SALISBURY, Md. — It isn’t easy to hit a baseball when you’re encased in bubble wrap, and it’s not easy to speak when your mouth is covered in duct tape. But such were the constraints — figuratively speaking, of course — placed upon a certain Washington Nationals phenom Tuesday night. A big-league-size media horde and a packed house of 7,410 at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium turned out to see Bryce Harper in the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, but what they got was Bryce Harper Lite.
A poorly timed thumb injury, and an abundance of caution by the parent club, conspired to rob the evening of its star attraction for all but a short stint in the actual game. Harper, an 18-year-old right fielder for the low-Class A Hagerstown Suns, was scratched from a pregame home run hitting contest, as the Nationals seek to use the all-star break — on the heels of a weekend spent on the bench — to heal his sore left thumb.
Later, starting in right field and batting third for the North team — one spot behind Delmarva Shorebirds shortstop Manny Machado, the Baltimore Orioles’ top prospect and Harper’s former teammate on the 2009 Team USA 18-and-under squad — Harper played four innings, going 0 for 2 with an RBI groundout and a line-out, as the North squad lost to the South, 6-3.
“I went up there and swung hard,” he said afterward. “I felt good up there each time.”
In a brief pregame media session, Harper, engaging and colorful in smaller settings, went into his toned-down, media-coached, robot-clone mode, in which seemingly every answer included some variation of, “I’m trying to go out there and have fun,” and there was no room for introspection or color.
Asked about the persistent speculation that a promotion is imminent, Harper said: “I’ll let the higher powers figure that one out. I’ll do whatever they want me to.”
If the Nationals, who call all the shots regarding Harper’s playing time and media availability, put the wraps on their phenom, the reasons were obvious and understandable. The last thing they wanted to do was to hear him say something unintentionally controversial to the media — which might immediately make its way to ESPN — then watch him go out and worsen the thumb injury by getting jammed on an inside fastball.
While the Nationals feel the recent “Kiss-gate” controversy — in which Harper, two weeks ago, was caught by a television camera blowing a kiss to a rival pitcher he had just taken deep — was blown out of proportion and presented without context (the pitcher had been staring down Suns hitters after strikeouts the entire game), the team also used it as a “teaching moment.”
Numerous Suns and Nationals officials have cautioned Harper to tone down the antics and to always assume his every move is being caught on camera.
“It’s a good learning lesson for Bryce — that he’s always going to be under a microscope, especially when he gets to the big leagues,” said Suns Manager Brian Daubach, who managed the North squad on Tuesday night. “He’s grown up a lot in the three months that he’s been here.”
Asked about the media firestorm that grew out of Kiss-gate — in which more than one pundit questioned his maturity and character — Harper said: “I don’t really care what people say about me. Everyone can write what they want to write and think what they want to think. But my family and friends, and everybody who knows me, knows what type of person I am. People are going to make assumptions. They can do whatever they want. They don’t know me.”
Even Harper’s batting practice session Tuesday was subdued. With a couple thousand fans already inside the stadium at 4:30 p.m. — three hours before game time — Harper, wearing a protective plastic thumb guard on his left hand, rarely turned it loose in the batting cage, motioning to the pitcher that he wanted his pitches outside, then riding the majority of those to the opposite field.
When Harper’s name was announced during pregame introductions, the largely pro-Orioles crowd booed vociferously — hardly the worst abuse Harper has taken in his baseball career.
“I can’t wait to play in Baltimore,” he quipped later.
If these are Harper’s last days in a Suns uniform — the Nationals have been typically mum about their plans for him, and at this point his belongings remain in Hagerstown, where he maintains an apartment — he seems like someone who is at peace with what he has done there.
“I had a great team, a great club,” he said. “Inside the clubhouse, everybody’s awesome. . . . It’s been a lot of fun. I wouldn’t take anything back.”