Bryce Harper call-up is leap off the ledge: thrilling and dangerous


Bryce Harper is set to make his major league debut for the Nationals against the Dodgers on Saturday night. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist April 27, 2012

They’re going to make a movie about this someday — maybe a happy one, maybe not. It’ll be incredibly corny, and you’ll love it. Or you’ll cry, maybe, if the happy ending gets screwed up. But you’ll watch because this is absolutely not the modern way.

What we’ve got now is authentic sports theater. Oh, it’s much, much cooler that Bryce Harper is coming to the big leagues Saturday just the way it has been happening in real baseball for 125 years: with everybody scared to death, worried they’re about to mess up big time, but doing it anyway.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

“The Big Club needs you in the Show.”

When, Skip?

“When do you think, kid? Tomorrow, Dodger Stadium, left field. Oh, yeah, Stephen Strasburg’s pitching and Vin Scully’ll be calling the game. Now, get out of my office. You got what it takes.”

Maybe that’s not what Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley actually said Friday when, after a whirlwind of decisions, the Washington Nationals called up Harper. But it was the subtext, for sure.

Everything in big-time sports is packaged now. Even the apologies, the scandals, seem to run on a loop. You don’t hear, “What the hell,” too much any more. But you heard it Friday, when Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo made the Harper decision, knowing his Manager Davey Johnson was cackling with glee, probably pulling a muscle jumping for joy around his office.

Rizzo, Johnson, Roy Clark, Kris Kline, Kasey McKeon (the son of old cigar-chewing Jack McKeon) — the whole Nats front office is pretty much out of central casting: brassy, iconoclastic, maybe been fired somewhere, with distinct tendencies to say, “Go for it.” But they’ve really gone and done it this time. They called up Harper within one day of the deadline that allowed them to bring him to the majors without losing control of him for the 2018 season. Partly, it’s Ryan Zimmerman-injury coincidence.

But you wonder. This is going to cost the Lerners millions of dollars if Harper hits and sticks and never goes back down to Class AAA. By summoning him now, rather than in a couple of months, the Nats may end up making him a Super Two player who is eligible for arbitration (and all the money on earth) a full year sooner.

All the pressure here is on Rizzo, not Harper, who’s hitting .250 with one home run in 20 games at Syracuse. If Harper doesn’t hit or looks raw in left field, then why the devil did Rizzo bring him up? You don’t mess up Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey, Jr., or Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays by calling them up to the majors before they are totally ready.

Except that, if you think they are tough enough and talented enough to take the bumps, sometimes you do bring them up too soon. The Giants called up Mays in 1951 when he was still 19 and he took the collar his first three games, went into Manager Leo Durocher’s office and said he didn’t know if he could handle these big league pitchers. Durocher, completely against type, played the father figure and offered a pep talk, something Mays never forgot. Mays hit a 450-foot homer off Warren Spahn that day. Then he took three more collars until his average was .038 — 1 for 26.

But Mays slowly pulled out of it, hit 20 homers and was in the on-deck circle when Bobby Thompson hit the pennant-winning Shot Heard ’Round the World.

That same year, the Yanks put Mickey Mantle, also 19, in their opening day lineup. By summer, they had to send him down to Joplin. His dad, Mutt Mantle, had some hard truths to tell his son. Mantle hit .361 for six weeks at AAA, the Yanks fetched him back to the Bronx, and at 20 he finished third in the Most Valuable Player voting.

So, as Rizzo knows, all these things don’t have to move in a straight comfortable line. Hard knocks don’t hurt the great ones much, but they can do real damage to the merely good ones. That’s the danger with Harper.

If Rizzo ends up “rushing and ruining” Harper, he’ll never live it down. And Rizzo knows it — but he’s already jumped off that roof.

“This is not optimal,” Rizzo said. “This is not the coming-out party we had planned for Bryce Harper. But this is a team decision to help the major league club. We still have a developmental plan for Bryce . . . Establish yourself at every level . . . A lot of players say it’s easier to hit in the majors [than AAA]. I don’t buy into that . . . I’m a scouting and player development guy at heart. We have a plan. I haven’t abandoned it.”

Cue the laugh track.

Could Harper make you abandon that plan, I asked.

“He certainly could. It’s a distinct possibility. I hope he does,” Rizzo said. “But this may not be his break-out moment.”

So why take the risk? Partly, in three days in Rochester, Rizzo thought he saw Harper getting hot, finding his stroke and looking comfortable in left field. But, mostly, this is about makeup, personality, athletic character.

“He’s a very confident person,” Rizzo said. “He’s not the type to be derailed . . . He’ll handle anything that is thrown at him. We didn’t bring him up to sit on the bench . . . Davey will treat him like any of the other young stars he’s handled.”

Harper says he’s “stunned.” Rizzo says he’ll “monitor” everything and if Harper needs to go back to AAA, no problem, that’ll fit into his mythological “plan.”

Now, Davey Johnson, and millions of baseball fans, have only hours more to wait for a moment they’ve long anticipated: The night the Nats manager writes out his lineup card and, on it, two names appear together for the first time: Strasburg and Harper.

Ready or not, here he comes.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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