Washington Nationals' manager Matt Williams was asked early this spring for his first impressions and what might have surprised him about 21-year-old Nats' slugger Bryce Harper as he gets to know the 2010 no.1 overall pick in their first Spring Training together.
"He talks more than I thought he would," Williams told reporters. "He talks a lot. He comes in the coaches' room and sits down and talks the game. I think he's a great student of the game. And he pays attention to those types of things, which is really, it's refreshing."
Harper came to camp with a goal of being 100% on Opening Day following offseason surgery to repair the left knee which plagued him pretty much from the start in 2013, but from the start this spring he's been healthy, working his way back slowly, participating fully and playing six Grapefruit League games so far in which he's 3 for 14 with a home run, three walks and two Ks. A few weeks' worth of games later, Williams was asked again today what he's seen from the face of the Nationals franchise?
"I've learned that this is a young man with worlds of talent," Williams said. "But that really, really has desire to win. I've learned that there is a lot of pressure on Bryce and it's been there for a long time. And so I can't imagine myself at 21 years old being in his shoes."
Williams, now 48, debuted in the majors as a 21-year-old in 1987, (five years before Harper was born), but with nowhere near the scrutiny Harper has received since he first started making headlines as a teen and eventually ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Williams is impressed with the way Harper has handled all the pressure.
"I think he handles it fine," he said, "and I think that Bryce wants support from his coaching staff and from his teammates and they provide him that and I think he's well on his way to taking all those necessary steps to be the player he wants to be and everybody else expects him to be."
Davey Johnson talked often about the intense coverage Harper received as he worked his way up from high school to junior college, the draft, the minors and major leagues in just six years. After two seasons under Johnson's guidance, Harper will play for his second major league manager in 2014. Williams likes the development he's seen from Harper thus far in his career.
"I think he's going in the right direction and he's done all these things at a younger age than anybody has done all these things and all that stuff and we still have to remember he's twenty-one," Williams said.
"Pretty special 21-year-old, but he's still 21 years old, so we'll try to help him get to where he wants to go."
And where does he think Harper wants to or can go?
"It's a special talent," Williams told reporters. "Again, he's looking forward to taking that next step to turn all of that talent into that MVP candidate that everybody expects him to be."
"That's a little bit high expectation and that expectation was there at age 19."
The former major league infielder turned coach and now manager was asked if he thought the idea of competing with and trying to surpass baseball's other young stars has fueled Harper?
After first asking if Harper said he was fueled by that sort of competition and being told that he had not, Williams rejected the idea Harper was motivated by that sort of thing.
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"I think that's assumption, honestly," he said. "I mean, people assume that he's fueled by that. You'd have to ask Bryce."
"It would be my view that he's probably not fueled by that," Williams continued. "He's fueled by the need to win and the need to be as good a player as he can be. To be fueled by the fact that some other player is playing well, I don't think that's in his nature. It makes for good copy, and it makes for good conversation, but if you want the real answer, ask Bryce, because I don't think he would give you that and I think that would be the truth."
Harper was asked recently, of course. In an interview with CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman, he was asked if he compared his development to that of other young stars around the league. Harper said he didn't worry what other people think:
"'[Mike] Trout’s very good, [Manny] Machado’s really good,' Harper said.
"'I’ve been to the NL East title. I won it. Nobody else can say that. None of those younger guys can say that at all.'"
Comparing himself to those other young stars didn't matter, Harper explained.
"I could care less what other people think," he said, defying ESPN's Keith Olbermann's grammatical corrections. "As long as that team in that dugout loves me, that’s all that matters." And as Williams explained, Harper looks for that support from his teammates and coaches and they provide him with it. Can Harper meet or surpass the high expectations placed on him under Williams' guidance?