The first stage of saying, in effect, “Hey! You over there. You’re wrong about baseball!” consisted of three workouts and six meals a day until it consisted of none, that final week when Bryce Harper consumed only juice. Seven different raw juices. Over the final two weeks, before he exposed each of his muscles to ESPN’s photographers, he put salt in his drinking water so he could hydrate himself without gaining weight.
On the final day, before he stripped naked and recorded the results for the world, he rose for one final workout, but when he went to refresh himself, he spit the water out. When he arrived at the field at the University of Nevada Las Vegas for the shoot, his system was completely depleted. He shoved raw, white potatoes down his throat because he knew the glucose and glycine they contained would run straight to his muscles — which yearned for something, any kind of nourishment they could find.
“It makes you pop,” Harper said. “It makes you stand out.”
This is how Bryce Harper stands out on his own, and how he wants to help baseball stand out as a pursuit. He has said he takes 30 minutes on his pregame hair. He has Instagrammed his tailored suits. He has used a custom-painted bat in a game. And he has undergone an offbeat regimen — and by offbeat, we mean insane — to completely overhaul his physique so that he stood out, he popped, in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue.
Think you know what a baseball player looks like? Alter that notion, because here comes Bryce Harper. As he arrives in Cincinnati for Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, his third in four seasons as a big leaguer, he could appear to be one walking, talking ego trip. That part’s debatable, but it’s surely the easy perception from outside the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, that the kid should take a mirror to the plate so he can watch himself.
What’s not debatable is this: Harper will be positioned at the center of baseball’s showcase. He will be there, lights on, hitting third for the National League, because his .464 on-base percentage is the best in baseball, his .704 slugging percentage is the best in baseball, his 1.168 on-base-plus-slugging number is the best by more than 100 points. He has 26 homers when his old career high was 22. He has 61 RBI when his old career high was 59.
The numbers, at some point, had to come. Now, they are here. But put them aside, because when your body’s drained of nutrients and you’re drinking only raw juice — green four times a day, a watermelon-strawberry combo in the morning, a red cayenne-and-coconut concoction midday, and an almond-milk protein mixture before bed — you’re not thinking of numbers. You’re thinking of the klieg lights glaring. “I love it,” Harper said. “I really do.”
He loves it because at 22, he is a star. To truly play that role, it must be understood. To truly play that role, it must be embraced. That is Bryce Harper, July 2015.
“He understands where his place — potentially, someday — could be,” said his manager, Matt Williams. “He gets that he was here at 19, and that if he plays to 40, what that could mean. He also understands people’s view, and that sometimes they view that in the wrong way. . . .
“I think he’s starting to understand the process of becoming the player that he wants to be, and facing adversity and injury and understanding that, ‘Hey, listen, I got to make sure I take care of myself. I got to make sure that I’m productive for the team. And here’s how I’ll hopefully, someday, be a Hall of Famer.’”
From the moment Harper stepped on a major league field at 19, he had that look-at-me chip in him. The laser he sent to the bottom of the center field wall at Dodger Stadium in the third at-bat of his career didn’t just end up as a double. It went as a toss-the-helmet-from-your-head, let-your-mane-flow-in-the-breeze baseball moment.
The pre-shoot diet, then, would seem to be born of narcissism. Harper has another explanation.
“I did it for baseball,” he said. “Baseball players have such a bad rap of, like, we don’t work out or we’re not strong or this or that. Guys work so hard in baseball, it’s incredible. But people don’t know that. I wanted to show them, ‘Hey, this is our sport. This is who we are.’”
Who Harper is, though, is changing. That’s true in the public eye, for sure. Named in a preseason poll as his sport’s most overrated player, he is having an MVP season, and he pulled in more fan votes for the All-Star Game than anyone else in the National League. But for any of that other stuff to matter, he had to stay on the field, and he had to perform. A star isn’t a star on the shelf.
“If I’m healthy, that’s who I am,” he said. “That’s what I do.”
The star in Harper once wanted to be part of every aspect of the show, and that began with batting practice. His power is immense, and since he was a kid his sessions drew crowds and turned heads, balls clanking to previously unexplored parts of ballparks from coast to coast.
But this season, after Harper is done taking flyballs in right field, he heads to the cool of the clubhouse. There, he has his routine, every day, in the batting cages just off the Nationals’ dugout. It is him, a bucket of balls, a bat, a tee and Ali Modami, one of the team’s batting practice pitchers.
