Bryce Harper: A 20-year-old for the ages?

Mike Wise
Columnist May 11, 2013

According to video analysis, Bryce Harper has been bestowed the Sultan-of-Swat’s legendary swing. That’s right: Bryce Harper hits like Babe Ruth. This important discovery comes months after it was learned the Nationals’ young slugger has Mickey Mantle’s swagger and Mel Ott’s morning breath. Further, it clearly illustrates the need to stop putting this kid into a box and comparing him to merely otherworldly 20-year-old baseball players, which only serves to reduce expectations.

The Post instead sought out real historians — not just Bill James, Peter Gammons or Terrence Mann from “Field of Dreams” — and found that Harper fared as well or much better than most of the greatest 20-year-olds to, like, ever walk the face of the Earth.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Superimposed over time using sabermetrics and Wikipedia, this is how the matchups went down:

Harper at 20 vs. Edison at 20: Tommy was very talented, but he didn’t even have his first patent (an electric vote recorder) until he was 22 and — get this — Mr. Smarty Pants inventor actually got fired at 20. True story: He worked the Associated Press’s bureau news wire in Louisville in 1867, asking for the night shift so he could read and experiment. One night he was working with a lead-acid battery when he spilled sulfuric acid onto the floor. Of course it ran between the floorboards and dripped onto his boss’s desk below. The next day, human resources pulled the plug.

Yes, Harper is a hothead who once accidentally bounced a bat off his own face and sometimes appears cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. And, okay, he got thrown out by John Hirschbeck for arguing balls and strikes the other day.

But all Harper lost was a day of work. Edison lost his livelihood at 20.

Harper at 20 vs. Einstein at 20: Albert was actually a draft dodger by 17. He renounced his German citizenship in 1896 to avoid military service, acquiring Swiss citizenship five years later. At 20, he was too interested in his future wife, who took a mathematics and physics course with him, to get much of a jump on the theory of relativity. Had he focused exclusively on his work and not Mileva Maric’s tunic, maybe, just maybe, he could have done something a little more impressive than merely be awarded a Zurich Polytechnic teaching diploma at that age. He probably bought that off the Internet.

You don’t have to be Einstein to know Harper has had a much more productive career at 20.

Harper at 20 vs. Gandhi at 20: Okay, the Mahatma was a decent 20-year-old. In 1888, he went to London to study Indian law and jurisprudence and train as a barrister at the Inner Temple. He gets major props with keeping the vow made to his mother upon leaving India: to observe the precepts of abstinence from meat and alcohol as well as of promiscuity. New Delhi strip clubs? That’s a clown question, bro.

That said, he really didn’t have a paying job, either. Harper is making $4 million more per year than Gandhi at 20, not including endorsements and free clubhouse spreads. Gandhi that.

Harper vs. FDR at 20: Bam Bam, by a landslide. Michael Beschloss, the American historian and a specialist in the United States presidency, has yet to submit a proposal for his 10th book on Harper. But reached Friday via e-mail, he sounded as if he were close.

“Bryce certainly beats the 20-year-old Franklin Roosevelt, whose performance was so underwhelming at the time that he was called ‘The Featherduster,’ ” Beschloss said. “FDR didn’t come into his own in the majors until he was 46.”

Harper at 20 vs. Jesus at 20: We’re talking “of Nazareth” here, not “Ivan de.” This was the toughest head-to-head matchup, but Bam-Bam wins again. Although he was purported to do some very good work as the Son of Man after 29, the New Testament has no record of Jesus between 12 and 30, often referred to by biblical scholars as “the silent years.” It’s assumed he was working as a Galilee carpenter for 18 years, but because there is no historical record, we can’t really say either way.

The only thing we do know is he didn’t crush two home runs on his first opening day, did he? One is considered the Messiah by many; the other saved baseball in Washington.

In summary, Ken Griffey Jr., The Mick, Mel, Teddy Ballgame and other phenoms can rest easy knowing that Bryce Harper is not going to break all their records at 20. No, Harper has a much higher purpose than merely showing the Babe the torque needed to crank that baseball over the wall, making a few dollars while playing a child’s game. Who would want that kind of job when he could just as soon save the world from famine, pestilence and stale popcorn along the right field line?

If Edison, Einstein and Gandhi were alive today, it’s pretty clear they would all be wearing rubber bracelets with the same acronym: WWBD.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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