Ron Harper speaks with his youngest son most every day, and on the evening of June 13, Bryce Harper sounded tired. The Washington Nationals had finished a road trip through Boston and Toronto, during which Harper put on one of the most devastating hitting stretches by a teenager on record. On the phone with his father, baseball was not on his mind. “I can’t wait to go home, Pop,” Harper said.
The casual reference gave Ron Harper pause. Home? Home had always been Las Vegas, the city where Harper was born and raised. Then, he realized his son wasn’t talking about Las Vegas. He was talking about Washington.
“This was the first time I heard him say D.C. felt like home,” he said.
Since his major league debut on April 28, Harper has played at a historic level for someone his age. He has emerged as an offensive catalyst for a first-place team, and attracted fan and media attention throughout the sport with his blend of power and hustle.
He also remains a 19-year-old who could be in college but is instead living alone in a top-story apartment in Pentagon City, a $9.9 million contract in his pocket and a $20 Weber grill on the balcony. He does his own laundry, except when his father visits. When he is bored, he goes shopping in Georgetown. He thinks of Washington as home with a surprising — or, for the Nationals and their fans, encouraging — degree of permanence.
About three weeks ago, Harper talked to teammate Ryan Zimmerman about playing in the same city for the duration of his career. Zimmerman, who grew up in Virginia, signed a contract extension this offseason that ensures he will stay in Washington through at least 2019. Harper told him he wanted the same thing in his career.
“You look at Cal Ripken. You look at Derek Jeter. You look at all the greats that played for one team their whole career,” Harper said last weekend, sitting in the dugout at Camden Yards in Baltimore. “I want to be like that. I’ve always wanted to be like that. I’ve always wanted to play with that same team.”
“Having a community and fans like we do in D.C. that love our players, love everything about us, we deserve to give something back to them,” he added. “I want to do that. I don’t want to do anything else.”
Harper has told his father the same thing, that he wants to make Washington home and play here until he retires. “Bryce is as loyal as they come,” Ron Harper said. “He doesn’t care about nothing but winning a championship.”
He is considering moving to Washington for the winter, to live here year-round and visit family out West for holidays. Only three Washington players — Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Columbia, Md., native Steve Lombardozzi — live in the area.
“The best thing about D.C. is the people,” Harper said. “They are so nice and genuine. Seeing us on the streets, it’s just like ‘Hey, I don’t want to bother you, but it’s nice to meet you. You’re doing a great job.’ They’re so nice. I got the vibe right when I got to D.C. I was like, ‘These people actually care about their athletes. They actually care about the people around them.’ They just want the best for us.”
Baseball’s relentless schedule consumes the majority of Harper’s time, but he has developed routines in his life away from the game. On many days, that includes scribbling it all down in a journal. He listens to Counting Crows and Dave Matthews Band and unburdens himself of his thoughts. He jots down quotes he wants to remember and logs his experiences.
“Just getting things out,” Harper said. “Once I get things out, then I come to the field the next day, I’m good. I don’t write every day. It’s just those times where it’s like, I’ve got to get a release.”
Harper has been writing in his journal since the end of high school, which for him is not long ago. Harper did not stay in college long — he passed the GED, left high school after his sophomore year and spent a semester at the College of Southern Nevada in order to qualify for the baseball draft at 17.
If he had stayed in school, he said, he would have majored in journalism. He likes to keep his writing sharp in case he becomes a sports broadcaster after his career. “It’s not like I’m writing poetry or anything like that,” he said.
He feels a vivid peace when he writes. One night, Harper sat on his balcony and listened to music as a storm gathered. “The rain and stuff is unreal — the thunder and the lightning storms,” Harper said. “The lightning storms are pretty impressive out here. In Vegas, you get that a lot, too. I like when it rains. It’s relaxing.”
Harper wakes up most mornings between 9:30 and 10. He makes the bed every day. He eats often at Ted’s Bulletin, on Barracks Row, because he loves the breakfast and they serve it all day. Sometimes he sits at the bar or in the main dining room, or takes food to go. His favorite order is a stack of chocolate pancakes.
One time, his waiter slipped Harper a blueberry tart, a Pop-Tart-like house-made pastry covered in icing and purple sprinkles. That night, May 14, he hit his first career home run. Another day, the same waiter gave him another blueberry tart, Harper smashed another home run. Now, the staff views it as a tradition.
“We call it his power pop tart,” manager Edel McAloon said.
Harper has developed other, similar relationships. On the night he hit his first home run, he went for a late dinner with a friend at Clyde’s in Georgetown. It is quiet on weeknights, and Harper had eaten there frequently enough to become friendly with the staff. Two bartenders and five waiters were working that night. They clapped for him as he walked in. At the end of his meal, they brought him a slice of chocolate cake with a candle on it. The meal was on the house.
