Monday, May 7, 2012

Bryce Harper: The Phenom Has Arrived

I won't deny that I've been in the tank for Bryce Harper since I read the article on him in Sports Illustrated when he was just 16 years old. I was amazed by what I read, the highlights on ESPN, and the determination the kid displayed to fast track himself to get drafted which included graduating high school a year early and enrolling into a junior college. I may not have agreed with the route he took but the old ballplayer inside of me, the one that grew up wanting to one day put on an Orioles uniform, couldn't help but wonder not only what if for myself but what could be for this young man.

Fast forward to 2010 and Bryce Harper is drafted by the Washington Nationals. Are you kidding me? A year after my local team drafts a pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, that is supposed to be the next sure thing, with teh 1st overall pick, the team is able to draft Harper 1st overall? Someone pinch me! Mind you I had finally started to really embrace the Nationals team, something I've been overly critical of many within the DMV of not doing, especially of late. In fact the only time you'd see fans at Nationals home games would be games started by Strasburg or when the Phillies came to town, and most of them were Phillies fans. Of course when Nationals Park opened the stadium did sell out and was bonkers but from what I was told just about every home opener since then saw numbers that left something to be desired despite what the team's announced attendance was.

I thought for sure that trend would change this season. The team ended last year playing .500 ball, Strasburg was coming back and there was an outside chance that this Harper kid could make the majors out of Spring Training, he didn't. I mean of course he didn't! Harper did very well in AA before being fast-tracked to AAA ball where he struggled a bit and then had his Spring Training shortened by injury and didn't really get things going but you knew despite what GM Mike Rizzo said, manager Davey Johnson wanted to get this kid up to "The Show" as soon as possible, even if it meant losing an extra year of holding onto his rights.

Fast forward to April 27th and Bryce Harper makes his debut as the Nationals Left Fielder against the Los Angeles Dodgers. When I found out he had been called up I texted my cousin and my boss and was totally surprised by the move. I had read he was struggling in AAA ball, though he had started to pick up his production, but thought for sure he was more likely to come up in June than April. I also was disappointed that his Major League debut would be coming on the road instead of at home but I quickly realized that was best because there was enough pressure on the kid, who has come under constant scrutiny since appearing on that SI cover, that starting him on the road should actually take some of the pressure off him.

Mind you this is a kid that has no problem saying exactly what he wants regardless of the backlash that may come from it, heck even as recently as February I was a little miffed at the kid because of some of the things he said on Twitter, he's since shut down his account. It wasn't that he said anything bad, even in his interviews he was always straight with things but it was more of the sports rivalry aspect. Reading that Bryce is a fan of the Duke Blue Devils, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers, and Dallas Cowboys would not only make him a #1 target of ridicule amongst the fans in the area, Chad Dukes called him a douche, but it alost caused me to believe he was one of "those people," you know the bandwagon fans that only likes a team because of the media and hype that surrounds them. I can't stand any of those teams but I will say I respsect each of them for what they have done and brought to each of their respect sports. Those issues, while petty, were minor compared to the national attention he received last year when he got tossed for arguing balls and strikes and for blowing a kiss to an opposing pitcher after he hit a home run. That kiss quickly made him the anti-hero in baseball and despite me shaking my head in disapproval I admit that I liked it. The kid showed up the other guy, sure but that edge showed me something, I just couldn't put my finger on it at the time.

Whatever feelings I may have had about Bryce's personal choices or immaturity, which teammates say he has overcome, can easily be ignored after his debut though. This kid won me over with his hustle, I mean damn he nearly beat out a comebacker to the pitcher. Every ground ball that kid is flying, if he has a chance for an extra base he takes it. He plays the game the way it should be played. He's a star in the majors at 19 and I do fear that one day he'll get complacent and won't try as hard or he'll step wrong on a base and blow out his knee or dislocate his ankle, but the kid plays the way I wish every multi-million dollar athlete would, running out ground balls, running at full speed, and sacrifice his body making a catch like he did in his first game in CF as he crashed into the wall. After all of this I told a friend that Bryce is the real deal to which he responded "he's a dick." Fine let him be a dick but I'd still take a team of Bryce Harpers over a team of just about any other player in the league.

