At 19, Harper straddles the line between late adolescence and full-blown adulthood. His sheer skill as a baseball player makes that easy to forget, but Harper’s age will color every aspect of his mission to make the Nationals’ opening day roster.
With less than 600 professional plate appearances, has he developed enough? After he tore a hamstring last August, can his body handle a full major league season? Fully embracing his generation’s proclivity for personal exposure, can he display the professionalism Nationals management demands?
“I’m going to work as hard as I can, keep my mouth shut and play,” Harper said. “I’m going to make their decision hard as much as I can. I want to be up here. I want to play, and I want to play in D.C.”
At the outset of the winter, Manager Davey Johnson told General Manager Mike Rizzo “he should definitely have an open mind” about putting Harper on the team. After their winter acquisitions, “he’s still in the mix to have an opportunity,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Harper first met when Johnson gave him an award at a showcase event when Harper, then 15, beat out the best 16- and 17-year-olds in the country. Johnson watched as Harper tried to make the Nationals last year, at 18, even when all evidence, rightfully, suggested he would not.
“I got the feeling it wouldn’t have been overpowering to him mentally, because his whole life he’s been competing with guys older than him,” Johnson said.
Harper’s belief in himself far exceeds the typical ballplayer. Take Anthony Rendon, this year’s sixth overall draft pick. Rendon played three years of college baseball at Rice and turned 21 last June.
“I’m more reserved,” Rendon said after settling in for his first day of spring. “I’m not like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m shooting to try to go straight to the bigs.’ I’m going to take my time and try to get used to this lifestyle.”
Before Harper split for the day, he spoke to a small pack of reporters, wearing a hat bearing a logo for the apparel company Undefeated. “Beckham and Kobe wear it,” Harper explained. He freely admitted it would disappoint him to start 2012 in the minors.
“Even last year, I was disappointed,” Harper said. “I came here, and I wanted to make the team last year. This year, I’m trying to come here and make the team. Hopefully, things work out and we won’t have to talk about me going down to the minors.”
As Harper held court, two media relations officials walked over to monitor the group interview. This offseason, Harper’s public comments, in both interviews and on his active Twitter feed, became a debated topic. He spent long sessions answering questions from his 27,225 followers.
“I want everyone to know the real me,” Harper said. “ . . . I’m going to get blown up either way, whether I say something right or say something wrong. That’s just how it’s going to be. There’s nothing I can really do about that. Maybe there’s sometimes I should keep my mouth shut. I need to grow up in that aspect, I guess. But I feel good about what I say, and I’m not going to back down from anything.”
The content and tone of answers was often provocative, which has nothing to do with how well he can hit a curveball or play the outfield (which, he said, is his top priority this spring). But his behavior — his capacity to fit the Nationals’ definition of acting like a big leaguer — will be a factor when the Nationals evaluate his preparedness for the major leagues.
Harper easily interacts with his older teammates. This winter, he worked out with second baseman Danny Espinosa. As he bided his time Monday morning, Harper looked to the corner of the clubhouse and saw Ryan Zimmerman tying on a new pair of Under Armor sneakers. “Hey, Zim,” Harper said, striding toward him. “You like those?”
They treat Harper like an equal, because on the field he is. Many of them grasp the generational difference in Harper’s interaction with the public and theirs.
“I don’t have a Twitter. I don’t do Facebook stuff,” Zimmerman said. “But I’m 27 and he’s 19. He was born in the ’90s, and I was not born in the ’90s. That’s how it is now. It’s appealing to the fans. Fans will get to know him better than they’ve known other players in the past. . . .
“What I always tell people is, just imagine yourself when you were 19 years old and what you were doing: probably getting black-out drunk at a frat party and then waking up the next day and having no responsibilities. Compare that to what he goes through every day as a 19-year-old. Everyone is going to have some troubles dealing with it.”
The Nationals have insisted only Harper’s preparedness will determine whether he starts 2012 in the majors. But there are also business reasons to justify him starting in the minors. If the Nationals delay his arrival until May, they would guarantee another full year of his service before he becomes eligible for free agency. The Nationals would effectively have to sacrifice a full season of him at 25 for a month of him at 19.
Given the pros and cons of Harper beginning this year in Washington, Harper will have to be pitch-perfect over the next seven weeks. He will have to leave no doubt. He’ll try.
“I’m excited to see how good we can be in the future, things like that,” Harper said. “But right now is right now.”