HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — Bryce Harper took an outside strike and shot a disapproving glance at the umpire.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to the young phenom. The ump had been calling them wide all game. Showing displeasure now — with a man on base in the seventh inning when his team needed runs — was hardly going to help.
Three pitches later, Harper struck out by flailing at a pitch that was well outside with the runner going. Another lesson learned by a teenager navigating the backwaters of minor league baseball.
Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 and accelerated his way into college, setting himself up to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Washington Nationals in last year’s draft. He signed a $9.9 million contract, the biggest payday for a drafted position player.
He added to his legacy shortly after joining the Class A Hagerstown Suns, when he emerged from a slow start and went on an 18-game hitting streak, to the point that he’s now among the South Atlantic League leaders in batting average and homers (.338 and 13 through Sunday’s games). He attributed the turnaround to new contact lenses, saying he was “blind as a bat” until he got them on April 18 — an instant-legend anecdote that no doubt is already finding its way into a movie script.
Nationals fans are, of course, paying attention. Some have started clamoring for Harper’s promotion to the big club. If not now, then very soon. Washington is in last place in the NL East and one of the worst-hitting teams in the majors, so why take the long, slow road with the kid?
The answer, for those who see Harper every day, is an easy one. There are dozens of things, from obvious to subtle and tangible to intangible, that go into making a major league baseball player. Maturity. Baserunning. Learning to work the count. Dealing with the grind. Attitude. Adjusting to umpires. Meshing with teammates in the clubhouse.
Harper has a head start on most of them, but he’s mastered maybe three. He’s got a major league arm in the outfield, a powerful swing and is very competitive. Everything else is a work in progress for an 18-year-old who, in another world, would right now be rehashing tales from his senior prom.
“One of the biggest sins you can make is putting guys into position where they’re going to fail early,” said Doug Harris, who keeps a close in-person eye on Harper as the Nationals’ director of player development. “We’re really committed, but lay the blocks before we try to put in some chandeliers and some granite countertops. We want to make sure we’ve built a good foundation, not only on the field but in the clubhouse.”
Harper validated Harris’ point perfectly in a game last Thursday. While the headline will forever record that Harper hit his first walkoff homer with the Suns — a two-run shot in the bottom of the 10th for a 9-8 win over Greenville — the details reveal that earlier in the game he was twice erased from the bases by simple mistakes. He was picked off in the first inning, then got caught in a rundown in the fifth trying to advance on a ball in the dirt.
Harper shrugged off both miscues, chalking them up to things that just happen in a game.
“They got me when I was leaning,” he said of the pickoff, and he attributed the rundown to a good play made by the catcher. It’s part of a recurring theme — he’s been embarrassed more than once trying to snag an extra 90 feet this season.
“He’s a very aggressive player, which is great,” said Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach, who played eight seasons in the majors, mixed in with parts of 14 years in the minors. “It’s always easier to rein a guy in a little bit instead of getting a passive guy to play aggressive and take extra bases. We talk about the right situations to be aggressive, just really trying to think before the play happens.”
On Monday night, Harper showed his immature side, puckering a kiss toward the pitcher while rounding the bases after hitting a home run against Greensboro. That’s the type of behavior that will get him beaned in the majors — as perhaps in the minors as well. The first pitch in his next at-bat was a brushback, high and inside.
Such moments aside, Harper looks very much like the real deal. Even on other nights when the boxscore seems humdrum, he’s still the most compelling player to watch at Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium.
He made a perfect one-hop throw home from center field in the first inning of a game against Asheville, turning what should have been an easy run into a close play. He then used his speed to make a nice warning track catch before hitting the wall in deep center in the third.
He went 0 for 3 at the plate, but one of his outs was a frozen rope right at the center fielder. Harper naturally gets every pitcher’s best game — everyone wants a Harper strikeout on the resume.
“Raw power stands out the most,” Daubach said. “He does things that guys, it takes until they’re 25 or 30 years old (to do). When he’s taking batting practice, it’s like watching a major leaguer already.
“The things he needs to work on is, first of all, the everyday grind of playing professional baseball, which no matter how many games you play in college or high school, it’s different. There’s always going to be an adjustment period for anybody. We came off a stretch where we played 20 straight days. All the guys, the first full season, you can see them getting a little bit tired, that’s part of the growing process, too. Being able to get through when you’re not 100 percent. Still give 100 percent of what you have that day, even if it’s only 80.”
Harper is still learning the outfield, having been converted by the Nationals after being a catcher most of his baseball life. Still, he already has his first legendary outfield moment: Against Lexington on May 6, he slipped while trying to cut off the ball at the warning track in right field, picked the ball up and, seemingly out of frustration, flung it to third base to nail the batter going for a triple.
“He launched a one-hopper, perfect,” Daubach said. “The runner was stunned.”
Harper is the youngest player in the league, but by all accounts he has blended in well among his older teammates. The Suns’ have an in-house nickname — “Beaver” — for anyone who works hard and makes hustle plays. Harper is a natural beaver.
“I think he’s doing just fine for being an 18-year-old kid,” first baseman Brett Newsome said. “He runs balls out and gets dirty. He’s one of the guys, man.”
Harper’s father, Ron, points out that his son long ago had adapted to the rigors of the baseball grind, playing 100 games or more per year, usually with older teammates, and traveling extensively, including stints in the U.S. national team program. Ron Harper keeps a close eye on his son, attending many of the games and often throwing his son batting practice before they arrive at the park.
“He’s having more good days than bad days,” Ron Harper said. “And in baseball if you do that, you’re going to be successful.”
Ron Harper said the role that contact lenses played in his son’s turnaround was perhaps exaggerated, but there’s no mistaking that seeing better helps quite a bit.
“I wanted him to go get checked, and he did because I knew he had a problem with his eyes before,” he said. “It’s not as bad as everybody thought. The contacts he had before gave him headaches.”
General manager Mike Rizzo has made it clear that Harper won’t be in the majors this year. In fact, it could be a while before there’s a promotion from Hagerstown, about a 90-minute drive from Nationals Park.
The Nationals did a lot of work on the Suns’ ancient ballpark in the offseason, remodeling the clubhouse and installing a new field, new grandstand seats and a new video board.
“I like the setup he has there,” Rizzo said. “He’s very comfortable in the surroundings. He’s got a great staff around him, but I don’t see him staying there for the entire season. He’ll be moved at some time. We’re just not at the point where he’s ready to move yet.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)