KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The mob of media stampedes into the all-star interview room every summer. Pity the poor player who’s at the first elevated podium nearest the entrance. He’s the first target of opportunity. If you’re worried about saying something controversial, that’s exactly where you don’t want to be. MLB, of course, would never exploit a teenager for publicity by putting him in those cross-hairs, especially if he’s the youngest all-star everyday player ever.
So, that’s exactly where Bryce Harper, 19, sat Monday. He actually covered the side of his face with his hand, as if to hide, as the throng, held back by a cordon for 20 minutes, finally made its wildebeest charge. However, the huge “Bryce Harper” sign kind of gave the kid away.
“This is a clown show, man,” the Nats’ Gio Gonzalez said. “They put Bryce right there at the front to clog up the whole entrance.”
For perhaps 15 minutes, Harper answered every question with polite rapid-fire “Bull Durham” baseball cliches, his face calm. But his hands gripped each other so tightly that his knuckles were white.
“When I was called up, I just wanted to keep my mouth shut,” he said. “I didn’t want to change the vibe since we were winning.”
Finally, after an hour of answering questions — and questions about “clown questions” — someone mentioned George Brett, the Royals’ Hall of Famer who once said he always played fiercely because, if he didn’t, his dad would kick his butt.
“That’s absolutely the best thing I’ve heard all year,” Harper said. “What would my mom and dad say if they saw me dogging a play or pimping a home run? My mom doesn’t get mad. She gets sad: ‘He’s not having fun. He’s not running out a fly ball.’
“ESPN Classic was always on when I was growing up — whole games, even back to Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. My dad would say, ‘Here are the guys.’ Cal Ripken, Pete Rose and Brett — I hope I meet him tomorrow night — were the ones I wanted to be like. They gave it everything, made their town and their fans proud. I was more a student [of them] than a fan.”
Led by Harper, the Angels’ Mike Trout, the Red Sox’ Will Middlebrooks and several other rookies, a new baseball generation is arriving in a huge rush with old-school, hard-nosed, aggressive play as a trademark. “To try to be the face of baseball [in the future], if they want [us to be] that, I’m all in,” Harper said.
Watching Harper soak in experience and adapt to it — all in a fraction of one hour — is remarkable. His hands unclenched. He became comfortable.
“There are people who want you to fail. Sometimes it can drag on you,” Harper said.
But the “stress” of playing in the big leagues?
“It’s not stressful,” he said, chuckling. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I love this game like a little kid.”
To the hyperactive Harper, stress would be “sit at a desk and look at a brick wall.”
Anybody who thinks that Harper will regress significantly, or for any length of time, probably isn’t watching closely enough. When it comes to baseball, Harper is the world’s happiest sponge. He sees his future clearly. He’s going to get even bigger, like his older brother, and better, too.
His statistics at the all-star break are almost identical to Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr., when they were 19. In 248 at-bats, Harper’s slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) is .282/.354/.472. In 238 at-bats in ’51, Mantle was .261/.341/.424. In 269 at-bats in ’89, Griffey’s numbers at the break were .279/.343/.472. For their full years, Mantle’s on-base plus slugging was .792, Griffey’s .748 and Harper’s is now .826.
Everything about Harper operates at two levels simultaneously. He’s every good thing you think he is, but you have to understand that he intends, and has always intended, to be one of the greatest players ever. It’s simply his operating assumption, one that helps him work fanatically hard, until there’s a reason to change it. So far, nothing’s made him alter his goals.
Only once did that casual bravado show up. Usually, he’s polite. He turned away from a repeat questioner, so he could answer a quieter reporter’s question: “Let me talk to her,” he said. He’s quick to point out his own failures: “I’m pretty terrible at all-star games,” he said, then named three in which, he says, he went 0 for 15 with 12 strikeouts. “I don’t know if they want to pinch-hit me in the eighth or ninth.”
Then he gets a question about the Scottsdale Scorpions of last year’s Arizona Fall League, a team with Trout, Harper and Middlebrooks. “We were three best friends, we always went out to dinner,” said Harper.
“One day in Scottsdale we’re two runs down going into the bottom of the ninth,” said Harper. “Brandon Crawford [now the Giants shortstop] said, ‘What do you think is going to happen?’ I said, ‘We’re going to get two guys on. I’m going to drop a bomb, walk off and own this place.’ ”
Crawford and Trout doubted. “‘I promise I’m going to hit a jack,’ ” repeated Harper. “We get two guys on, I’m up, 3-2 change-up, [home run to] right center. We run back into the clubhouse.”
How can a 19-year-old seem so at ease as the third teenage all-star in baseball history, along with Bob Feller and Dwight Gooden? In a way, it’s almost too simple. Like that moment when he tells his buddies that he’s going to “drop a bomb, walk off and own this place,” Harper has always expected this day to come, worked for it and now loves every moment of it.
Usually, Harper is driven. Here, he truly seems to be on a dream holiday with his family, no pressure to help the Nationals win in a pennant race and the likelihood that he’ll get one low-pressure pinch-hit at bat. Maybe he really is going to get four days “off” after all — mentally, at least.
With that delicious prospect in view, he even lets himself sound his age. “I just want to hang out and joke with the guys,” he says. “And get all the free stuff I can.”
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.