It became something of a family mantra for the Harpers of Las Vegas, passed down from the ironworker father to the ballplayer son, a code of working hurt, whether that means hefting rebar or sliding headfirst.
Bryce Harper’s body ached on May 16 in San Diego, still tender from his collision with the chain-linked Dodger Stadium fence three nights earlier. That night, he would limp through the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, his left knee throbbing. That evening, he would launch a home run 430 feet to center field. That afternoon, he spoke with his father and told him, “It’s time to Cowboy Up, Pop.”
“I get it,” Ron Harper said this weekend in a phone conversation. “I’m an ironworker. I worked hurt every day of my life. Sometimes, you got to Cowboy Up. That’s one of our favorite things. There ain’t nobody tougher than a cowboy.”
Harper’s inclination to play hurt, and the Nationals’ willingness to allow him, culminated ultimately with his Monday morning visit to orthopedist James Andrews at the surgeon’s institute in Pensacola, Fla., for a second opinion on his swollen left knee. The Nationals remained mum about the trip’s results Monday night. Few details had emerged about Harper’s visit but one person familiar with the visit said “all is good long term” for Harper’s knee.
Shortly before 7 p.m. Monday, Harper posted a seemingly encouraging, yet slightly cryptic, message on his Twitter feed. He wrote, “All good! #FinishIt”
Harper’s visit to a high-profile doctor would bring him “peace of mind,” his father said. The Nationals sent Harper to Andrews, the surgeon who operated on the right knee of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, as a matter of “protocol,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday. The team, he said, uses a specialist for each part of the body and sends players for second opinions when they land on the disabled list.
Harper has not played since May 26, when he aggravated the injury with two headfirst slides and with a foul ball off his knee. The time off has helped Harper not only rest his swollen knee, but also to recuperate his entire body, which has pained him since April 30, when he leaped into a wall in Atlanta and bruised the left side of his torso.
On June 2, the day after he finally landed on the disabled list, Harper said he actually should have gone on the DL after the collision with the wall in Atlanta. His inexperience and his toughness led the 20-year-old to keep playing, though, and the Nationals listened to Harper’s assurance he could play. “He felt good enough and he wanted to play,” Manager Davey Johnson said after the Nationals put Harper on the DL. “And he knows his body better than anybody.”
The Nationals on Sunday improved to 6-12 without Harper in the starting lineup, and their reliance on his powerful bat, strong defense and overall energy made him want to play through pain. His offensive stats suffered, but Harper knew his presence in the lineup alone could change games.
“Just for Bryce trying to sit and not play — that’s why he did play injured – is probably the single most hard thing he could possibly do,” Ron Harper said. “Everyone knows how much he loves to play the game. I think Bryce’s biggest thing, he puts so much pressure on himself, especially when they keep flashing what the record is without him in the lineup. He blames himself. He feels like he’s the reason they’re losing.”
Ron Harper made clear he felt the Nationals had handled Harper’s injury appropriately. “Absolutely. 100 percent,” Ron Harper said. “And [Bryce] does, too.”
The knee injury surfaced on May 13, when Harper sprinted back to catch A.J. Ellis’s line drive over his head in the fifth inning. He barreled into the wall at full speed, looking over his shoulder as he crashed into the chain-link covered scoreboard. He received 11 stitches in his chin and bruises everywhere — his shoulder, his knee, his arm, his side, already damaged from his collision at Turner Field.
The bruise in his knee hardly stood out in comparison at first, but it became the primary source of concern. After he started two games in San Diego, he sat the next two in an effort to stem the swelling in his knee.
The signs his swollen knee had compromised carried over even to warmups. Harper scaled back his pregame hitting routine, saving wear on his knee and preserving himself for his at-bats during the game.
“It did limit him in certain ways, because you didn’t want him to beat himself up more,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “You wanted him to prepare, obviously, but you didn’t want him to do so much that maybe it would have a negative effect going into the game. So, yeah, things were tapered. I think Bryce is smart that way. A lot of that was done naturally on his own. He knows his body and how he feels.”
“He’s a tough kid,” Eckstein added. “He’s really tough. A lot of times, he doesn’t want to share fully the extent of everything. Obviously, he was dealing with more than what you could see.”
Harper returned again and played the entirety of five straight games. On May 26, he limped through seven innings against the Phillies before Johnson pulled him. The next day, he received an MRI exam, and Nationals physician Wiemi Douoguih diagnosed bursitis, saying the test revealed no structural damage.
One option for treating bursitis is a cortisone shot, a common practice in athletics. Cortisone dulls pain and ebbs swelling and inflammation. Harper said last week he would not consider it.
“I don’t want to put any of that stuff in my knee or in my body,” Harper said. “I think that can do some damage to my knee. I’m not going to do that at 20 years old.”
It is not clear whether the Nationals had presented cortisone as an option, either before or after Harper went on the disabled list. But his father said they had discussed the possibility and called it one possible outcome of the visit with Andrews. Those close to Harper put no pressure on him to receive a shot, leaving the decision up to him.
“I don’t blame the kid for not wanting to put anything in his body,” Ron Harper said. “He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t put anything in his body outside MLB regulations. He wants to be the cleanest player out there. I told him I was proud of him. I told him it was totally up to you. I also told him I had a couple in my shoulder and it worked for me. I’m just giving him fatherly advice, not doctorly advice.”
Twenty-eight days passed between Harper’s knee slamming into the wall and his appointment with Andrews, 28 days in which Harper played through pain or couldn’t play at all. An immediate trip to the DL may have limited the injury to 15 days. Harper planned to learn from the experience, to learn when — and when not to — Cowboy Up.