Nationals star Bryce Harper works hard to take care of his body

The Post Sports Live crew argues whether an ESPN the Magazine poll of baseball players naming Bryce Harper as the most overrated has any merit. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Bryce Harper’s diet veers between world-class athlete and overgrown kid, which makes sense because that’s what he is. Harper pours glutamine powder into yogurt-and-fruit shakes and drops amino vitamins into homemade organic juice. He also scarfs his mom’s made-from-scratch cooking. He sneaks Klondike Bars, Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes and Double Stuff Oreos. He does not drink Red Bull or Five-Hour Energy, both full of sugar and caffeine and “absolutely terrible for you,” he said. Harper may submit to a craving for Mountain Dew but only in the offseason, and even then he takes one sip and throws the can in the trash.

“I mean, I’m not perfect,” Harper said, laughing as he sat in the Washington Nationals’ dugout this week. “I eat ice cream all the time. Outside of that, I’m going to be smart.”

Smart, for Harper, encapsulates his views about what a baseball player should put in his body. The substances Harper embraces and rejects guide his regimented nutrition and reflect his own sense of his place in the game and potentially the game’s history.

Harper leans toward whole foods and natural supplements and carries a water bottle constantly. He avoids sugary drinks, treats pain relievers with skepticism and abhors performance-enhancing drugs. He turned 21 in October. He says he still does not — will not — drink alcohol.

“My body is what I work with,” Harper said. “It’s not just sitting behind a desk and I have to use my hands all day. It’s my body. This is what I have to do every single day. I come in, and I have to feel good. If you’re going out and drinking and partying, you’re not going to feel good the next day. I want to get my eight hours and be able to eat good meals and not be sluggish or anything like that. My body is my temple, and I’ve always thought that.”

The Post Sports Live crew helps Matt Williams fill out the Nationals starting rotation by offering suggestions of who to name as the fifth starter. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
A vow to abstain

As a 19-year-old rookie in 2012, Harper vowed he would not imbibe alcohol. Now that he has turned 21, no one would fault him for indulging with moderation. But Harper will keep his vow to abstain.

“Why even do it? Why put that in your body? Why even give anybody the [chance to say], ‘Oh, I saw him with a drink. He always says he never drinks.’ I always promised my family and my parents I would never do that.”

Harper’s father, Ron, worked in Las Vegas as an ironworker for 25 years. Harper’s abiding respect for his father’s work ethic colors his view on performance-enhancing drugs, which Harper referred to as, “all the [expletive].”

In early March, a photo of Harper in a tight T-shirt and bulging muscles circulated. The social media reaction was inevitable: steroid jokes and vapid accusations.

Harper has been asked about steroids at least since he was 16 years old, when he told a Boston Globe reporter, “It’s all God-given. There’s no way I’ll ever put that in my body.” Harper’s ability and the attention on him, whether self-made or media-driven, places a larger lens on his actions. He understands the stakes.

“I never want to disgrace this organization or myself or my family’s name,” Harper continued. “I would never want to do that to my family or put this organization through that. I want to be a good person on and off the field. I think that’s part of it. I really want to have a possibility of going into the Hall of Fame one day. I think that’s huge with a lot of baseball writers and old school guys. Of course, that’s not the main goal — the main goal is winning a World Series. Hall of Fame is so far away. It’s just something I’ve always thought about doing. I want to be as clean as I can.”

Dealing with pain

Harper’s aversion to foreign substances extends even to legal, accepted medicine. Even something as innocuous as melatonin, a supplement that regulates sleep, makes Harper uneasy. His desire to keep his body free of substances made an impact last season.

In late April, Harper developed painful bursitis in his left knee after a collision with the right field fence in Atlanta. In mid-May, he exacerbated the injury with his more infamous crash into the wall at Dodger Stadium.

As Harper played through the injury, hobbling through the clubhouse after games, Nationals doctors presented the option of an injection of cortisone, a steroid hormone that reduces swelling and, by extension, pain. Harper resisted.

“It scares the crap out of me,” Harper said.

Harper relented after a visit to orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, and after one month on the disabled list, Harper returned to the field. Looking back, Harper regrets taking the cortisone. He found the effects fleeting and the risk unworthy. He plans to never use cortisone again.

“I don’t think it really changed me,” Harper said. “I was still hurt. It gave me a boost for a week, where I felt, ‘Hey, I feel good.’ But then a couple days later, it was like, ‘Ack, this sucks.’ I’ll probably never do that again. I don’t like putting that stuff in my body. I don’t want to. I’m just not a big fan of it.”

Harper understands the benefits and does not begrudge other players who use cortisone. For his body, though, it does not work. He said he believes pain should act as a warning to cease activity — even though he doesn’t always follow his own orders — and not the prompt to rush for medicine.

The cortisone injection allowed Harper to drag his left knee through the season and stave off surgery until late November. Harper visited orthopedic surgeon Richard Steadman in Vail, Colo. Steadman told him, “You should have been here two days after you did that.” In other words: He should have had surgery in May.

Harper, who says his knee has returned to full strength, felt internal pressure to keep playing through pain. Andrews told him he would continue to feel pain but that he could do no further structural damage. After the experience, Harper said if he faces a similar situation in the future, he will skip cortisone and undergo surgery.

“I would have done it right at the beginning,” Harper said. “I should have just gotten that [operation] and dealt with the consequences and not really put that into my system, probably.”

Home cooking

Late Tuesday morning, between batting practice and first pitch, Harper walked to the kitchen inside the Nationals’ clubhouse. He pulled from the refrigerator a Ziploc bag of leftover chicken parmesan. His parents were in town, and his mother, Sheri, had been cooking.

In the winter, Harper relies on his mother for the brunt of his nutrition. Protein from grilled chicken. Healthy carbohydrates from pasta. She makes everything, from ranch dressing to spaghetti, so Harper knows he will not be putting artificial sugars in his body. “She’s unbelievable,” Harper said. “I’m very, very lucky.”

Harper adds sophistication to his mom’s cooking. He researches vitamins online to determine what supplements to use and when to use them. He uses creatine powder in cycles during the winter, typically four weeks on, two weeks off. He said amino vitamins, which his father turned him on to, are “the best thing I can put in my body.” After workouts, to maximize recovery and eliminate cramping, Harper uses glutamine powder. He adds liquid protein to drinks.

He will drink black coffee if he needs a jolt during the season. He uses off-market Gatorade products that do not contain sugar. Harper began making his own juice this winter and loved it — kale, cucumber, green apple and green tomato is a favorite. When he wants a late-night snack, he devours — “crushes,” in his vernacular — an avocado-and-cucumber sandwich.

“I can’t just go to McDonald’s after I’m done working out,” Harper said. “I’m going to treat my body like it’s the only body I’m ever going to have. I’m going to make sure it’s strong and it’s good. I’m really going to work hard every single day. It’s a very big thing to believe.”

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