Harper runs the gamut in 1st year in the minors
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
”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
”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
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
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
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
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP