help his family make ends meet. His mother had raised four kids mostly on her own.

A question about his father is met with a long pause.

“I knew him for 19 years,” he finally says. “I still see him every once in a while. But he has some problems, some inner demons he has to deal with. The stuff I’ve been through, and my sister and my brother and my mom, it’s amazing. It’s amazing we’ve survived some — some stuff.

“But what I took from that was — you can rise from the ashes and say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to be like that, and I’m not going to raise my kids like that.’ ”

There would be three Harper kids, and to their parents all wonderful and beautiful and challenging in their own way, but it was clear early on that Bryce, the baby, was different. At age 3, he was good enough to play on his brother’s 5- and 6-year-old T-ball team. By 9, he was being recruited to play on “travel ball” summer teams, some of them in neighboring states. More than anything else, the kid craved baseball.

Once, when Ron Harper was getting ready to leave for work around 3 a.m. — he usually worked a 4 a.m.-to-noon shift, so he could be home to pick the kids up after school — he heard rustling in Bryce’s bedroom. When he went to investigate, he found Bryce, then about 9, in full uniform — down to the glove and cleats.

“Hi, Dad!” Bryce said cheerily.

“Bryce, what are you doing?” Dad said.

“Just getting ready to play.”

“But Bryce, we don’t play until Friday. It’s Tuesday.”

Ron Harper nurtured both Bryan and Bryce’s love of baseball. For a low-impact batting practice, he’d toss small objects at them — dry red beans, sunflower seeds, bottle caps, anything that didn’t fly straight — to work on their hand-eye coordination. He’d pitch real batting practice to them but write numbers on the baseball beforehand. The boys would have to call out the number as they swung — helping them focus on the ball and read its spin.

Sometimes, he admits, he’d whisper to Bryce at night, “Hey, whaddya got tomorrow? You busy in school? You got all your work done?”

Bryce knew what that meant: “Yeah, Dad! You want to go hit? We can go hit, then get a Slurpee!” The next afternoon, when he got out of work, Ron would make up a doctor’s appointment to get Bryce out of school early. He’d do the same thing occasionally for Bryan — but they always had to hide it from Bryce, or he’d be so mad he wouldn’t talk to them for days.

“School is very important to me — don’t get me wrong,” Ron Harper says after telling that story. “But there’s nothing like your family. You can’t get that time back. I didn’t have that time with my dad. Still don’t. That kind of weighs heavy on your mind sometimes, you know? Maybe I overcompensated at times. I don’t know. I didn’t try to. I just wanted to be a good dad.”

Bryce “played up” — with kids several years older than him — for most of his youth, which is why the family didn’t think it was a big deal when the notion was raised of leaving high school two years early (he had a 3.5 grade-point average), taking the GED and playing a year of junior college ball at CSN, which would make him eligible for the draft a year ahead of his classmates. Even his high school coach embraced it.

“High school baseball wasn’t even worth his time by that point,” Sam Thomas says. “[Leaving] was the best thing he could’ve done. He was like a guy ready for his master’s degree in a fifth-grade classroom.”

Still, the strategy subjected Ron Harper to bruising criticism from some media members and other baseball families, who said he was pushing his son too hard, sacrificing a part of the kid’s childhood for — something. His own dreams, perhaps. Or the big payday.

“I hear that all the time. But I can tell you: I’ve never had to push Bryce,” Ron says. “He’s Bryce. It’s how he is. He used to drive me crazy. We’d go to a tournament, be away for a week or 10 days. We’d get back, and I’d say, ‘Why don’t you take some time off, enjoy the last of the summer.’ The next morning, he wants to go hit. ‘Dad! I need to go hit. I need to work on something. They got me [out] on that curveball. I gotta work on it.’ ”

It is dinnertime at the Harper house, and what’s left of the family unit gathers around the small table off the kitchen, along with a couple of invited guests, for Sheri’s famous tortilla soup. The first thing you do is, you break up some tortilla chips and drop them in, then spoon some shredded cheese over the top. Don’t forget the fresh avocado.

