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For the love of Bryce Harper: Get ready, Washington. You're about to fall head over heels for the Nationals' newest star.

If the 18-year-old baseball phenom can avoid the pitfalls of fame at an early age, he'll owe it to family.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011

The first thing you do is, you go over and grab one of those iron rods - rebar, it's called - from the pile. It may weigh 50 pounds, maybe 80, maybe more. You throw it over your shoulder and hump it over to your crew. If it's 115 degrees in Vegas that day, it's probably 135 in the hole where you're laboring, clad in heavy work clothes, building the foundation of another casino, feeding the great beast of the desert. You lay the rebar down just so, tie its ends with 16-gauge wire, and now it's ready to be encased in concrete, one more grain of rice down the beast's gullet. They say Las Vegas is a town of phoniness and illusion. Fake pyramids. Fake Manhattan skylines. Fake Eiffel towers. But Ron Harper, for 27 years a union card-holder in Reinforcing Ironworkers Local 416 - a "rodbuster," as they call themselves - can tell you one thing: For every gaudy, phony facade in this Godforsaken town, a couple hundred men, some of them his men, bent their backs to send it up into the sky. Watch him get one of those monthly shots in his neck to ease his pain, and then tell him everything in Vegas is fake.

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"A lot of the new guys today are soft. They want a forklift," says Harper, 45. "They want a crane. Hey, if you can get it - great. But for me, nothing replaces hard work."

Once, Harper took the youngest of his three kids, Bryce, then a precocious boy of 11, to a job site with him. It was oneof those take-your-son-or-daughter-to-work days, and it was summer, so it was almost unbearably hot down in the hole on the famed Vegas Strip. Bryce put on the hard hat, spent a couple of hours learning what a rodbuster does - enough to know it wasn't going to replace baseball player atop his list of preferred careers - then declared he was ready to go home.

"I'm like, 'Bryce, we're out here six more hours,' " Ron Harper says. A stern look creeps across his face. "I wanted my kids to appreciate the hard work, the sweat."

He's out in his garage now, on a quiet cul-de-sac on the east side of town. It's full of snowboards, skateboards and bicycles, but mostly baseball equipment bags. A half-dozen of them - stuffed with bats, gloves, catcher's gear, cleats - rise halfway to the ceiling. A baseball-size hole in the drywall above the door to the house speaks of some long-ago errant throw. A hand-painted sign above the doorway reads, "We Interrupt This Family For Baseball Season." A tasteful array of Christmas decorations sits outside on the lawn, this being early December.

Ron digs through the equipment bags - the newest-looking of them emblazoned with a gleaming Washington Nationals logo - and through the dozens of bats, coated with the orange dirt of a thousand ballfields, until he finds what he was looking for: an old, stumpy piece of rebar, maybe two feet long, from some long-forgotten job site.

"Bryce used to swing this - still does," he says as he hands it over. It's cold and impossibly heavy. It's difficult to raise it to shoulder level, let alone think about swinging it. Exactly how heavy is this thing?

"It's about 25 pounds," Ron says, taking it back and swinging it effortlessly, with textbook baseball form.

And it is at this point, between the sheer weight of the rebar, and the determination in Ron Harper's face as he talks about his work ethic, and the amassed detritus of a childhood dominated by baseball, that you begin to see how this happened - how Ron and Sheri Harper, former junior high sweethearts now facing empty-nesthood, came to raise a prodigy.

Bryce is now 18 years old and as hard and honest-to-God real as his old man. But Bryce is also blessed with once-in-a-generation talent to hit a baseball to the ends of the earth, and he is hellbent on greatness, and as winter gives way to spring, the Harpers are preparing to unleash him upon Washington, and upon a world less prepared for him than he is for it.

"People say Bryce is an old-school player," Ron says. "You're damn right, he is. He'd better be. And so better his brother. And his sister, my daughter, better act like that in whatever she does. Because there's nothing wrong with a little hard work. Blue-collar attitude. Strap it on, and let's go. That's the way I am, and that's the way I raised my kids to be."

***


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