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 email@example.com