WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — Bryce Harper tossed a red rubber ball back and forth between his hands as he answered questions from the media for the first time since last October, which he did in a red shirt that read “Warm Body, Cold Mind,” standing on the new agility field that is among the more talked-about amenities at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
Back and forth went the ball as Harper maneuvered through questions about the past, his future, and the present state of the franchise that drafted him. Back and forth it went, and Harper seemed to do the same, fighting back the kid who used to say whatever he wanted, choosing the more calculated approach of a 24-year-old man trying not to say much at all.
This is Harper, a year removed from his MVP season. That polarizing bravado remains intact, but it seems to have dimmed somewhat after a roller-coaster 2016 in which his production dropped dramatically. Gone are the unabashed musings about World Series rings and “making baseball fun again.” Saturday, Harper replaced them with cliches and artful dodges.
When asked about last year’s drop-off, for example, Harper said he knew “exactly why” he devolved quickly into mere mortality. But when asked for the reason, he rambled about his team and hard work. Then he hinted at that mystery injury he and his agent Scott Boras keep alluding to — the one Harper told Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker and the training staff did not exist late last season.
“… I stayed in the lineup last year and tried to help this team win every single day,” Harper said. “And that’s your goal every single day.”
Prodded later, he reiterated, “I stayed in the lineup, tried to play 150 games, went in to Dusty and wanted to play every single day.”
A couple of hours later, Baker acknowledged there were times when Harper lobbied to play instead of rest. Baker said he sat his right fielder once in a while to keep him fresh. Baker also said he has his own theories about what went wrong for Harper last season, and that he shared them with the four-time all-star.
“You’re in the big leagues, and these guys aren’t going to let you just keep beating on them,” Baker said. “They’re going to make adjustments. And now it’s up to you to make counter-adjustments.”
Harper is adjusting off the field, too. He is growing out of questions about his prodigious young talent and growing into questions about his future — most notably his much-discussed free agency, which is still two seasons away. Asked about his future Saturday, Harper said everything the face of a franchise is supposed to say.
“Being a Washington National, I love it. I enjoy playing in the city of D.C. and I enjoy the fans,” said Harper, who went on to thank his wedding guests “Mr. and Mrs. Lerner” and recalled the time Rizzo came to see him play in person when he was in junior college. He praised Rizzo again later and talked about the trust he has in his general manager’s decisions. But when asked about his team’s offseason moves, his initial reaction was not-so-subtly evasive.
“I’m excited for the move down to West Palm, to tell you the truth. That’s my biggest move I’m excited about,” said Harper, who took to Twitter this winter to express surprise after the much-analyzed trade for Adam Eaton and also tweeted his desire for the Nationals to spend on catcher Matt Wieters and reliever Greg Holland instead of their spring training facility.
“But yeah,” he continued later, “as a whole, as a club, I think we did a great job. Of course, everybody has wants and needs and stuff like that.”
Back and forth he went, sometimes making implications, sometimes avoiding complication, that old Bryce Harper edge dulled by the minefield in which he operates, but still there. He works in two worlds, perception and reality, both of which have always been more entangled in his case than most.
In his flashy Instagram posts and endorsement deals, Harper seems determined to cultivate some public image. In measured answers and unseen clubhouse actions, he seems determined to respect baseball’s sometimes antiquated code. When he arrived in the new Nationals clubhouse, for example, he saw his locker had more space around it than that of Jayson Werth — 13 years his elder. He asked clubhouse staff to switch them. Now Werth has the corner spot.
Harper only dropped the rubber ball once; it bounced away while he gushed about his offseason, in which he married his “beautiful bride” and was able to enjoy his family. In that moment, the facade seemed to fall away, too, revealing some of that old unfettered enthusiasm, that devil-may-care honesty.
“Everybody that said I was worried about baseball this offseason, I could care less,” Harper said. “…This was definitely one of the best offseasons I’ve had in a long time. I actually enjoyed this offseason a lot more than my MVP year.”
A reporter handed Harper the ball, and he began to toss it again, back and forth between the hands that hold the key to his baseball future, his reputation, and perhaps the Nationals’ season, too. Another MVP-caliber season could cement his place among baseball’s elite. Another season of anything less could change his status. His long-term future might not include the Nationals. His past and present are dependent upon them. Back and forth he goes, like that ball he tossed all morning, trying to quell controversy while sometimes stirring it, wrestling honesty and duty as he embarks on a season with the potential to define the first chapter of his young career, one way or another.