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

about hitting.

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

St. Louis.

”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

similarities.

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

impressive.”

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

homers.”

”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

an award.

”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

outfield.

”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

ready.”

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,

.400).

”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

fire.”

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

question, bro.”

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

draws praise.

”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

said.

”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

change.”

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

to me.”

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