I’ve never seen a player enjoy his first 10 games in the big leagues as much
as Washington Nationals rookie Bryce Harper, just revel in them, rise to them and gobble
each day like he’s waited for it since he was born. And I’ve never seen a
teenager have an impact on so many of those games in so many different ways,
even as he has ignored the mistakes that reveal his age and skimpy pro
This is a moment in baseball time that doesn’t come often and won’t last
forever. They tell me the arrival of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in ’51 had
the same aura of amazement and delicious uncertainty. I watched it with Ken
Griffey, Jr., when he was 19 and combined every skill Harper now has, plus the
grace of having played center field since first putting on a glove. Pete Reiser
had it all, too, led the NL in nine categories at 22 in ’41, before he ran into
so many walls he was taken off on a stretcher 11 times, given last rites on the
field once and — with a fractured skull — still threw the ball back to the
There aren’t many of them, these players who are both too talented and too
young to believe, who might be anything or everything or, with one wrong
component in their makeup, washed up before they’re 30, like Reiser.
I have no idea how good Harper will ultimately be, and no one else does
either. Or, if they do, please report to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, because
precise knowledge of the future should be put to better use.
Harper entered Thursday hitting .265 with six doubles and a .381 on-base
percentage, which seems pleasant but normal, unless you’ve watched his games.
He’s found a way to be a force in every one. He’s not a hitter, fielder,
slugger, thrower or runner as much as he’s a hellbent here-I-am-world
Very few rookies, even those much older, seem so comfortable (if you can be
comfy with your faux hawk on fire) as Harper clearly is now. He’s not faking
focus; he’s just having a ball, except when he gets picked off or pops up the
first pitch with men on base. Then he’s total get-you-next-time.
At roughly the same stage — very young and with similar plate appearances to
Harper — famous bloom-early stars such as Griffey (.175), Tony Conigliaro
(.152), Cal Ripken Jr. (.128), Mays (.139) and Mantle (.211) — weren’t doing so
well. The record book says Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, from their first week,
were already Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. So, if you trust such dusty old data
(harrumph), Harper ain’t so hot.
But with Jayson Werth out for three months because of a broken wrist, it’s
nearly certain that Harper, as long as he’s healthy, will be in the Washington
outfield almost every day for the rest of the season. If Werth returns in
August, the Nats aren’t going to send Harper to Class AAA only to jerk him right
back up when rosters expand Sept. 1. Not happening. He’s here to stay.
Harper plays like a five-tool Pete Rose. That’s why Harper is so electric, so
instantly accepted by his teammates, despite his age and occasional brashness.
That’s why I will never forget to record a Nats game this season — okay, unless
he goes 7 for 123.
So far, Harper has crashed into the Dodger Stadium center field wall to make
a leaping catch. He has stomped on first base after a hellhound-on-my-trail
sprint every time he has hit a routine grounder, even to the pitcher. He has
taken an extra base, then stole home to get instant revenge against the Phillies for
being drilled with a Cole Hamels fastball.
He has stretched singles that went barely beyond the infield into doubles. He
has scored from second on a hit that rolled six feet onto the outfield grass. He
has thrown out runners at the plate, including one on a low whistling 300-foot
peg that the umpire nonetheless called, “Safe,” probably because he couldn’t
believe what he had seen.
See, that .265 batting average isn’t, maybe, capturing everything that’s
going on here. All those feats within 10 games don’t even count his violent
batting practice, which sounds like an evening thunderstorm. Asked if he had
ever seen anybody swing so hard in BP (while maintaining balance and mechanics),
Davey Johnson said, “Mantle.”
Harper has made more adjustments, at-bat to at-bat, within one game than I’ve
seen other young Nats player do at 23 to 26. Harper, so far, hasn’t chased many
bad pitches, a telltale sign, and has more walks (six) than strikeouts (four).
The only other man who played 100 games as a teenager who had more walks than
strikeouts in his first 10 games was Rusty Staub (2,716 hits).
A few pitches around his letters have lured Harper. And low change-ups can be
troublesome. But Harper looks like he’s jotting notes in his “book” just as fast
as the pitchers are scribbling in theirs.
Once in a great while, a player makes our imaginations behave irresponsibly.
Stephen Strasburg has already taken us there in the
pitching realm. Now it’s Harper, too. We hear ourselves say silly things. As my
wife admired Captain America in “The Avengers,” I whispered, “That’s how Bryce
Harper is put together — well, if Captain America were about 30 pounds bigger.”
We know, eventually, his strengths and limits will be measured. In time, some
air of professionalism will replace his wolfish open-grin ebullience. Why,
before too many years pass, Harper will even learn what is impossible for him on
a baseball field.
Right now, he honestly doesn’t know. But he’s trying to find out. We get to
watch. It’s hard to imagine how baseball could be much more fun.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.