Bryce has now been up for a little over a week and while he hasn't displayed the power he did before getting drafted he has shown he belongs in the majors and it seems the team now plans to keep him there, whether choice or by force, due to injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, and Jayson Werth, arguably the teams three best hitters. What Bryce has lacked in power he has made up for in smart plays though, the sad thing is that until this weekend, no one had shown up to Nationals Park to see it. For a stadium that can seat around 42,000 the team could have built a stadium for 24,000 and still have trouble filling it most nights including his home debut and it has less to do with the team, who was tied for the best record in baseball going into yesterday, as much as it does with the fans in the DMV.

This brings us to last night. Bryce Harper would finally have all eyes on him as the Nationals and Phillies finished up their weekend series on ESPN. The Nats had already won the first two games of the series and the Phillies had preferred to pitch around Harper rather than face his bat. In his first at bat of the game Phillies pitcher, Cole Hamels, hit Bryce in the side with the first pitch he saw. Later Hamels would admit what everyone pretty much knew, it was a "welcome to the big leagues, kid" pitch that he intended to hit him with. Pretty much it was an initiation, old school baseball. Hamels could be facing a suspension for it and he ended up having to pay for it, twice. The next batter, Werth, blooped a single to left and Harper took off and ended up at third, on a play that most ballplayers would have stopped at second. Then when the next batter came up Hamels decided to try and keep Werth close at 1st and attempted a pick-off to 1st base which was enough for Harper to take off for home plate and steal home. The crowd went nuts and the kid made a statement with that play while basically dropping a bit ol "SUCK IT" to Hamels and the Phillies. Later in the game Hamels got plunked by Jordan Zimmerman so despite a double dose of payback the Phillies ended up with the win.

So while the team lost, the story of the game was Harper. He showed he belonged, showed he's gutsy, showed he's ready to embrace every rivalry. I for one love watching him play and will be tuning in every chance I get to see him play. He's eccentric, he's polarizing, he's the 2000's version of Charlie Hustle (Pete Rose for those who don't know). In fact his game reminds me a bit of Jackie Robinson on the bases mixed with Wade Boggs at the plate. I've watched the game since I was 5 and I'm no expert by any means but the style of both players is what I see in his actions and that's really a compliment to him and maybe a bit of a diservice to them but time will tell.

Earlier this week Bryce threw a bullet to the plate that beat the runner, though the umpire made the wrong call, and since then teams have refused to test his arm. Between him and Rick Ankiel the Nats are a strong armed outfielder away from holding teams from ever attempting to score on a sacrifice fly. I have yet to see him make a mistake, except for that AWFUL hair cut..I mean seriously its like half mo-hawk and half mullet...he looks like someone put some road kill on his damn head...lose the possum..but I digress, so let's just say I have yet to see him make a mistake on the field but that't not to say he won't, and he's played smart baseball beyond his years. On the national stage in front of a nationwide audience the Harper, got plunked, stole home, took an extra base on at least two occassions (he hit a soft bloop to left and turned it into a double, and made a great diving grab, for the first out of the inning, while keeping the runner, albeit the pitcher, at third, that eventually saw the Nats get out of a bases loaded no out jam.

As I said my fear is the kid will hurt himself hustling all the time but he's also a well conditioned athlete. I'm not worried about him not becoming this monster power hitter or turning from his Mormon upbringing and falling the route of Josh Hamilton into a life of drugs and alcohol. I am worried that he'll be so good that the Yankees or another big name club will come to him when he becomes a free agent and offers him a contract of like $300million over 10 years and DC will no longer have Bryce Haper because in a city full of egos and controversy this is one character whom I'd like to keep around.  Hopefully as Bryce and the Nats get exposure the team will start to draw more fans.  One thing is for certain, after last night many women, and some men,  in the DMV will be offering up themselves to have Bryce Haper's babies.

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