March 6, 2012; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) in the dugout in the sixth inning of the game against the Atlanta Braves at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE
Just about every Washington National who does an interview these days is asked about Bryce Harper. Reporters are even asking other team's players what they think about the 19-year-old preternaturally-gifted hitter. Ryan Zimmerman was asked during an MLB Network Radio interview last month what he thought about the public comments made by the Nats' 2010 no.1 overall pick. A few weeks earlier (after he'd obviously watched the HBO doc "Namath"), Harper told MLB.com's Bill Ladson he'd like to have a career like the Jets' quarterback's when Namath was Broadway Joe and he was winning on the field and doing commercials as a celebrity/athlete off it. Zimmerman essentially dismissed the comments, laughing and explaining, "I think we all love Bryce here. Bryce is a very, very... He means well. I try to tell everyone, and I think a lot of people tend to forget that, you know, what were you doing when you were 19-years-old?"
"The perfect thing, and what we need to do as his teammates, is help him get through this process," the 27-year-old '05 1st Round pick continued, "because physically, this guy is a freak. He's going to be an unbelievable baseball player. I've never seen anyone at his age have the ability or the ability to make adjustments, but he's way beyond his years there. But the mental side of baseball is what gets people. I think everyone's talented and there's a lot of guys that are talented enough to play in the big leagues, but mentally they're not good enough, so it's kind of our job to help him through that. He's going to make mistakes just like I'm going to mistakes this year and the most important thing is that he learns from them and doesn't make them over and over again."
Harper's teammates (or someone in the Nationals' clubhouse) made light of the comments/sent a message that people were listening by replacing Harper's no.34 nameplate with a "Namath 12" plate a few weeks after the outfielder's comments made headlines. Harper eventually shut down his Twitter account after he'd stirred up controversy several times with his comments. While there are several good, legitimate reasons both financial and developmental for starting the second-year pro in the minors at the beginning of the season, the front office, at least publically has said all winter that he's being given a legitimate shot at making the Opening Day roster.
When Harper returned to action last week, he told CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman that he thought the calf strain which cost him a week of Grapefruit League games had also cost him his chance to make the Opening Day roster out of Spring Training. The Nationals, skipper Davey Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo in particular, have been vocal about keeping an open mind about the possibility of the second-year pro making the 25-man roster in April, but after the injury when CBS's Mr. Heyman asked Harper if he could still make the team, the Nats' 2010 no.1 overall pick said, ""Probably not," before he added, "It's all good though.'"
Harper later qualified his comments and "retracted the sentiment," at least, as Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore put it in an article entitled, "Bryce Harper plays center, clarifies approach to making Nationals, eager to face Yankees", in which the WaPost writer quoted the 19-year-old outfielder telling reporters, "'I’ve never had that mentality to say, ‘Ah, probably not.’ Or, ‘Ah, I don’t want to make the club.’ So I’m shooting to be one of the top of the top 25 guys on this team and get up there to D.C. and try to win. That’s my main goal.'" D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told MLB.com's Bill Ladson, in an article entitled, "Rizzo addresses Lannan, Harper in Q&A", that no decision had been made. "'The injury was a setback for him, as far as costing him days, at-bats and his learning curve,'" Rizzo told MLB.com's Mr. Ladson, "'But we have a lot of time left in Spring Training. We are going to do what's best for him and his development.'"
When Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell asked one-time Braves' wunderkind Chipper Jones about Harper's tweets, the Namath comments and all the press that's accompanied his first year plus as a professional, or the "youthful indiscretions" as the Mr. Boswell described them, Jones, a former no.1 overall pick from the 1990 Draft, said in an article entitled, "Chipper Jones remembers what it was like to be a teen phenom", that, "'It’s disappointing to hear,'":
"'You’d like for somebody with his ability, being his first big league job, to be one of those kind of kids who’s practicing to be an ambassador for the game. Hopefully he follows that script as opposed to the Joe Namath way.'"
The next day a GQ profile by Will Leitch entitled, "Is Baseball Ready for Bryce?", was published. In the article Harper's portrayed as a brash, foul-mouthed star on the verge who, "... seems to have emerged fully formed to piss off the baseball establishment." According to Mr. Leitch, Harper is, "exactly what baseball needs." Harper's described by the writer as, "... a throwback: a cocky, ornery cuss who can back it all up. Ty Cobb minus the racism and chaw, Lenny Dykstra before the bankruptcy," and Harper once again mentions Pete Rose as a role model for the way "Charlie Hustle" approached the game on the field. Of course it's what all of the players mentioned accomplished on the field, as well as the fact that they were individuals fans, teammates and opponents loved to hate, that is the basis for the comparisons. Hopefully Harper can accomplish what they did on the field and avoid the ugliness that later became associated with their names.
An "ambassador for the game," "Baseball's LeBron," the next Cobb, Pete Rose, Chipper Jones or Barry Bonds...
Are any of these labels fair? No, not for Harper when he was 16, not when he's 19 and still unproven, but Bryce Harper wanted all this. He wanted to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He wanted to leave high school early to make himself eligible for the draft. He knows the mic is on when he says what he does, knows he's leaving it up to writers to paint a potrait of the modern athlete as a young man in the era of Twitter, Facebook and instant news and criticism, and he keeps on saying things he knows will end up in headlines even after telling reporters that his goal this Spring was to simply, "keep [his] mouth shut and play." He asked for all this and now he's got it. It's up to him what he does with it... but he's only 19. He's got time to figure it out.