LOS ANGELES — After two major league games, this is what we know about Bryce Harper: He can smash line drives off fences, throw laser beams from the outfield, drive in clutch runs, crash into walls to steal doubles, face the press and boos without nerves and, if it is a day game, neatly smear about a quart of eye black on each cheek.
This is what we know about the game: It chews up 19-year-old first-timers, even the ones who play and act like they belong for two games. It sends them back to the minors with the queasy feeling that they know less than they thought. It spit back Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez and so many others. Is Harper different? Do we know, after two games, that he is ready at 19? “The game tells us that,” said Scott Boras, Harper’s agent.
The Washington Nationals unveiled Harper this weekend, and he will make his Nationals Park debut Tuesday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He came to the big leagues because of unforeseen circumstances, only after injuries decimated the Nationals’ offense. If he plays as well as he did in his first two games, he may be in the majors to stay. But we don’t know.
“I’m also reserved to the possibility that this may not be his breakout moment,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Like [Mike] Trout with the Angels, there could be a step sideways to take a leap forward.”
“More than likely,” Boras said, “he’s not going to be here permanently.”
Rizzo planned for Harper to receive between 250 and 300 at-bats in Class AAA, but third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s inflamed shoulder joint altered those plans. The Nationals needed a hitter. Harper was the best they had.
“I’m worried about what the game does to players,” Boras said. “I don’t think the game particularly likes young players coming in. I think it wants to show them there’s something going on up here that’s a little bit different than anywhere else you’ve ever played.”
But Harper appears to be a little bit different than anyone else who’s ever played. His path to the majors reads like an origin story. Major league scouts began watching him at 14. He smashed a 500-foot home run off the back wall at Tropicana Field at 15. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. He left high school a year early, passed the GED, laid waste to a wood-bat junior college league and became the first pick at 17.
“He has been hearing about his skill set being a major league player probably since Little League,” Boras said. “He’s been ready for this ever since he was 15 or so.”
Harper’s unique ascension has conditioned him to look past anything but the highest level of baseball. Tony Tarrasco, the Nationals’ roving outfield coordinator and one of Harper’s closest confidants in the organization, reminded him often over the past two years to keep his mind on Hagerstown or Harrisburg or Syracuse, not Washington.
“He needs to be challenged,” one person close to Harper said.
Harper hit just .250 with one homer in 72 Class AAA at-bats. He admitted the level failed to excite him. After his debut Saturday night, Harper enthused about the experience of reaching the majors – and leaving the International League behind.
“I really had that fire and that passion back in my game,” Harper said. “Down in Syracuse, it’s kind of hard when it’s 25 degrees and you’re facing guys that throw pretty hard. Coming out here, playing for a winning team like we are, I think it’s just a great opportunity.”
Sunday, after he crashed into the center field fence to make a catch, Harper cracked, “It’s better than running into the wooden wall in Syracuse.”
Many people within the Nationals organization and close to Harper believe playing in the majors will be less of a mental challenge for him than playing in the minors. If a player with his profile fails in the minors, it is an embarrassment. That specific pressure evaporates in the majors. Harper may be the rare player with less to prove in the majors than in the minors.
“In the minor leagues, he might have been trying really to get here already,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Now that he’s here, he’s not going to have to worry about that anymore. He just wants to go out and play.”
“Bryce is so driven, a lot of times he tries to do too much just getting here,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Sometimes, just getting here is kind of like more relaxing. This is what he’s been after since probably he was 12 years old. His sights have been on playing in the major leagues. He’s much more driven than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Sunday afternoon, after he went 1 for 3, Harper greeted reporters at his locker and asked for a moment. “Let me grab a hat,” he said. After he scurried to find his cap and returned, a reporter asked Harper if Monday’s off day would help settle him down. He seemed confused by the sentiment and considered it in only the most practical terms.
“I guess so,” Harper said. “I don’t really have anything with me. I packed, like, a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. I might do a little shopping, things like that.”
Now that he has arrived, the Nationals have no reason to send him back if he can provide the best alternative. The Nationals need offense and have received almost none from their left fielders, who hit a collective .097 prior to Harper’s arrival. The Nationals’ previous left-handed option in left was Roger Bernadina, a career .238/.303/.357 hitter. It does not seem like a stretch to imagine Harper exceeding that.
“He’s not in it to be on TV,” Desmond said. “He’s in it to win ballgames and be a superstar.”
Harper will face an avalanche of hype, similar to what Stephen Strasburg confronted in 2010. But that, unlike Strasburg, has been his normal world for years. (“I think he likes the attention,” Johnson said.) Saturday afternoon, he faced a pack of roughly 40 media members, his back to the wall in the visitors dugout at Dodger Stadium. “I’m actually not very nervous right now,” Harper said.
The sellout crowd booed him at each at-bat, and afterward he smiled about it. At least the players in the other dugout had not heckled him, a common occurrence when he began his career last season at Class A Hagerstown.
“Hype’s only going to be in the way if you care about it,” Strasburg said. “He knew what he was getting into. It’s L.A. He knew he was going to get booed and stuff. It comes with the territory of being one of the best prospects ever. He has to go out there and keep playing the game the way he knows how.”
On the day the Nationals drafted Harper, he spent the afternoon in Boras’s Southern California office. The commissioner announced the first pick at roughly 4 p.m. West Coast time. Shortly thereafter, Harper grew restless. “I want to go see a ballgame,” he told Boras. They got in the car and drove to Dodger Stadium.
Saturday afternoon, Harper again drove to Dodger Stadium. He met Boras at the entrance. As they walked up the tunnel and the field became visible, Harper looked at Boras and told him, “The grass is still green.”