Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper is happy, healthy and even showing some maturity

Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 19

On July 5, 1924, the only year the Senators won the World Series, Babe Ruth ran into a concrete wall in Griffith Stadium trying to catch a foul fly by Joe Judge. The Babe was knocked out for five minutes. Photos show a trainer pulling open his eyelids to inspect his pupils as he lies prone, while Washington fans in straw boaters lean over the rail to gawk.

Ruth wouldn’t leave the game and ended up 3 for 3 off Walter Johnson in a Yankees win, then played the second game of a doubleheader, too. The next day in D.C., he smashed two doubles and a homer.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

They don’t make ’em like the Bambino anymore. But to whatever degree he can, Bryce Harper, called Bam Bam for his reckless daring, might come close.

On Wednesday at Washington Nationals spring training, many of us learned this Ruth tale for the first time from the 21-year-old Harper, who might be the most to-the-bone-sincere baseball fan among all active players.

“Babe Ruth ran into the wall in D.C. in 1920-something and knocked himself out,” Harper said. “So I’m in pretty damn good company.”

The Nationals' pitcher Stephen Strasburg discussed the state of his arm, lessons learned from last season and what's to come for the Washington team during a break from spring training in Viera, Florida. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Will Harper keep running into walls, such as his famous Dodger Stadium face plant that damaged the last five months of his 2013 season and forced him to have surgery on the bursa sac in his left knee in November?

“I’m just going to go right through it again. Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do,” Harper said, deadpan.

“Nah, I’m going to get better at that,” he said, grinning, “try to do some things the right way, realize I don’t have to try to fricking rob a homer and be the hero when we’re up 7-0. . . . I had no clue where I was. I just crushed the wall.”

So Year III of Harper begins. The mistake, you see, was misreading the game situation. If you love baseball but not Harper, sorry, I can’t help you.

“Shoot, every single day I went into therapy, somebody said, ‘Hey, don’t run into a wall,’ ” Harper said. “And, yeah, dummy, you don’t walk across the street when there’s cars coming.”

Harper didn’t use that retort, because he’s actually a well-mannered, reared-right 21-year-old who simply thinks larger-than-life is all right, just like his home town of Las Vegas.

On the day the Nats took physicals, Harper weighed 220 pounds and looked as big as a McMansion with a five-car garage. With his forearms crossed, he looked almost like Mark McGwire. Except Harper’s T-shirt said “PED Free” in large letters; so you don’t have to ask how he got that way.

The Nats are probably only going to be great as a team if Harper becomes great, not just very good, as a player. They were 15th in runs in ’13, have few power prospects in the pipeline and need Harper to drive in 100 runs. So far, in two years he has averaged only 73 RBI per 600 at-bats.

As usual, Harper won’t back off any challenge. Some of his comments were followed by verbal U-turns to make them less bold. But what’s the fun of context? So let’s look at raw Harper, chest out, ready to devour ’14.

“I’m where I need to be. . . . There’s nothing wrong with [the knee]. I’m solid as can be. [Doctors] saved about 90 percent of my bursa, which is incredible,” Harper said. “I’ll have no bone-on-bone contact.

“I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. . . . I’m leg-pressing 500 pounds. . . . I can get as big as I want if I play left field or right field. . . . Hopefully, by the time I’m 25, I’ll look really really good and really big. . . . I just want to get in there and try to hit homers. Nah, just kidding,” Harper said. “I feel unbelievable right now, so I’m very excited.”

Manager Matt Williams is also very excited. Few factors mattered more to GM Mike Rizzo in a new manager than an ability to mesh with Harper. Will it work?

“[Williams] got that bulldog mentality. We’re excited to have that going for us this year. I love that he’s very structured. . . . He gets the game from playing so close to where we are at now. It’s nice to be able to have a young guy there doing things, working hard and having that enthusiasm,” said Harper, maybe making Davey Johnson somewhere cringe a bit.

Johnson covered for some of Harper’s early rough edges. Now that might be less needed. One minor test might be Harper’s reaction to where he bats.

Williams revealed that Harper often will hit second, third or fourth as in the past, but “I can also see him fifth a lot. . . . No. 5 is generally a big RBI spot,” said Williams, who often hit there and once drove in 142 runs and won an RBI title with 122.

The Nats need Harper to learn the RBI knack. Last year, the Nats hoped that when he hit No. 3, he might be protected by sluggers at No. 4 and No. 5. “Harper’s feared more than anybody we have,” Johnson said. “They already pitch him like he’s Aaron no matter who’s batting behind him.”

So Williams might flip the script and, in plenty of games, bat Harper fifth as “protection for the three-four guys.” So a youngster might protect Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman with their nine-figure contracts.

When hitting fifth, Harper might also be free to run — or run wild — more often because he wouldn’t be inhibited by distracting middle-of-the-order hitters. Harper says he wants to learn to be a better base runner by “picking Matt’s mind.” Translation: less embarrassing gambles.

“That’s a welcome sign,” said Williams, who quickly emphasized the flip side, saying, “We want him to feel freed up a little. . . . He’s a dynamic player but with not a lot of minor league experience. He can change a game on the base paths. That’s what makes him him. But he’s going to make mistakes as he learns. We support that. We’ve got his back if something goes haywire. We’ll talk about it. That’s part of maturation.”

So is learning to hit lefty pitchers. Harper always talks about improving all parts of his game but seldom mentions a specific area that needs it. “I’ve hit lefties pretty good my whole life,” he said. “[But] if anyone wants to face Aroldis Chapman, they can do it for me. That’s pretty rough. I’m going to pick people’s minds. It’s something that I’ve got to get better at, I guess.”

In the past, Harper has written down individual goals before his seasons. Perhaps, after two years of being dramatically overshadowed in the stat wars by contemporary Mike Trout of the Angels, Harper may have learned better.

“Nope,” he said of those hidden numbers of past years.

“A world title would be nice.”

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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