Bryce Harper steps into the storm

This might be the most scrutinized season of Harper’s career, and he has far fewer choices than it might seem.

Bryce Harper steps into the storm

This might be the most scrutinized season of Harper’s career, and he has far fewer choices than it might seem.
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Photos by Jonathan Newton

One Sunday morning a few years ago, in the well-worn clubhouse at Turner Field, Bryce Harper sat on the edge of the black leather rolling chair at his locker and looked around the near-empty room.

“What if I just went and became a firefighter in Huntington Beach?” Harper asked, to no one in particular. Nobody answered him.

What would they say if they had? Everyone knows the man heralded as the most transcendent baseball talent of a generation since he was a teenager, the one who lived up to the hype and somehow fostered more — the guy destined for a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars — can’t just up and leave it all behind.

Harper never said anything like that again, at least not when reporters were around. But who, subjected to scrutiny and pressure and funneled into one destiny since adolescence, wouldn’t see the appeal of a world touched only by sunlight, free of the spotlight? Who, presented with a life in which his every move is analyzed, and every talent monetized, wouldn’t wonder about a simpler existence now and then?

“I don’t want to really think about that. This is what I was born to do,” Harper said this week. “ . . . That crosses everybody’s mind — maybe I wanted to do this or do that. But I enjoy being a baseball player. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

This might be the most scrutinized season of Harper’s career, of the life he believes he was born to lead, the one that affords him far fewer choices than it might seem. He will be a free agent after this season, one of a handful of Hall of Fame-type talents available to the highest bidder.

Harper crushes a home run during Game 1 of the National's NLDS against the San Francisco Giants in 2014. Harper has five home runs in 19 career postseason games, but Washington has failed to win a series in four playoff trips. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Harper, back left in 2013, has learned from Nationals veterans like Ryan Zimmerman, left, and former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Though Washington has failed to win a playoff series in four tries, Harper has five home runs in 19 career postseason games. He has long been embraced by veteran teammates like Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond. (Photos by Jonathan Newton, Katherine Frey, John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

An MVP-caliber season could secure him a record deal. A disappointing season could lead to a disappointing one, or at least not the history-making contract most assumed he would get until this most recent winter of free agent discontent. The 25-year-old has asked that no reporters inquire about his intentions for the future, hoping to limit his exposure to those stresses. But team executives around the game, TV analysts and others will spend all season wondering and waiting. Harper’s grandmother used to tell him there were two things he should never talk about — politics and his salary. Harper avoids the former with relative ease. Others talk about the latter for him.

For years, those emotionally invested in Harper’s future have analyzed every word, hunting for some insight into where he might go. All winter, most of those organizations who might financially invest in his future eschewed spending, leading some to wonder exactly what kind of market will exist for his services. All season, others will remind him much is at stake with every swing.

Meanwhile, a man will sit in the middle of it all, balancing the need to perform with the reality of the biggest decision he has ever gotten to make. The swirl of attention that has always followed him will only swirl faster, and he won’t be able to escape it.

Bryce Harper is financially secure for life. He is married with a healthy family. He gets all the perks of fame, showered in gifts and free meals from those who endorse him and those who hope to endorse him. But for all the bravado some see in him still, Harper is also human. This season, and all that comes with it, will test him.

“I think the thing that surprises you is that while he embraces the spotlight he gets, it may not be what he wants. He just wants to play baseball,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “. . . That’s the big surprise. From the outside, he looks like a guy who wants all the attention and wants everything. He deals with it because he has to, because he has that kind of talent.”

I know when I come to the field I have to strap it on and be Bryce.
Bryce Harper
Harper gets loose in the on-deck circle under darkening skies during a 2017 game against the Seattle Mariners. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Putting in the work

If he didn’t have that once-in-a-generation swing, or that cannon of a right arm — in other words, if he weren’t born for baseball — Harper really would want to be a firefighter.

“It’s like four days on, two days off,” Harper said. “It’d be fun.”

“Fun” is an interesting part of Harper’s story, one introduced to the narrative when he declared his mission to “Make Baseball Fun Again.” Two years ago, the slogan was scrawled across hats and he tossed it around in interviews. Slowly, it slid out of use. Making baseball fun again takes a lot of work. Declaring one’s mission to make baseball fun again garners a lot of extra attention and criticism.

Harper has always been willing to put in work, though he admits the major league schedule grates him. More than once, he has been critical of late plane flights and long games, and he is as willing to say so in public statements about Major League Baseball’s scheduling policies as he is to teammates in the clubhouse.

He has posted Instagram pictures of what he thinks is an overcrowded Nationals charter plane. He wanted a few more days off than he got in recent years. He rarely smiles around the clubhouse, more businesslike than boyish — but willing to conduct his business, no lazier for the wear and success of six big league seasons, according to those who see him daily.

Zimmerman was on hand when Harper was officially introduced after signing with the Nationals in 2010. Harper was the first overall pick in that year's MLB draft.
Harper, shown with the Hagerstown Suns in 2011, rose quickly through the minor leagues and made his MLB debut the following April. (Photos by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Zimmerman was on hand when Harper was officially introduced after signing with the Nationals as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2010. Harper quickly rose through the minor leagues. (Photos by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

During one 2017 slump, Harper didn’t return from the dugout until a half-hour after a night game ended, his hands red with dye from his batting gloves, the strain of hundreds of swings, or both. Though he has always been something of his own hitting coach, advised closely by his father, Ron, Harper is not one to shut out feedback, either.

