LOS ANGELES — The first thing Bryce Harper wanted to know was, “Is it bad?” He kept asking Denard Span, the first person who reached Harper on Monday night after he ran chin-first into right field wall at Dodger Stadium. As Harper lay motionless, his manager was concerned he had a concussion. Span would later thank God that Harper was not carried off the field on a stretcher, that he had 11 stitches, no concussion and only bruises on his left knee and left shoulder.
When he rose to his feet, though, Harper did the kind of thing that defines him. In a 6-0 game in mid-May, as blood formed a morbid necklace under his chin, Harper pleaded with Manager Davey Johnson to let him keep playing.
“He actually was trying to stay in the game,” Span said. “I was looking at him like, ‘No, you need to come out of the game.’ He’s a warrior. I guarantee he’s going to try to play tomorrow. I just thank God he’s okay.
“He was trying to tell the trainer and Davey, ‘I’m okay, serious. I’m okay, serious.’ I’m like, ‘Is somebody going to step up and say he’s not okay? Because he doesn’t look good here.’ ”
The Nationals and Harper survived another scare. X-rays on his knee and shoulder, taken late Monday night, came back negative, General Manager Mike Rizzo said. Johnson held him out of the lineup Tuesday night, but Harper should return soon. Harper “will be sore but fine,” Rizzo said. “Day- to-day.”
Harper listed off what hurt the day after: “Both legs. Shoulder. Ribs. Hand. Wrist. Chin, of course.” Harper would have played if he only felt sore, but he also felt nauseous, he said.
“I feel kind of crappy today,” Harper said. “I feel a little carsick, I guess you could say, like the feeling of that. I don’t have a concussion or anything like that, which is very pleasant to hear.”
While all sides agreed Harper does not have a concussion after he was tested Monday night, Johnson said Harper would “probably” undergo more tests at some point because of the nausea. In 2011, baseball instituted new rules that force teams to follow specific protocol for players who may have experienced head trauma.
Harper can do just about anything he wants on a baseball diamond, but at 20 and still learning the outfield, he lacks the instinct to protect himself. Harper’s utter abandon helps make him the player he is, helps separate him from so many others. It also may endanger his long-term prospects and threaten the Hall of Fame career earmarked for him since his youth.
“He’s not worried about the wall or anything,” Johnson said. “He should know it’s on the warning track and back off, but that’s not his nature. I don’t want to change that. I feel sorry for the wall if he keeps running into them.”
It was easy for the Nationals to joke about Harper’s latest brush with injury once they learned he didn’t have a concussion and that the X-rays he went for were only precautionary. Should they be more concerned? Should the Nationals be worried that he doesn’t worry about walls?
Tuesday, in the visitors clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, Harper again made clear he prioritizes effort over safety. He said having to shave his beard to make way for the stitches upset him most, more than the possible harm he could have caused himself.
“I’m going to play this game for the rest of my life and try to play it as hard as I can every single day,” Harper said. “My life being on the line, trying to kill myself out there for my team, trying to win a World Series, people can laugh at that all they want. At the end of the day, I’m going to look myself in the mirror and say I played this game as hard as I could.
“Throughout my career, I’ll learn, I guess,” Harper added. “But that’s how I play. I’ve always played like that, even in college. I’d run into walls and get back up and go, ‘Holy crap. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.’ But that’s the way I play. If I catch a ball and make a great catch for my pitcher, even if we’re ahead 6-0, it’s something that I pride myself on. I’m going to keep playing like that for the rest of my career.”
Harper has only played the outfield full time since 2010, the year the Nationals drafted him and converted him from catcher. Lack of experience, rather than too much hustle, may be the real culprit. Monday night, Harper said, “I thought if I had about five more feet, I was on the ball.”
“He hasn’t been out there enough to probably even realize he’s running into the warning track,” Johnson said. “But he’s hit the fence enough times that he’s going to get the translations of how close he can get to the wall. But I don’t want to put a damper on his enthusiasm. That’s who he is. It’s just going to come with experience. One of the best teachers in the world is hitting that wall hard.”
Harper has endured several close calls in such a short career. Some of them happened in the course of the game, and some happened outside of it. The episodes all display Harper’s lack of regard for his health.
It could have been worse last April, in the second game of Harper’s major league career, when he ran into the center field wall at Dodger Stadium making an oft-replayed catch. The collision left him with a back injury that lingered but didn’t force him to miss any games.
“We’re used to it,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I would rather him not go all out into the wall, ever. But that’s the way Bryce plays. That’s the way he’s always played. . . . As a player and someone who plays the game, if you play that hard every day, there’s something to be said about that. That’s what Bryce does.”
It could have been worse last May, when he slammed his bat against a wall in Cincinnati and hit himself in the left eye. He suffered only a cut then, but his bat connecting with his eye, a few inches away, and damaging his sight could have had stark consequences. “He doesn’t know how close he came to ending his career,” one front office official said at the time.
It could have been worse last month, when Harper tried to rob a home run in Atlanta, in the fifth inning of a 5-1 game, and badly bruised his left side. He had to leave the next night’s game, and he went 2 for 19 as he swung through the bruise.
It was the kind of play, like his all-out effort Monday night, that endears him to teammates. “That’s all you can ask for as a pitcher,” starter Jordan Zimmermann said. “A guy going 110 percent.” The Nationals have to hope his mentality won’t lead to long-term consequences.
“He’s going to play this game for a long time,” Zimmerman said. “To do that, you have to start taking care of your body, and that means not injuring it yourself. But I would rather have someone at that age playing too hard and have to harness it down than not play hard enough, and you have to tell him, ‘Hey, you have to run that ball out.’ I don’t see any problem with any of it. As he grows, he’ll learn what to do and what not to do.”
The fury with which Harper plays makes him great. But there is a fine line he must tread. He can only ask, “Is it bad?” so many times before there comes an answer nobody wants.