In a recent interview, Harper detailed his plans for stardom when he joins the Nationals’ roster, saying he envisions being a man about the District. While stopping short of comparing himself favorably to Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, Harper made it known he aspires to follow Namath’s iconic model.
On Twitter, Harper listed the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers and Duke University as his favorite teams. Other than the Nationals, it seems, he’s not very interested in the D.C. sports market. And then there was his decision last season to blow a kiss at a pitcher after hitting a home run in a Class A game.
Obviously, Harper is entitled to his views. After already paying Harper like a star, the Nationals want him to become one. Harper hasn’t said or done anything outright alarming. Repeatedly, though, he has exercised questionable judgment — and the Nationals know it.
He is only making things harder for himself and the Nationals, “and we’re not glossing over it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said Monday. “We’re not just saying that he’s a 19-year-old kid and that he’s making typical 19-year-old mistakes. He’s a different case. He’s a special-case scenario. This guy is in the public eye. . . . When this guy tweets it out, or says something, it can go viral. There’s a difference here. We recognize it.”
Rizzo has counseled Harper. They speak often about Harper’s responsibility to the organization. Washington’s public relations staff helps Rizzo reinforce the message in conversations with Harper.
Generally, it’s not wise for minor leaguers to look too far ahead. It was a bad idea for Harper to link himself, in any context, with “Broadway Joe,” Namath’s nickname during the height of his fame in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Namath is best known for guaranteeing the New York Jets’ upset of the Baltimore Colts in the third Super Bowl. He was flashy. He was a trendsetter. He was also highly accomplished. The off-field glitz resulted from Namath’s grit. His talent and leadership drove everything. Winning made all the other stuff possible.
Although Harper is considered an amazing prospect, he has yet to play above Class AA. His can’t-miss label doesn’t matter until he succeeds at the highest level. With so much still to prove, he is putting himself in a bad spot because, to this point, he’s simply the game’s highest-profile minor leaguer. That’s all.
Rizzo understands. He knows the kid could have handled things better, “but there’s not a malicious bone in his body. Now, there’s a cocky bone in there. And there’s an ego bone. And there are other bones . . . but there’s not a malicious bone in his body.
“He loves being a Washington National. He wants to be a Washington National for the length of his contract. This is the way he sees himself. He wants to go into the Hall of Fame with a Washington Nationals hat on. He wants to win championships and that sort of thing. That’s who he is.”
Rizzo didn’t apologize for Harper being a fan of teams in other cities. Harper likes winners.
“He’s a Yankee fan, he’s a Cowboys fan, he’s a Laker fan. What do those three teams have in common? They win all the time,” Rizzo said. “They’re nationally recognized symbols and nationally recognized brands. That’s what this kid ultimately wants. He wants to play in the big leagues. He wants to win in the big leagues and he wants to win as a Washington National.”
For Harper, the bar has been high from the moment the Nationals drafted him in 2010. He’s not merely expected to be good. He’s supposed to be great. Harper possesses the tools, baseball people say, to meet those expectations.
Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, who is as sharp as it gets in baseball, has strongly encouraged Rizzo to consider including Harper on the opening day roster if he performs well in spring training.
To have a chance, though, Harper must show Rizzo much more than simply a high on-base plus slugging percentage in Grapefruit League play.
“He’s going to make it to the big leagues when I realize that, developmentally, he’s ready to play in the big leagues,” Rizzo said. “That’s physically, that’s emotionally and that’s psychologically.”
The kid is still learning — but he needs to hurry.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.