When the Nationals played at Yankee Stadium earlier this season, Harper took the tour, reading the plaques in Monument Park, taking his picture in front of Mickey Mantle’s spot. Why not hop into the cage during BP and send balls skyward? It’s the Big Apple, the Mick, the Babe, Broadway. Why not be part of the show?
“That was the hardest thing this year — not taking BP at Yankee Stadium,” Harper said. “That’s tough. I mean, I’ve never played there before.”
Instead, Harper went through his normal routine, out of sight. He swung a bat with his left hand only, then his right hand only. He swung a smaller bat with both hands, a drill that helps him keep the barrel through the ball. He put the tee low and on the outside half of the plate and hit five balls the other way. He walked through his swing, without seeing a pitch, to get his body flowing through the ball. He had Modami soft toss him balls from the side, then from the front, five or eight or whatever he needed.
And then Modami, a lefty, stepped behind the screen to throw Harper his batting practice session, a steady stream of four-seam fastballs, before which Modami would present situations: men on second and third, one out, seventh inning, down a run, facing, say, Phillies lefty Jake Diekman. Harper’s mind begins to go.
“You start thinking, ‘What would he throw me first pitch?’ ” Harper said.
This is the part of stardom that involves not a trace of glamour, the work in solitude and secret. The fans who arrive early know only that Harper is not on the field. His teammates, though, know where he is.
“What you learn about him is he wants to be the best,” said veteran infielder Dan Uggla, who competed against Harper for three years and now is his teammate. “He wants to take this team to a world championship. He likes that kind of pressure. He wants to be the guy in the batter’s box with a runner on second base down by one. He wants to be that guy. That’s who you want on your team, man.”
This hasn’t come without hiccups, even now, in the year he’s poised to match his accomplishments with his reputation, the year he’s poised to set up the rest of his career. He has overthrown the cutoff man in ill-advised attempts to nail a runner at third, only to allow the hitter to advance to second. On June 30 against the Braves, he lofted a flyball to left field — and didn’t run. The Braves announcers excoriated him. Williams approached him the next day.
“Dude, what are you doing?” Williams said he asked.
“Yeah, Skip, sorry man,” Harper replied. “I hit the ball to left and I was so mad. And then he caught the ball, and I went, ‘I didn’t run.’ ”
“We got to make sure . . .” Williams started.
“I got it,” Harper said. “I’m on it. I’m on it.”
The code of baseball is that every player runs out every hit in every at-bat. “It’s how I was taught,” Nationals veteran Ryan Zimmerman said. So when Harper doesn’t, the violation of the code mixes potently with his own stardom, and the criticism flows. On ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” that night, analyst John Kruk said such lessons are learned in Little League.
Harper understands. Being the star means not just enduring the scrutiny, but relishing it.
“The sports world is: What have you done for me lately?” he said over lunch last week. “I love that. I mean, I really do. What have you done to get this? What have you done to do that? Every single night you have to do something, then do another thing, do another thing. It never stops. And I want it to keep going. I want to move forward. I want to keep going, keep going, because that makes me better. That makes me better every single day.”
What also makes Harper better is the situation, a reality he can’t deny. When there’s a small crowd, and the stadium echoes rather than buzzes, “I’m just like . . . ” and he tossed his fork onto his plate, letting his shoulders slump. But the ancillary elements matter. Earlier this month, he didn’t just face San Francisco lefty Madison Bumgarner, the hero of last year’s World Series. “It was the Fourth of July,” Harper said. So he brought to the plate a special bat, one painted with the D.C. skyline, with stars and stripes. In his first at-bat, he crushed a homer.
“What I’ve learned,” he said, “is that I have to try to make every at-bat feel like that.”
But to do that, he can’t alter the routine. He knew how he would have approached a batting practice session at Yankee Stadium, with all of the Bronx locked in on his swing, on each ball.
“I would’ve tried to hit the ball a mile,” he said. “Probably would’ve tried to hit it out of the stadium.”
He thought for a moment.
“But what’s the good of that?” he asked. “There isn’t any.”
In the fourth inning of his first game at Yankee Stadium, he faced New York ace Masahiro Tanaka. The preparation was done, and the moment mattered. He cracked another home run.
