Bryce Harper has never played a regular season major league game as a 22-year-old. That comes Monday. Since he was in his mid-teens, he has been scrutinized for how he wears his eye black, the manner in which he trots off his home runs, what he says to pitchers, when he throws to which base, what cereal he prefers. And that’s before anyone even gets to his (still-evolving) production.
But there is also a more elemental, day-to-day — and perhaps more important — aspect to Harper’s development, one that will be on full display in this, his fourth major league season. It is not Harper, the public figure, three times on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It is Harper, the teammate, in the quiet of the clubhouse and the shadows of the dugout.
“I’m very comfortable with where I’m at,” Harper said late in spring training, and he looks to be. Saturday, he took his by-now-familiar spot in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, the end locker next to the showers, a veteran’s spot. He took, too, what will likely be his familiar spot in the lineup — third — and jogged out to right field, “where I hope I am for a long time,” he said.
The baseball part is, ultimately, what matters, and for the Nationals to be the fullest version of themselves, Harper can’t play in just 100 games this summer. More than that, he can’t drive in just 32 runs. Those were his 2014 numbers — a largely lost season. But that numbers part, veteran players believe, is intertwined with how he handles himself as a major leaguer.
“I don’t know how you explain Bryce,” said Adam LaRoche, the former Nationals first baseman who has moved on to the White Sox but remains something of a connoisseur of clubhouses.
So LaRoche, here for Harper’s first three seasons, tried to explain from half-a-baseball world away at Chicago’s spring training in Arizona. Permission to speak freely, sir.
“When the time comes, when he really has the respect from all his teammates and coaches, I think that’s when you’ll see a different ballplayer,” LaRoche said. “You see signs of unbelievable stuff. I think that’s when it’ll be really all the time — when he can see kind of big-picture, long season, there’s 25 guys in here that we all need to care about, everybody needs to look out for each other. Once he gets a grasp of that, he’ll be really good.”
Implied, of course, is that he doesn’t understand that. Yet, at least.
Saturday, Harper took the occasion of his first plate appearance in an exhibition game to walk, then tag and sprint to second on a short flyball to left. This is the kind of brash, what’s-he-thinking play that gets tongues quietly wagging in clubhouses. He looked to be dead. Somehow, he was safe. Does the end justify the means?
It’s a version of the game played in mid-March in Florida, when Harper appeared to lollygag as he chased after a ball hit to the right-center field gap, only to say later that he was trying to bait the runner to go to second — which he did, and where he threw him out. Matt Williams, his by-the-book manager, considers that the equivalent of the guy next to you at the blackjack table hitting on 17. It upsets the game’s equilibrium.
“Needs to get to the ball quicker,” Williams said at the time.
“It’s part of my game,” Harper said.
Agree to disagree? No one else in the Nationals’ clubhouse would arrive at spring training, sit down with the media and say, “Where’s my ring?” He is a T-shirt waiting to happen.
“If he feels an emotion, he lets you know,” Williams said Saturday. “And you can’t argue with that. That’s just pure, 22-year-old honesty.”
So there is a base-level struggle in this: How can we ask for less of the just-happy-to-be-here drivel from our stars, then admonish them when they say what’s on everybody’s mind? “Max Scherzer signed with the Nationals? Damn, they’re going to be good. World Series favorites.”
Somehow that sounds different when the words come from a mouth that sits beneath a Nationals cap.
“It puts him in focus, and he needs to be able to handle that and perform through it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “If he can do that, then no big deal.”
There are those players, in every sport, who by their nature — both athletic and otherwise — end up the center of more than their share of plays, the center of more than their share of conversations. Welcome to the worlds of Robert Griffin III and Alex Ovechkin. Baseball, though, carries with it a different code. It’s impossible to say how or why Harper’s words would even remotely relate to how he performs. In the clubhouse, though, it’s all noticed, particularly when the source has never played a major league game at age 22.
“Everybody’s seen the talent,” LaRoche said. “The talent’s there. The rest will be up to him. The more I was there, and the more I was around him, the more he grew up — little by little. There were a lot of times we’d get frustrated at little things that he would do or say, that a lot of times it’s what everybody’s thinking, but you just got to know — timing of things, and being a young guy you can’t get away with saying quite as much, and the platform that he has, he’s got to be really careful.”
Careful, to this point, hasn’t been in Harper’s vocabulary. It probably shouldn’t be. “I want players to be themselves,” Rizzo said.
With Bryce Harper, that’s never a worry. He is 22, and has never faced a pitcher younger than him. He has time to develop on the field — and in the clubhouse.