The first teenage position-player All Star in decades. A bundle of nerves (and occasionally rage) whose personal standards reflect the hoopla surrounding him. A 19-year-old who swilled apple cider while his teammates drank beer and Champagne last night with the Washington team he helped lead to first place for the first time in 79 seasons.
Here are excerpts from “The Bryce Harper Story: Rise of a Young Slugger,’’ an e-book published today by the staff of The Washington Post
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.
“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 one of 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.”
August 17,2010: On Monday afternoon, the third-floor offices at Nationals Park buzzed with an upbeat atmosphere. Back in early June, on the day they drafted Bryce Harper first overall and the day before Stephen Strasburg became a major leaguer, the men in charge of the Washington Nationals believed they could orchestrate the team’s most impressive draft since baseball returned to Washington. More than two months later, the final steps had come into view.
There was still work to be done, and it would not end until seconds from the midnight Monday deadline. Only then did the Nationals finally agree to a deal with Harper and agent Scott Boras— a major league contract. The Nationals, for the second straight season, had drafted a slam-dunk first overall choice and signed a player with a mountain of hype behind him.
“With a full minute, Mike [Rizzo] and I thought we were not going to have a deal,” Nationals President Stan Kasten said. The deal was worth $ 9.9 million over five years with a signing bonus of $ 6.25 million, which matched the highest signing bonus a position player has ever received.
In Harper, a 17-year-old outfielder and power-hitting prodigy, the Nationals could have an offensive answer to Strasburg, a generational talent reliant on sheer power who could become one of the forces that lifts the franchise to prominence. The Nationals may have felt confident in their chances to sign Harper, but they weren’t sure until the ink was on the paper and the deal had been called in to Major League Baseball’s New York offices. With an hour before midnight, they still wondered if maybe Harper wouldn’t sign.
Harper gained notice in scouting circles when he launched a 502-foot home run with a wooden bat at a high school showcase as a freshman. He gained widespread fame when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated— anointed as “Baseball’s Chosen One”— at 16. He chose Boras as his “advisor,” earned his G.E.D. in order to skip his final two years of high school and dominated older competition in his only junior college season at the College of Southern Nevada. During the regular season at CSN, Harper hit .442 with a .986 slugging percentage and a .524 on-base percentage and hit 29 home runs. The old school record, achieved with a metal bat, was 12.
“I didn’t think there was any way someone would hit 15, 20 home runs with a wood bat,” said CSN teammate Tyler Hanks, a Nationals draft choice now pitching for their Gulf Coast League affiliate.
When the Nationals drafted Harper, they declared he would turn from a catcher to an outfielder in order to hasten his ascension to the major leagues. Harper could reach the majors by the end of the 2012 season. At that point he would be 19, an age at which Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Justin Upton —three other teen-aged top picks— were playing in the majors.
Harper would be the crown jewel to a draft class the Nationals believe to chocked with potential impact players. The Nationals hope to never pick first overall again. But they know how lucky they are to have lost 205 games combined in two seasons that allowed them to pick Harper and Strasburg in consecutive drafts. “It’s never happened before,” Rizzo said.
They stood along the third base line at Kansas City’s Kaufmann Stadium, at the very end of the line for alphabetical reasons only. The stadium lights glimmered off Bryce Harper’s gold spikes. Stephen Strasburg forgot to remove his cap when the announcer called his name. Gio Gonzalez grinned. Somewhere in the stadium, owner Ted Lerner watched in person. A stealth bomber zoomed overt the park. For the first time, three Washington Nationals stood together at the All-Star Game. “We were all just soaking it in,” Strasburg said. “It was amazing.” By the end of Tuesday night, the Nationals’ contingent had each made contributions, in their own styles, to the National League’s 8-0 thumping of the American League. Gonzalez, the left-hander who is tied for the major league lead in wins, fired perhaps the best inning all night. Strasburg added another scoreless frame, if not as dominant. And Harper, the youngest position player ever to appear in an All-Star Game, did what he usually does. He stood out in ways no one would expect.
He walked and took second base on a fly ball to left field, only to be caught in a rundown. He then lost a routine fly ball in the lights and watched it plop behind him, then he struck out in his second at-bat. “I wasn’t nervous at all,” Harper said. “I don’t really get nervous anymore. I’ve been in that moment so many times, I don’t really get nervous.” By the time Harper entered the game, the National League had already decided the result. It bashed American League ace Justin Verlander for five runs in the first inning and cruised to the most lopsided victory since 1983, when the American League won, 13-3. The victory gave home-field advantage in the World Series to the NL, which could affect the Nationals. They have the best record in the National League. The team with home-field advantage has won 24 of the past 31 World Series and nine consecutive Game 7s. Take a moment to dream, if you’d like, and imagine Nationals Park hosting the first or decisive game of the World Series.
Excerpted from The Bryce Harper Story: Rise of a Young Slugger, by Adam Kilgore, Thomas Boswell, Dan Steinberg, James Wagnert, Amy Shipley, and Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post (Kindle Locations 1907-1914). Diversion Books.
Available at washingtonpost.com/ebooks