It is the weekend before baseball’s All-Star Game, and Bryce Harper knows what that means for him. On Monday in Miami, a gaggle of scribes and television reporters will gather around, lobbing questions about his season thus far and — let’s be realistic — about two seasons from now, about where he might end up playing baseball. It is foolish, really, because the Washington Nationals are in first place, and Harper is their right fielder and three-hole hitter for this season and next, and what’s he supposed to say about his future when his present is so compelling?
“I’ll answer ’em all day,” he said. “It doesn’t scare me.”
And yet, boilerplate ain’t Bryce. So he can’t help himself. Harper, in so many ways, will be at the center of the All-Star Game because he is at the center of his sport. When the legendary baseball writer Peter Gammons, as informed an observer as the sport has known over the past half-century, went on a Chicago radio station last month and said, “I have people tell me that Bryce Harper really would prefer to play for the Cubs,” not only did baseball fans — in Washington, Chicago, everywhere — notice. Cubs executives certainly noticed. Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, called his client and asked whether he had talked to Gammons. Baseball, as an industry, took note.
Harper did, too, and largely shrugged. “I love Peter Gammons,” he said Friday, standing with one foot on a stool in front of his locker at Nationals Park. “One of the best baseball historians ever. But I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about.”
Yet when the Cubs visited Washington later in the month, Harper decided to tweak the sport back. He and Chicago third baseman Kris Bryant, winners of the last two National League MVP awards, both grew up in Las Vegas, both married Las Vegas girls. So after one of the Cubs-Nats games, Harper posted a picture of the two couples to his Instagram account.
“Just two Vegas boys living out our dream with the ones we love,” he wrote, in part. And then, far from accidentally, he added the hashtag “#Back2BackOneDay.”
“For what reason?” Harper said at his locker, smiling. “I do that to the media because they stir it more than I do. That’s why I do the things I do at times, because it’s funny to me. It’s like, ‘All right, people want to talk about this and talk about that. Why not just throw this out there and make them think about it?’ ”
They are thinking about it, the entire sport. Harper’s free agency — which, barring an extension with the Nationals, will come following the 2018 season — is an inescapable baseball-wide story line, even as he plays for a franchise seeking its fourth division title in six years. The entire sport expects — indeed, would bet on, and heavily — Harper’s contract to be the most lucrative in baseball history, which would make it the most lucrative in the history of American sports, blowing away the $325 million deal signed by Miami slugger Giancarlo Stanton. That’s a story, no two ways about it, and Harper will be asked about all aspects of it at the All-Star Game. It does not bother him.
“I’m so truthful with what I say, so I don’t have to put on a cape or an act or whatever — like I’ve got to be a different person kind of a thing,” he said. “Of course, I [B.S.] sometimes, because I have to. But things about the future and things like that, I don’t shy away from it. I’ve always said: I enjoy playing in D.C. But as much as it’s my choice, it’s the team’s choice as well.”
But it’s also the team’s responsibility to be prepared for life should Harper leave. Thus, an inevitable, but awkward, dynamic comes into play. All the Nationals players know this team — with all-stars Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg fronting the rotation, with the National League’s highest-scoring lineup — is one or two relievers away from being in position to push to a place it has never been before, the late days of October.
So the sentiment is there: Trade whatever prospect you need, including stud-to-be outfielder Victor Robles, to upgrade the bullpen, to truly contend for a championship. Plus, if Harper stayed, what do you need Robles for anyway? Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor and Brian Goodwin are all under the Nats’ control through at least 2021. By keeping everyone, isn’t that subtly showing Harper the door before he’s even approached the threshold?
Yet baseball knows the difficulty in retaining a would-be free agent should he, in fact, reach the point in time when he’s eligible to negotiate with 29 other teams, too. Those relationships can become fraught. The team watches its homegrown player flirt with the rest of the league. After that, can a marriage really work? The evidence is there: Of the top 25 free agent contracts in baseball history, only one was issued by a team to retain its own player: Baltimore’s seven-year, $161 million deal to keep first baseman Chris Davis. The other 24: See ya.
“I’m not going to talk about that stuff in the middle of the season,” Harper said. “I have to be the best I can for this team because everything I say or do reflects on [General Manager] Mike Rizzo, and the Lerners [ownership group], the Nationals — and not just that, the name on the back, Harper.
“What I say affects everybody in this clubhouse. It affects the organization. It affects this guy, that guy, the guy next to me. So of course I’m going to say the right thing — or try to. But at the same time, I don’t shy away from any question.”
Given the way he is producing, there is no reason to shy away from anything. After 2015, when he won his MVP award, hit 42 homers and posted a Bonds-like on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.109, there was the sense that he had broken through, that he would repeat such a performance every year. Then last season, he struggled — at least for him. In the second half, he hit an inconceivable .226 with a .709 OPS amid a swirl of innuendo that he was injured.
Harper remains somewhat cryptic on the subject, but it’s also clear now — as he’s healthy, as his average is up to .321 and his OPS to 1.017 — that something was wrong. His neck? His shoulder? Something.
“Last year sucked,” he said. “It was just, with me not feeling right and things like that from whatever it was, I wasn’t able to get in the gym and do the things that I wanted to do and really do it with a clear mind of, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ and I’m going to feel better and not worse.”
This spring, Harper said he spent the winter recommitted to training. That has continued into the season. Harper has been diligent in lifting one day, taking the next off, lifting the next, taking the next off. It has helped him, he said, retain both his weight and his strength. He entered the season at 225 pounds. He said he’ll enter the all-star break at 220, solid maintenance given baseball’s unrelenting schedule.
“Obviously, everybody knows there was an [injury] issue that kind of held him back a little bit last year,” said Mark Philippi, Harper’s Las Vegas-based trainer. “To his credit, he’s the type of guy who’s not going to use it as an excuse, but it probably limited a lot of what he could do. The whole idea was to get him healthy and get him to maintain his strength throughout the year. He’s more dialed in than he’s been in a long time. He was remarkably focused this offseason, and he’s carried it in to the season.”
So, statistically, he’s a force again, trailing only Cincinnati’s Joey Votto in OPS among National Leaguers, on pace to drive in more than 100 runs for the first time in his career and, with all-stars Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy hitting behind him, almost certain to score more than 100.
“I don’t think he has anything to prove to try to outdo the MVP year,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “ … I like to see him when he’s calm. You can sort of tell by his calmness, his demeanor. He’s having a great year, but you know it could even be greater.”
It is that quality, more than any, that puts Harper in the position he will be in at the All-Star Game. He is all of 24, but is five times an all-star, well established among the game’s best players. And yet, given his talent and his production and his age, couldn’t there be more? He is watched more closely than any player in the sport. People will offer their opinions about what he should do, about how much he’ll earn, about where he will play.
Bring ’em on.
“My Grandma Harper, bless her soul, she’s awesome,” Harper said. “But she’s not politically correct. Growing up, she would always say to me, ‘Opinions are like [noses]. Everybody’s got one.’
“That’s how I approach things every day. It’s part of everything that I go through … I would laugh and be like, ‘Yeah, you’re crazy, Grandma. Whatever.’ But now, it’s the truth.”
The truth finds Bryce Harper, midway through the 2017 season, right where he expects to be, right where he wants to be: at the center of his sport, able to absorb everyone’s thoughts about him and fight back with those of his own.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.