50-year gap no big deal to Nats’ Johnson, Harper
Washington Nationals center fielder Bryce Harper is 19 and looks
and sounds the part, from his Mohawkish haircut to his tattoos and
well-documented ”clown question” `tude.
His manager, Davey Johnson, is 69 and looks and sounds the part,
from his graying hair and leathery skin to the near-whisper
speaking voice that delivers tales of chatting with Ted Williams
Yes, Johnson and Harper were born a half-century apart. One’s
the oldest skipper in the majors. The other put together the best
season by a teenage hitter since the 1960s. Able to meet somewhere
in the middle, and united by a supreme sense of self-confidence,
they helped Washington build the best record in baseball in 2012 –
and both figure to get plenty of attention when the club’s NL
division series starts Sunday at defending World Series champion
”Davey has such a young mindset, and Harp is such a throwback.
It works,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who selected
Harper with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft, and
turned to Johnson when then-manager Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned
midway through last season.
”It’s an amazing relationship that they have. It’s a
father-son, mentor-type of relationship,” Rizzo said. ”There’s
great respect on Harp’s part for Davey, and there’s great affection
from Davey to Harp.”
Spend some time talking with Washington’s strong contenders for
NL Manager of the Year and NL Rookie of the Year, and the mutual
admiration comes through immediately, perhaps because they see
Between bites of a plate of berries, Johnson praised Harper –
whose 22 homers this season are the second-most by a teen in big
league history – as ”a very smart young man,” and noted, ”He’s
not just talented; he studies things, which is really
Harper relishes that Johnson, who won the 1966 and 1970 World
Series as a second baseman with the Baltimore Orioles and managed
the New York Mets to the 1986 championship, ”raked and hit
”He’s been around the game for a long, long time. Everybody
knows that – and everybody’s going to listen to him,” Harper said.
”That’s huge for the whole team.”
Harper also gets a kick from the way Johnson – the last
ballplayer to get a hit off Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax – sounds
like an old-timer while yelling, ”Whack-o!” in the dugout after
one of the Nationals drives a ball over the wall.
”Every time he says that, when we hit a homer or something,
everybody starts laughing. It’s from back when he played,” Harper
said, chuckling at the thought. ”He likes homers. Of course he
does. Everybody does. But it’s relaxing to have a manager that is
all for his team and lets you go through struggles and lets you
play it out and lets you succeed.”
Their ages, both agree, are irrelevant.
”It’s not how old I am. It’s how I treat him every day,”
Johnson said. ”And he doesn’t want any special treatment. He wants
to be treated just like everybody else.”
They first met several years ago, when Johnson was a guest
speaker at a banquet and presented the still-in-school Harper with
”You could sense a little cockiness about him,” Johnson said,
an undercurrent of admiration in his words.
This is, after all, the manager who brazenly declared in spring
training he deserved to be fired if the never-above-.500 Nationals
didn’t reach the playoffs this year.
Not long after their initial encounter, Johnson was an assistant
to Rizzo and wrote Harper’s name on a piece of paper submitted to
Commissioner Bud Selig at the amateur draft. Johnson got his first
extended look at the kid from Nevada in spring training in 2011. By
late last season, with Harper at Double-A Harrisburg, Johnson was
convinced the player was ready to start 2012 in the majors, even if
the college catcher still needed time to learn how to play the
”He had hardly any experience, so we sent him to Triple-A to
get some at-bats. Also that way, if he struggled at first up here,
that would eliminate people saying, `See? You rushed him,”’
Johnson said. ”Once he finally got here, it was like, `Whew, boy,
am I relaxed now.’ And really, he hit the ground running. Hit the
ball hard from the moment he got here.”
Harper’s debut – and first hit, a double – came against the Los
Angeles Dodgers on April 28, making him the youngest position
player in the majors since Adrian Beltre in 1998. At the time, the
Nationals made it sound as if Harper merely was around temporarily
to aid a struggling offense dealing with injuries and might wind up
returning to the minors.
