VIERA, Fla. — The reigning National League most valuable player stared at his hands, or forward into nothing, as he answered reporters’ questions for the first time this season. Occasionally, he would look up at the inquisitor, polite and respectful, but for a guy so often at the center of attention, Bryce Harper seemed wholly uninterested in it Monday.
A few minutes later, when he walked into the clubhouse and saw Jayson Werth had arrived, Harper lit up. He pulled up a stool and showed Werth his new shin guard, one with his own personal logo on it. Harper chuckled as the consensus clubhouse leader put the shin guard on his battered wrist.
“Does it work for this?” the veteran asked. Harper laughed and pulled his stool closer to Werth, one of the players he credits for aiding his maturation. Harper’s age often fades behind his achievement, blurred by an MVP award and so much hype, erased by 97 career home runs and 528 hits. He is 23 years old. In some ways, in terms of visibility and notoriety, the Washington Nationals are his team. But this, he insists, is not his clubhouse.
“I don’t think I’m a leader,” Harper said. “I think I’m more just a guy playing the game. I think [Werth] and [Ryan Zimmerman] and all those guys are the leaders.
“I’m still at that stage of where I’m still looking at J-Dub, I’m still looking at Zim to do everything they can to make the best for this team. Then play as hard as I can out there and lead by example.”
On the field, Harper seems to relish standing out: walking to bat to Frank Sinatra’s “The Best is Yet to Come,” using a bat with the D.C. skyline painted on it and performing a hair flip ritual after each home run. His talent, polarizing personality, showmanship and massive marketability mean Harper probably will be the face of the Nationals until he becomes a free agent three years from now. But his new manager, who has played with and managed some of the game’s most prominent stars, does not believe such status means Harper must lead.
“He has leadership potential, but he’s not a leader yet,” Dusty Baker said. “How many people are going to follow the youngest kid in the room? And just because you’re the most talented doesn’t mean that you’re the leader. I don’t think it’s really fair to put that even on him.”
Baker said he wants Harper to “grow as a player and as a man.” Harper said he wants to keep getting better, too. In fact, the desire to improve was the only sentiment he expressed more often than “I just want to win” (and variations thereof) during his 17-minute interview. He did not get into specifics. Then again, what more can an MVP do?
“You can always improve. I don’t care what. Did he get Gold [Glove]? You know, how many bases did he steal?” asked Baker, who joked he would talk to Harper about falling one RBI short of 100 in his MVP season.
Harper said Monday that he just wants to stay healthy again, and that he did the same things this offseason that he did last year before hitting 42 homers and posting a 1.109 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Such superlative numbers at such a young age fueled offseason speculation about whether Harper one day would become baseball’s first $400 million (or even $500 million) player when he becomes a free agent in three seasons.
“I mean, I’ve got three years to play. I’ve got three years to do everything I can to play this game. The $400 [million] or whatever everybody was talking about, money, you can’t put a limit on players,” Harper said. “You can’t put a limit on what they do. If that’s on the field, off the field, everything they do. Everybody says the sky’s the limit. But we’ve been on the moon.”
No matter how determined he is to deflect attention to team goals, Harper does not blend in, with the cameras rolling and the baseball world watching. He is a magnet for opinions and unintentionally drew a few more when Jonathan Papelbon choked him in the dugout in late September.
The incident was “just something that happens,” Harper said Monday. “Something that got blown out of proportion with the media and what not. It was squashed that day.”
Harper, like Papelbon, said he would not speak of the incident again.
“I just want to be a family out there, pulling the same rope every single day,” said Harper, the public face of that family if not, as he insists, the head of it.
“Where were most of us at 23 years old?” Baker asked. “I’m not putting any limitations on him; I’m not going to put any pressure on him. I’m just [going to] let him be Bryce. The best thing I can do is let him be himself, let him be Bryce. That should be enough.”