Last week, Harper sat in an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill, busy at midday. He had driven in from his Crystal City apartment, parked his Volvo SUV in front of Eastern Market, and settled into a table right in the middle of the lunchtime buzz, hiding from nothing and no one.
“I love D.C.,” he said in between his mozzarella, tomato and basil salad and his tagliatelle with beef ragu. “I truly do. That’s not just me saying that. I want to be part of it. I want to enjoy it with the people. I want to enjoy it with everybody here.”
He is at the point, in Washington, that when he has lunch, the maître d’ brings over a filet sampler, whether he ordered it or not. (He did not.) He is at the point in Washington that he has his spots, Filomena in Georgetown foremost among them, Two Amys up Wisconsin Avenue NW for pizza. His Instagrams from around the city, often of the monuments, are sometimes hashtagged #home.
But getting Washington excited about baseball is the small version of Harper’s goal, the short reach of his stardom. The Body Issue was another way for him to — excuse the millennial buzz phrase — build his brand. He has, though, been building it since he was a teenager, first with a Sports Illustrated cover at 16, later with endorsement deals with Gatorade and Under Armour and Geico.
Such exposure, particularly when Harper was limited to 218total games in 2013-14 because of injury, could have seemed out of place. Baseball, more than perhaps any sport, sniffs out misplaced bravado. But the Nationals’ clubhouse has now come to terms with the team’s star.
“They truly don’t care as long as I perform,” Harper said. “It’s like, ‘Whatever. Harper’s on TV again. Harper’s on another commercial.’ That’s part of it.”
In Harper’s view, this is not just a natural part of being one of the best at what he does, not in baseball at least. In some ways, baseball players have to force their way into the public discourse, because none of 162 games is more important than the next, because the best hitters have their moment only four or five times a night, and even then they fail 70 percent of the time. Harper wants to overcome all that and make the game’s stars as recognizable as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
“Before I got into the game, I always thought to myself I want to change that aspect of baseball,” he said. “I want to change the nobody being with Gatorade or nobody being with high-profile companies like Under Armour or Nike or something like that, or being with a big brand in fashion or something like that. You look at all the other sports — football, basketball, soccer — they all have it. Baseball didn’t have that.”
Baseball’s contracts are guaranteed, and for stars, they’re incredibly lucrative. The 27 richest contracts in team sports history — the NBA, NFL and soccer included — have all gone to baseball players. But those riches haven’t spilled over into the endorsement world. According to data compiled by Forbes, 44 athletes from all manner of sports — tennis and golf and cricket and auto racing and football and basketball and boxing and track and soccer — earn more than $4 million annually in endorsements. Boston designated hitter David Ortiz is the only baseball player at $4 million off the field. The sport, with Harper at the helm, is trying to change that.
“Bryce is absolutely right,” said Jacqueline Parkes, MLB’s chief marketing officer. “We’re doing as much as we can. We have our most comprehensive campaign ever, but it’s a very cluttered marketplace. There are so many stars in both sports and entertainment.”
The league, though, is embracing Harper’s approach. It has started a social media campaign designed, in real time, to distribute the best moments from each of its stars. (Use #THIS to search Twitter.) It is using GIFs and Vines and Instagrams to mark those moments.
“No longer can we rely on 30-second spots to do the job completely,” Parkes said. “. . . But we’re not going to see results in one year. This is a long-term approach, and we feel really fortunate to have players like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen to build it around.”
Harper is the one who’s actively laying the bricks. As lunch wrapped up last week, the maître d’ brought by one last item, a white plate for Harper to sign with colorful markers, one that could join the others from celebrities that hung on the wall. Come back, they told him. Anytime, whatever you want.
“My life is great,” he said. “I mean, people want my autograph. People want to take pictures with me. And I get to play baseball. What can I complain about? Really? Truly?”
He put on his shades and stepped into the hazy sun of a Washington afternoon.
“I understand with performance comes everything else,” he said. “If you perform, you get a lot of other things. And I understand: If you win you get a lot of other things. That’s your main goal is to be a great baseball player, to win a championship, and everything else — fashion things or merchandise angles — is secondary. But I really would like to build that for baseball.”
He hopped in his car and drove to the ballpark, part ballplayer and part brand, every bit a star with his prime still ahead.
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