In the latest 34-second Under Armour spot featuring 19-year-old 2010 no.1 overall pick Bryce Harper, the preternaturally-gifted hitter takes BP on the field he played on during the two years he was enrolled at Las Vegas High School before he left to get his GED, attend Junior College and make himself available as soon as possible for the amateur draft. It's also the field, he says in the video, where he hit, "the farthest ball ever," the HR his coaches were measuring when most of the baseball world was introduced to the then-16-year-old phenom at the start of SI.com's Tom Verducci's June '09 article entitled, "Baseball's LeBron."
That home run, hit by a 15-year-old Harper, had traveled 570ft. For a kid who is compared in the Sports Illustrated article to Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky and the titular former Cleveland Cavalier to be heard proclaiming baseball a humbling game in the new Under Armour video might catch some off guard, especially considering the fact that the video shows Harper hitting on a field with Under Armour logos on the scoreboard while he bats in his signature Under Armour cleats with the signature eyeblack ooze Under Armour war paint t-shirts. "Baseball's a game that's humbling," Harper says, "Real, real humbling, so I think you need to go out there and work hard every day no matter what, because you know, karma, the baseball gods will kick you in your butt."
Is this a lesson learned while he traveled around the South Atlantic League with the Hagerstown Suns? Harper, who turned 19 this past October, had a .318/.423/.554 slash with 17 doubles and 14 HR's in 72 games and 305 plate appearances at Low-A then jumped to Double-A Harrisburg where he had seven doubles, three home runs and a .256/.329/.395 line in 37 games and 147 plate appearances before he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. As he has at each level of the game, Harper struggled early at Double-A, but before the injury he'd once again started to figure things out, posting a .292/.375/.521 line in 56 plate appearances in August before he went down.
Harper had no issues with the hamstring during his second stint in the Arizona Fall League earlier this winter, and after shaking off another slow start, he finished strong, hitting .429 over his last 10 games to finish the AFL season with a .333/.400/.634 slash, six doubles and six home runs in 25 games and 93 at bats. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo talked about Harper, who was named the top prospect in the AFL and Baseball America's no.1 prospect in the Nats' organzation for the second straight year after his first pro season, in an MLB Network Radio interview in which the general manager reported that Harper had, "... really come a long way in the outfield, left field and right field, he plays both. He's improving dramatically. I saw him backing up bases instinctually and not having to really think about it, so he's come a long way in that."
The point of having Harper, who some thought might be able to hit at the major league level last season, start off at Low-A and work his way up, the Nationals' GM explained on the day he was drafted no.1 overall by the Nationals, was to get the young catcher-turned-outfielder used to the, "... rigors of the professional game." The everyday-ness of professional baseball," the Nats' GM said, "is really the first thing that a professional player has to overcome."
In an interview during the AFL's Rising Stars game Harper said he'd learned what it's like to be a professional, saying he picked up some of the, "... secrets of baseball that everyone needs to know," during his first pro season. In spite of some controversies, with Harper captured on film blowing a kiss to an opposing pitcher and arguing with umpires, Rizzo told the MLB Network Radio hosts that he was impressed with what he saw from Harper. "With the exposure and the attention he gets at every stop that he makes," Rizzo said, "I think he's handled himself as well as I can expect him to handle it." Harper now heads to Spring Training with Nats' Manager Davey Johnson pullling for the outfielder to force the organization's hand and let him have the best outfielders available when the team heads North.
Johnson said he'd told D.C. GM Mike Rizzo to keep an open mind about Harper making the major league roster out of Spring Training. Everyone who's asked has said he'll be given a legitimate shot. There are of course, considerations that could affect the Nationals' decision-making process, as NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman explained in a post that covered the possibilites of future free agency and Super Two status, but as Davey Johnson told Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell at the Winter Meetings, "'I never get involved with contracts. That’s their decision. I make my recommendation on what makes the best ball club,' Johnson said. 'But you can shoot yourself in the foot making decisions just for contract reasons.'"
When Harper does eventually debut in the major leagues he won't be wearing the trademark eyeblack. Asked if he'd be allowed to on the day of the 2010 Draft, Rizzo said clearly, "No." But you can bet his "eyeblack logo" t-shirts will be the next "Beast Mode"-esque trend when he starts wearing them during postgame interviews and celebrations (assuming he'll be involved in winning games for the Nats in the future.) Harper already runs his own Twitter account (BHarper3407) which he uses to alternately talk about the various products he endorses, (taking pics of some of them while driving not a recommended activity), chronicle his travels and describe himself to fans and those who might not be on the bandwagon. "Cocky and arrogant on the field, humble and the only thing that matters to me is family off the field!" Harper wrote recently, "Either you like me or you don't!"
Something tells me fans in the nation's capital will like Harper while he'll continue to be taunted and harassed on the road as he travels around the major leagues. It's happened his whole life, and continued to happen in the minors. But Harper, much like Stephen Strasburg did, might actually be able to transcend the bounds of team-based loyalty. Baseball fans everywhere were interested in Strasburg. His jerseys were sold at opposing team's stadiums. When he looked back on his first season, which unfortunately ended in injury, Strasburg talked about how he'd, "... stirred up the baseball world well enough that it had more people becoming Nats fans and I know they're going to be there when I come back in a year."
Strasburg, however, is a quiet player who so far in his career doesn't seem entirely comfortable with all the attention he's received. Harper? He appears to have been born for this role. New York Times' writer Alan Schwarz wrote about Harper in a May 2010 article entitled, "At 17, Baseball’s Next Sure Thing: Bryce Harper", in which he said that the scouts he talked to described Harper as some sort of, "... tape-measure-testing, laser-throwing, eyeblack-oozing baseball cyborg." When he was just 16 he told SI.com's Tom Verducci that he wanted to get his career started, "'Hopefully as soon as 18 or 19. The fast track.'" Three years after that article was published he's about to reach that goal. The baseball cyborg is about to start playing the game he was built to play for real.
"I want to be a player that is a game changer, be like Pete Rose, George Brett, Mickey Mantle, all the guys that played it hard," Harper says in the new Under Armour video. It's the same thing he said all the way back in that SI.com article. Harper was clear about his intentions back then, telling Mr. Verducci that when he reaches the majors, "'I'm going to play against you the way Pete Rose did. I'm going to try to rip your head off. That's just the way I am. Old school. If I could play for a guy like Lou Piniella or Larry Bowa, I'd love it.'" How about Davey Johnson? In a chat with readers this winter, Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell said Harper is just what the Nats' 68-year-old skipper is looking for.
"I keep thinking how much Davey wants Bryce Harper to pan out fast because he LOVES big-ego and big-talent players," Mr. Boswell wrote, "Eventually, Davey always wants to run a Pirate Ship..."
Can Harper really be a mix of Pete Rose, George Brett and Mickey Mantle on the field as part of Davey Johnson's pirate ship with the game-changing talents and marketing power of Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky and LeBron James off the field? That's some heady company Harper's being placed in before he's even made his major league debut and that's some serious pressure being put on a 19-year-old athlete who has not, however, shown any sign so far that he can't handle it all. Bryce Harper appears ready for the Major Leagues. Is MLB ready for Bryce Harper?