Now Rizzo acknowledges: ”We had a pretty good feeling he was
By Harper’s fifth game, Johnson moved him to No. 3 in the
batting order. He later settled into the second spot, behind Jayson
Werth and in front of Ryan Zimmerman, and flourished.
Harper’s 254 total bases and 57 extra-base hits are the most
ever for a player under 20, while his 22 homers, 98 runs, .340
on-base percentage, .447 slugging percentage, and .817 on
base-plus-slugging are all the best for a teenager in the past 45
years, according to STATS LLC.
”He’s pretty good right now,” Philadelphia Phillies manager
Charlie Manuel said, ”but he’s going to be better. … He looks
for ways to beat you.”
It’s important not to get too caught up in the notion that
Harper is tremendously successful for a teen. As Washington pursued
its first NL East title down the stretch, he was among the best in
baseball, no matter the age.
From Sept. 1 through the end of the regular season, the
left-handed-hitting Harper – he throws right-handed, but swings
lefty because he wanted to be like his older brother, Bryan, who’s
a southpaw – led all NL players in runs (27), and ranked in the top
eight in the league in slugging percentage (third, .643), batting
average (tied for fifth, .330) and on-base percentage (eighth,
”He’s pretty much got, in his mind, a bulletproof shield around
him at all times,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. ”We
see stuff every two or three days from him that’s just like, `Wow.
I haven’t seen that in a long time.”’
In one game last month, Harper made an over-the-shoulder catch
to end one inning and, moments later, drove a ball that hung barely
above the dirt the opposite way for an RBI double. Apparently
picked off second because he strayed too far off the bag, Harper
bolted for third and wound up with a stolen base.
Two days later, he threw someone out at home to get one standing
ovation, then earned another when a runner held at third because of
the threat of Harper’s throwing ability.
That same week, Harper slammed against the wall to catch an
inning’s third out and, on second base in the bottom half, took off
for third on a changeup in the dirt – even though the ball stayed
near the plate. Perhaps stunned, the catcher threw the ball into
left field, letting Harper score.
There’s plenty more where that came from, including Harper’s
first steal in the majors, back in May. Phillies pitcher Cole
Hamels plunked him on purpose; Harper moved to third on a
teammate’s single, then swiped home when Hamels made a pickoff
throw to first.
”He’s always going 100 mph,” Rizzo said, ”with his hair on
Sometimes it feels as though Harper does something noteworthy
every day – on or off the field.
Like the time he batted against the Reds with blood streaming
from a gash above his left eye, which later needed 10 stitches,
because he hurt himself slamming a bat against a wall on an 0-for-5
night. Or when his uniform belt snapped on a dive for a liner
against the Mets, and Harper found himself hustling over to
Washington’s bullpen to get a loaner. Or, most famously of all,
when Harper – who is, of course, too young to legally drink alcohol
in the United States, and also is Mormon – was asked by a reporter
whether he has a favorite beer.
”I’m not answering that,” Harper replied. ”That’s a clown
So was born a phrase that took off on Twitter and spawned
T-shirts that Harper and Zimmerman each sported in the Nationals
Park clubhouse in recent days.
The brashness that used to raise questions about Harper now
”He’s come a long way. I was in spring training with him last
year, and to see the changes he’s made, both physically and the
mental side of it – he’s grown up a ton. He’s now got the respect
of all his teammates and we all back him 100 percent,” LaRoche
”A lot of people on the outside, if they’re watching a guy like
Bryce and only see him once a month, it might be like, `Man, that’s
kind of tired. He’s going 1,000 miles an hour on a ball hit back to
the pitcher?’ But when you see it every day – that’s the only way
he knows how to play the game,” LaRoche added. ”If we’re down
three or four runs and Bryce turns a routine single into a double,
it can fire some guys up. It’s motivating. He’s been a spark plug
since the day he got up here, and I don’t think that’ll ever
Johnson likes that about Harper, too.
”He’s really not a kid; he’s a man,” Johnson said, unveiling
his toothy grin before delivering the punch line. ”But he’s a kid
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