Bryce Harper, potential No. 1 pick in the MLB draft, faces questions about his attitude, not his ability

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

HENDERSON, NEV. -- You're a scout, and all you know is what you see: Face caked in eye-black and hands bare, the batter strides to home plate and carefully lays his bat down in the dirt, perpendicular to the pitcher. He scoops up some dirt and lets it fall through his fingers. He spits into his hands. He picks up the bat, scoops some dirt over the handle, twists his fingers around it. The pitcher waits.

"He does that in pro ball," one scout behind home plate mutters, "the first pitch'll be in his ear."

This is Thursday, Bryce Harper's first collegiate playoff game. He steps into the batter's box. Soft-tossing lefty on the mound. He whiffs at a curveball, takes another one -- called strike two. He turns and gives an exasperated look at the umpire. On the third pitch, another curve, he lifts a harmless fly ball to left.

He bows his head, drops his bat, jogs two-thirds of the way to first base, then peels off as the ball is caught. Walking back to the dugout, he shoots another look at the umpire. He gets to the dugout, rips off his helmet, slams it to the ground.

"Mmmm, mmmm," another scout intones, shaking his head.

Okay, stop. You're no longer a scout. Now, consider this question: Are you prepared to draw a definitive conclusion about Harper's character -- about what kind of kid he is, what kind of man he will become, what sort of career he will have if, as expected, the Washington Nationals make him the first overall pick of the June 7 draft -- from this one at-bat?

Are you ready to say he's a bad guy?

What if you were told he was only 17 and is the most highly touted hitter of that age since Alex Rodriguez? What if you knew that, before he even got to the stadium, he had already practiced hitting bottle caps, tossed by his father, for an hour in his backyard?

What if, within seconds of the helmet-slam, you glimpsed a hard-looking, middle-aged, goateed man -- Harper's father, Ron -- make his way from the stands to the side of the College of Southern Nevada's dugout, get in his son's face and bawl him out in front of his teammates?

"If people come out and watch for a while -- not just one game or one weekend -- they'll see," Ron Harper had said before the game. "He's a good kid. He works hard. And he's passionate for the game. That's the biggest misconception about Bryce. They take his competitive nature and say he's cocky or he's this or he's that. But you can't walk out there and say, 'I want to be mediocre today.' "

The character question, though, is critical. One year after nabbing ace-in-training Stephen Strasburg -- the perfect pitching prospect -- the Nationals are picking first again, and in their sights is the perfect position player. Or nearly perfect.

He stands 6 feet 3, weighs 205 pounds. He's a natural catcher with the ability to play multiple positions (scouts are divided as to which position he will ultimately play), has a bat that must be seen to be believed, and owns an arm that can deliver 96-mph fastballs just for kicks, with a work ethic no one has ever questioned.

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