It’s just the three of them — Ron, Sheri and Bryce. Brittany, 24, recently moved out to Wyoming with her fiance; they were married in late January. Bryan, 21, is a pitcher at the University of South Carolina, on a partial scholarship. (Bryce helped pay for Brittany’s wedding and Bryan’s tuition, and has bought both of his parents cars, out of his signing bonus.)

And, soon enough, it will be just Ronnie and Sheri again, as it was 25 years ago.

“I’m getting choked up just thinking about it,” Ron says. “I love my kids more than anything. All three of them worked for everything they’ve got. All I want is, when they lay me down six feet under, I want to know in my heart I taught my kids the right way to live.

“Our whole lives have revolved around the kids. Sometimes, Sheri’ll say, ‘It’s crazy — it’s just me and you.’ I tell her, ‘Well, we’ll become best friends again.’ ”

When the meal is over, Bryce collects the dishes from the table, and for the next 15 minutes stands at the kitchen sink, alongside Sheri, up to his elbows in dish soap.

That’s right: Bryce Harper is doing my dishes. And it is at this point that my mind turns to another Nationals phenom.

It is difficult to consider Harper’s wildly anticipated arrival in Washington without comparing it to another that occurred only eight months ago. Yes, if this talk of prodigies and once-in-a-generation talent sounds familiar, it’s because we just went through this in 2010 with phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg — who debuted for the Nationals on June 8 and held the city, and much of baseball, rapt until blowing out his elbow in August.

But the similarities between Harper and Strasburg end with their historic talent levels, their groundbreaking contracts — Strasburg signed for a record-setting $15.1 million out of San Diego State in 2009 — and the agent they share, Newport Beach, Calif.-based Scott Boras.

“One hundred eighty degrees,” one Nationals official said about the difference in personalities. “Absolute yin and yang,” another said. “They could not be more different,” yet another said.

None of the team officials wanted to speak on the record about that difference, because it would serve only to paint Strasburg in a negative light — even though that wouldn’t be the intention.

Strasburg, 22, is an only child, and a late bloomer who didn’t realize his potential until his sophomore year in college. He’s also a highly private young man whom friends have described as shy. During his rookie season, he mostly sought to avoid interaction with the media and fans — though he could be engaging and witty when he did interact — and he wasn’t interested in doing promotional appearances for the team’s marketing department. He had a standing rule for the media: Do not attempt to call his parents.

Those things aren’t necessarily negatives — he wouldn’t be the first athlete to distrust the media, and he is permitted to establish his own ground rules as he sees fit — and teammates and team officials alike praised his dedication to his craft, his intense “focus” on baseball and the manner in which he acted “the way a rookie should.”

It’s just that Harper possesses all those traits — okay, it remains to be seen if he has it in him to act with a rookie’s humility — and he embraces the public component of stardom.

“I think it’s fun being in the newspaper. I love talking to the media. It’s a blast,” Harper says. “I love people knowing where I came from and what I’m about.”

Here, then, is the difference: Strasburg isn’t interested in stardom, only greatness. Harper is interested in both.

And this: Unlike Strasburg, perhaps, Harper is willing to let you fall in love with him. He wants you to fall in love with him. And as we already told you — you will.

So, what is to become of our prodigy, young Bryce Harper? And what is to become of the love that is as inevitable as the coming of spring? Will he make it? A generation from now, will we gaze upon his bust in the Hall of Fame? Will he realize his galactic potential, or will fate, hubris or health stop him short? Will he fill our hearts with joy, or break them, or both? Or neither? Will we remember his name? Will we grow old together?

It’s impossible to know, of course. And when it comes to young love such as this, so new and blinding and intense, it is perhaps best not to ponder those questions at all.

Dave Sheinin is a sportswriter for The Washington Post. He can be reached at sheinind@washpost.com

 
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