Fans target Harper from the start
In the second round of the 2003 amateur draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Tom Gorzelanny, a left-handed pitcher from little-known Triton College in River Grove, Ill.
With the 181st pick of that same draft, the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired the rights to a basketball-playing center fielder from Midwest City, Okla. His name: Matt Kemp.
Because of a pitch from Gorzelanny to Kemp in the 10th inning Saturday night — the one Kemp crushed over the center-field wall at Dodger Stadium to give Los Angeles a 4-3, walk-off victory against the Washington Nationals — the debut of baseball’s most hyped teenager since Alex Rodriguez was not as charmed as it could have been.
There is a lesson in that for the self-assured Bryce Harper, No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
The expectations on him are immense — batting titles, MVP awards, world championships — yet he has only so much to say about whether they are realized. Saturday was less the realization of a dream than it was the start of a Sisyphean quest to fulfill his potential.
Make no mistake: Harper, 19, put together an extraordinary performance in his debut with the Washington Nationals. He can brag about his first big-league hit for years, a thunderclap double that sailed over Kemp’s head in the seventh inning.
From left field — a position he played only twice at Triple-A this year — Harper fired a strike to home plate that should have erased a run in the seventh inning, except Jerry Hairston Jr. dislodged the ball from catcher Wilson Ramos.
Harper drove in the potential game-winning run with an opposite-field sacrifice fly off Javy Guerra in the top of the ninth. Ramos’ base hit added an insurance run. But Henry Rodriguez — the hard-throwing, once-traded reliever — coughed up two runs in the bottom of the inning, including one on a wild pitch.
That meant extra innings. That meant another at-bat for Kemp, the best baseball player on the planet. That meant Kemp's 11th home run of April, a happy mob of Dodger blue at home plate, a long trudge back to the dugout for Washington’s rookie left fielder.
Harper was not the hero, even though he deserved to be. And the announced crowd of 54,242 — some of whom booed Harper before his first at-bat — celebrated their version of the Hollywood script.
Few athletes in any sport can relate to the pressure Harper is experiencing right now. The Nationals mitigated the near-term expectations by sending him to the minors before the season began and bringing him up only after the injury to star Ryan Zimmerman. Harper’s agent Scott Boras told the Washington Post that the promotion is “more than likely not going to be permanent” — an indication that Harper could return to the minors once Zimmerman is healthy.
The implication: Let’s not put too much emphasis on how he looks quite yet.
Oops. Too late. With Harper, there is little chance we will attach provisos or excuses to his performance. This is the same player who skipped his senior year of high school so he could become eligible for the draft one year early, who was ejected from his final collegiate game after arguing with an umpire, who blew a kiss to an opponent last year.
For his debut, he wore old-style stirrups, hiked up to the knee. His hand — not the wind — tipped off his batting helmet as he barreled into second base on the double. He’s a look-at-me player. And that’s fine.
But Harper’s brashness, documented the past several years, will make it a little more difficult to satisfy the critics and find lasting success. Before the first pitch Saturday, he signed autographs for fans at Dodger Stadium. Yet he was booed by some among the same crowd. That’s sad, really. Weren’t basketball fans in awe of LeBron James for a year or two before the jeering began?
Baseball isn’t football, basketball or hockey — where the most ballyhooed prospects jump straight to the big leagues. The general public rarely knows enough about a 19- or 20-year-old baseball player to have any desire to boo him. Harper is the exception.
Harper might not achieve true popularity with American sports fans until he wins the World Series and is considered the game’s best player — preferably at the same time. To accomplish the first, Harper needs excellent teammates. For the second, he must fend off challenges from those (like Kemp, a sixth-round pick) who began their careers amid less scrutiny and have none of prepackaged fan animus Harper must endure.
On Saturday night, Harper deserved congratulations for an impressive display in his major-league debut.
On Sunday morning, he woke up to the question that will stick with him for the rest of his career: How will you win and entertain today?