Harper takes tips on local restaurants from Bill Gluvna, a former Nationals public relations official who now works for the company headed by Harper’s agent, Scott Boras. Gluvna is one of Harper’s closest confidants in the city.
For a game beginning at 7:05 p.m., Harper typically drives one of his two cars to Nationals Park by 1 p.m. He receives treatment on his back, studies video of the opposing team and prepares for the game. He needs to get his work done early because, invariably, reporters will vie for his time once the clubhouse opens to media.
“I’m sure it wears on him,” his father said. “Just getting tired. Just wanting to get in there and get his thing done, and just be another player. I keep telling him, ‘Kid, you’re not. You’re not another player. It’s all been built up. You didn’t ask for it. You just were good at something and it worked out.’ ”
Harper keeps a close circle around him. His father, a retired ironworker, visits more often than his mother, Sheri, who still works as a paralegal. Harper sometimes cooks for himself — grilled chicken and pastas, mostly — but relishes the times when his mother visits and makes his favorite dish, shepherd’s pie. During his parents’ last visit, they noticed he had already done his own laundry. They still run errands for him, which makes him feel almost guilty.
“Everything I need, they’re always there for me,” Harper said. “I’m so appreciative towards them. I feel bad sometimes. Sometimes, they do a little too much, running errands for me and whatnot. But they want me to be focused and have fun and not worry about little things around me. I think that’s really huge.”
Harper’s entire family visited him in Denver this week when the Nationals played the Colorado Rockies. His father drove the 11 hours from Las Vegas to Denver so Harper could see the puppy his family gave him for Christmas, which Harper had not seen since February. Harper named the puppy Swag.
For Harper, the demands of a major league ballplayer preclude a typical social life of a 19-year-old.
He sometimes hangs out with other Nationals players, often second baseman Danny Espinosa, who’s 25. Many of his older teammates have families, and so he does not want to bother them on off days at home. He spent several nights over the past month at home watching the College World Series or a movie on TV.
On the road, he stays tight with teammates. One night, on a walk to the hotel from Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Zimmerman teased him when he figured out Harper was 8 years old when first baseman Adam LaRoche got married.
“You’ve got a bunch of players around him who love him as a teammate and protect him and don’t let anybody mess with him, except for them,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It’s like your brother. You can mess with your brother as much as you want. Don’t let somebody from the outside mess with him.”
There is one unavoidable divide between Harper and his teammates. On the road, if a large group visits an establishment with a 21-year age limit because of the drinking age, Harper cannot join them.
“From what I know, he’s got his close circle,” Ron Harper said. “It’s hard. He’s the youngest kid on the team. He can’t go out. Really, his circle is him.”
Recently, the Harpers have been taking Swag to dog training classes. They want Swag to learn how to stay inside for long enough to feel comfortable shipping him East to live with their son. “So he’ll have a companion,” Ron Harper said.
Teammates will look out for him. When he cannot enter a bar, Harper said, a few teammates, often LaRoche or outfielder Rick Ankiel, will break off with him and find a restaurant that does not require identification to enter.
“They don’t want to put me in bad circumstances,” Harper said. “That’s what this team has got. We’re like a family. We have that camaraderie in the clubhouse. We all have fun. I respect those guys so much for that.”
A celebrity of Harper’s stature could surely massage his way into many bars or clubs. Harper said the temptation does not even strike him as an option. He does not drink alcohol, he said, and he is adamant he will not. Although he was raised a Mormon, Harper did not mention his religion as a reason.
“That stuff has never appealed to me,” he said. “It’s never appealed to me to go out and get hammered or anything like that. That’s never been my nature. I want to take care of my body. I want my body to be strong all the time. I don’t want to be fatigued. I don’t want to drink and have my liver collapse. I want to play for a long time, and I want to be strong for a long time.
“I’ve always said my body is a temple. I take care of it. I don’t want anything to go inside of it that’s going to destroy it or anything like that. I always tell my parents I’d never do anything like that. I’m going to keep strong on that. There’s a lot of people that say, ‘Ah, no you won’t, no you won’t.’ But I’ve always told myself I would.”
He said he also feels certain obligations.
“I’m not going to be a clown and go out, do anything like that,” Harper said. “I want to respect this town. I want to respect the people in this town. I want this town to know, Harper is going to give this town his best every single day. He’s not going to play hung over. He’s not going to do anything like that. He’s going to be the real deal. He’s not going to do any stupid things that destroys his career. I really want to give my best every day. If I don’t do those things, that’s not what’s going to happen.”
Years separate Harper from decisions about his long-term future, yet already he speaks about Washington as a long-term home. He grew up a Yankees fan, but now he plays for the Nationals and calls Washington home.
Before the Nationals played the Yankees in mid-June, Harper told his father, “I don’t want to be a Yankee. I want to beat them.”
Staff writer James Wagner contributed to this story.
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