So, that’s exactly where Bryce Harper, 19, sat Monday. He actually covered the side of his face with his hand, as if to hide, as the throng, held back by a cordon for 20 minutes, finally made its wildebeest charge. However, the huge “Bryce Harper” sign kind of gave the kid away.
“This is a clown show, man,” the Nats’ Gio Gonzalez said. “They put Bryce right there at the front to clog up the whole entrance.”
For perhaps 15 minutes, Harper answered every question with polite rapid-fire “Bull Durham” baseball cliches, his face calm. But his hands gripped each other so tightly that his knuckles were white.
“When I was called up, I just wanted to keep my mouth shut,” he said. “I didn’t want to change the vibe since we were winning.”
Finally, after an hour of answering questions — and questions about “clown questions” — someone mentioned George Brett, the Royals’ Hall of Famer who once said he always played fiercely because, if he didn’t, his dad would kick his butt.
“That’s absolutely the best thing I’ve heard all year,” Harper said. “What would my mom and dad say if they saw me dogging a play or pimping a home run? My mom doesn’t get mad. She gets sad: ‘He’s not having fun. He’s not running out a fly ball.’
“ESPN Classic was always on when I was growing up — whole games, even back to Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. My dad would say, ‘Here are the guys.’ Cal Ripken, Pete Rose and Brett — I hope I meet him tomorrow night — were the ones I wanted to be like. They gave it everything, made their town and their fans proud. I was more a student [of them] than a fan.”
Led by Harper, the Angels’ Mike Trout, the Red Sox’ Will Middlebrooks and several other rookies, a new baseball generation is arriving in a huge rush with old-school, hard-nosed, aggressive play as a trademark. “To try to be the face of baseball [in the future], if they want [us to be] that, I’m all in,” Harper said.
Watching Harper soak in experience and adapt to it — all in a fraction of one hour — is remarkable. His hands unclenched. He became comfortable.
“There are people who want you to fail. Sometimes it can drag on you,” Harper said.
But the “stress” of playing in the big leagues?
“It’s not stressful,” he said, chuckling. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I love this game like a little kid.”
To the hyperactive Harper, stress would be “sit at a desk and look at a brick wall.”
Anybody who thinks that Harper will regress significantly, or for any length of time, probably isn’t watching closely enough. When it comes to baseball, Harper is the world’s happiest sponge. He sees his future clearly. He’s going to get even bigger, like his older brother, and better, too.