Bryce Harper’s talent, temper battle for upper hand

Thomas Boswell
Columnist August 30, 2012

You’re in first place but you haven’t had a lead for a week, not even for one lousy inning. You’ve lost five in a row and done it ugly. The veteran manager who almost never calls a team meeting suddenly has called one. Bats are being gripped too tight. Veteran hitters chase bad pitches, star pitchers give up runs instantly. What do you need? Whom do you call?

You sometimes need an elite athlete with a hero complex who is so arrogant that he really thinks he’s bigger than the team’s slump, bigger than his own six-week-long slump or any obstacle that might deflate his ego.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

You need somebody who doesn’t care if he’s hitting under .200 since he made the National League all-star team at age 19, who doesn’t care that the manager in the other dugout tried to start a feud to get under his skin, who doesn’t even care that, maybe, he should still be in Class AAA “developing.”

You need Bryce Harper, hitting just .252, making mistakes in the outfield at times, because he’s going to jack a change-up into the bleachers in the fourth inning to get the dugout grinning with a 2-0 lead. You need him because, next time up, he will hit one so far into the upper deck that the fans it awakened probably can’t even hear Ozzie Guillen cursing.

“They threw away the mold,” Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said Thursday as his team returned home relaxed after an 8-4 win over the Marlins, happy for an 11-game homestand because, more than any other player, a teen had come up big when the team needed a jolt.

“Bryce has had that flair for the dramatic from the start,” reliever Craig Stammen said before the start of a four-game series against St. Louis. “All season, it seems like when we’ve needed a spark, he’s been the one to give it to us quite a few times.”

Reliever Drew Storen echoed, “Just watch: Bryce will do something amazing tonight.” Then, catching himself, Storen realized he’d fallen into the same trap as fans — predicting the nearly impossible for Harper — and expanded the time frame. “No, make that ‘He’ll do something special in this series.’ ”

Old managers and young players agree.

“When we were in Houston, a bunch of college guys drove four hours to see Harper play. And they should,” Storen said. “In college I was dying to see Ichiro [Suzuki]. Harper and [Stephen] Strasburg should be talked about. Big-time guys, big-time stars, that’s fair. The rest of us don’t care. We win. That matters.”

That’s why you cut “Bam-Bam” some slack, at least for now, when he cracks himself in the head with his own bat until he bleeds. Or when he smashes bats in half on home plate or over his knee in rage.

Or when he demolishes equipment in the tunnel when he gets double-switched out of a game and doesn’t know enough baseball to realize it was the only smart baseball move and has nothing to do with him. Or when he throws to the wrong base or misses the cutoff man so badly that, twice, the manager has benched him the next day, but called it something else.

Or when, on Wednesday Harper showed Johnson an injury on the top of his head from bouncing around. “I don’t want to know” what happened, Johnson said. “At least I know he’s not tired. He’s running into things.”

And it’s why you shake your head and say, “He’s young, he’ll learn,” when, after those two home runs, Harper makes himself look like a clown, bro, when he’s ejected, as he should be, after spiking his helmet when he hits into an inconsequential double play with his team up 8-4 in the ninth. After all, Harper is younger than many big league batboys. They’re not kids now.

Among all the talent that fights for a place in pro sports, this immature prodigy has an extra extreme element that helps teams over the top: insanity.

Okay, maybe not insanity. But Johnson knows what it is when he sees it. Every great club has several players with an edge that makes them dangerous to opponents, themselves or both. You can’t coach it into existence and you can barely manage it, even though Johnson “had a little chat” with Harper, just to make sure he knew that he was “wrong . . . wrong” every time he threw one of his tantrums and that “he’s just got to stop it.”

Harper knows. He really does. “I just need to stop getting [angry] and just live with it,” he said Wednesday night. “I just need to grow up in that mentality a little bit. Try not to bash stuff in and things like that I’ve always done my whole life and those need to change.”

The part about “that I’ve always done my whole life” should probably worry you. At 35, Paul O’Neill was still trashing bat racks as a Yankee. But if you snap as much as Harper, you aren’t playing at 35. Harper has time to control himself better, but probably not as much as he thinks. A year. Two.

“Bryce is never satisfied,” Storen said. “Speaking for myself, not him, it’s that same fire that helps you perform, that helps him turn a single into a double. You don’t want to go too far in that red line. But it’s a good thing to have, especially when you’re 19 and are being asked to be on the main stage.

On April 28, the Nationals unleashed their double-edged teenage whirlwind, ready or not. He has identical rookie stats at 19 as Ken Griffey Jr., down to the last decimal place in everything that matters. He’s getting better all the time in center field. Someday, he might be good. It could even be his natural position for a few years.

“We’re a better team when Harper is in center field,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “And he’s hitting a productive .250.”

These are hold-your-breath days for Harper. Hold your breath to see where his next homer lands. But also hold your breath when you think of that .207 average since the All-Star Game. What price will he pay for bypassing entire levels of the minors? Everybody says Harper will inevitably get much better. And he probably will.

But everybody also mentions Tony Conigliaro’s great season at 19. But at 20, 21 and 22, before he was beaned, he never equaled any of his rookie year averages — batting, on-base percentage or slugging.

In this pennant race, enormous talent and priceless passion meet baseball’s inescapable frustrations and a big teenage temper. They’re on display every night in a constant struggle — for Bryce Harper.

His first time up on Thursday night, Harper took two balls, then ignited an 8-1 Washington victory with a scorching two-run line drive home run into the Nats’ bullpen, the place where Storen dwells. “Just watch, Bryce will do something amazing tonight.”

Close enough.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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