“The thing that’s really been cool about Bryce has been his down-to-earth attitude, watching him with [hitting coach] Kevin [Long], watching him on the bench with his teammates getting ready for at-bats, realizing that he is not even close in his own mind to a finished product,” said bench coach Chip Hale, who had only ever seen Harper from across the field.

“ . . . A lot of times, players, you watch them and they’re happy. They’re happy with their performance. This guy’s never happy. You’re not sure, when guys are that talented. He’s always listening and he’s been very humble.”

Harper is growing less willing to deal with unnecessary attention, and slowly and subtly he has started to avoid it when possible. Some stars flash fake smiles and spew jokes to please the crowd, but Harper seems unwilling to pander anymore. He speaks quietly to reporters if he speaks at all, repeating canned phrases about doing his best that end interviews without divulging anything important.

Harper high-fives members of the Nationals' bullpen before a game in 2016. Harper struggled that season but still helped Washington win the third of its four division titles.
Harper reacts after scoring a key run against the Giants in the 2014 NLDS. (Photos by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Harper high-fives members of the Nationals' bullpen before a game in 2016. At right, Harper scores a pivotal run during an NLDS game in 2014. (Photos by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Harper turns down more interviews than he takes, and he declines requests from those inside and outside the organization — like, for example, attending Nationals WinterFest — when he sees fit. Teammates constantly ask Harper to sign things for friends, and opposing players constantly ask for memorabilia. Any time a teammate brings a visitor to work, that visitor inevitably wants to meet Harper, who inevitably takes the time to do so. But no one gets pulled in as many directions as often as he does, even with the organization’s best efforts to protect him.

Harper is not a vocal leader in that clubhouse, not a larger-than-life presence — or even a larger-than-most presence these days. Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy and others are the molders of minds there. Gio Gonzalez is the jokester. Shawn Kelley is the jovial one. Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon are the best buddies and locker neighbors. Sean Doolittle is the intellectual. When Harper leads, he does so with key hits and big plays — just a remarkably talented guy who, like so many of his colleagues, is always eager to get home to his family.

“I feel like I’ve always wanted to try to get away from the field and just relax and be away as much as I can, I guess,” Harper said. “. . . But also, I know when I come to the field I have to strap it on and be Bryce.”

A lot of times, players, you watch them and they’re happy. They’re happy with their performance. This guy’s never happy. You’re not sure, when guys are that talented.
Chip Hale, Nationals bench coach
Harper and his teammates celebrated a fourth NL East title in 2017 before they lost in an NLDS against the Chicago Cubs. Unless Harper signs a new deal, this season could be his last chance to make a deep playoff run in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

‘I sure enjoy watching you play baseball’

“Being Bryce” means something different than it used to when he was the precocious, polarizing kid who would speak his mind. It means something different in part because of his relative reticence. It also means something different because of what he has achieved.

Whether he has accomplished more as a player than expected or less varies by the judge, but the fact of the matter is he has done more as a player by age 25 than almost anyone in major league history.

Only 17 players have hit 150 home runs, driven in at least 400 runs and played in at least 750 games by 25 as Harper has. Only four of those players have walked more often — three Hall of Famers and Mike Trout. He has accumulated 27.7 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement since he started playing regularly in 2012, the 10th most in the majors in that span.

Because of injuries, he has played in 45 fewer games than anyone ahead of him. Trout leads all players with 53.7 WAR, though Josh Donaldson is second with 37.1 WAR in 817 games. If Harper had been healthier, he likely would rank in the top five. He is younger than all nine players ahead of him on that list which, combined with his general marketability as an edgier star in a rather polite baseball generation, is the reason so many expect Harper’s free agent deal to break records.

Until this winter’s unprecedented free agent spending freeze, almost everyone in the industry expected Harper to earn a contract far exceeding the 13-year deal worth $325 million the Miami Marlins gave Giancarlo Stanton in November 2014. Nothing seems certain now, though with a strong season, Harper should have no trouble finding an average annual value of well above $30 million.

Exactly how far the Nationals are willing to go in pursuit remains to be seen, though a few things are clear already.

For one, they do not believe in committing a quarter or fifth of their payroll to one player. They will clear $80 million in payroll this winter, dipping their committed money to somewhere around $140 million, including arbitration players.

Harper warms up before an NLDS game in 2014. “I tell him every couple of weeks or so,” Nationals third base coach Bob Henley said. “I sure enjoy watching you play baseball.” (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Second, they do not want to exceed the collective bargaining tax threshold for a third consecutive year, meaning any commitments they make cannot lift their payroll to the $200 million range like it is this season.

Given how much payroll they clear in soon-to-be free agents such as Harper, Murphy, Gonzalez, Ryan Madson, Kelley and others, signing Harper would not necessarily push them over that threshold. But it would limit their ability to sign other players.

But third, the Nationals — as represented by General Manager Mike Rizzo — love Harper the player. They would like to keep him around. They have no problem with him. Rizzo would defend Harper to the end, and expects Harper would do the same. Those who have watched him grow feel similarly.

“I tell him every couple of weeks or so,” said third base coach Bob Henley, who has been with the organization since Harper’s first day, “I sure enjoy watching you play baseball.”

For all the attention, for all the questions, for all the noise he used to make and all the quiet he now tries to create, playing baseball is still what Harper does, what he has always done, and what he will do until he can’t do it anymore.

He might not do it in Washington much longer. But whatever he does this season, wherever he plays baseball next, Harper will be caught in a chaos few others can understand, one in which he has grown up, one that has smoothed his edges and tested his patience — one from which he cannot, and would not, ever escape.

Credits: Story by Chelsea Janes. Photos by Jonathan Newton. Designed by Virginia Singarayar.