At age 16, Bryce Harper made the cover of Sports Illustrated as “Baseball’s Chosen One.” He’s had the creative haircuts and the eye black slathered all over his face. He went viral blowing a kiss at a pitcher after hitting a home run in the minors.
But for all the hype, Harper still comes across as polished and serious, making direct eye contact and speaking in full paragraphs. Image isn’t everything.
Harper called his shot on Twitter – where else? – by saying how he couldn’t wait to make his first trip to Wrigley Field and see the ivy.
“There’s so much history,” Harper said Monday, standing at his locker inside the cramped visiting clubhouse. “It’s just incredible. (To) be able to play here for the first time in the big leagues is a dream come true.”
This season hasn’t been a dream sequence for the Nationals, who fell to 60-64 and 10.5 games back in the wild-card race with an 11-1 loss to the Cubs. But their building blocks are already in place.
Washington insiders say Harper, 20, has a sincere appreciation for the game’s history, a strong work ethic and an ability to blend into the clubhouse even with all that star-power. He’s a baseball gym rat.
Harper isn’t exactly a Cub killer yet, even after going 2-for-4 in his debut at Clark and Addison, running his career numbers to 8-for-19 against the Cubs. The rivalry isn’t there yet, even with the “Men vs. Boys” beat-down last September in Washington.
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But it will be interesting if these two franchises are competing head-to-head in 2015 and beyond. Growing up in Las Vegas, Harper played with No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant. They also played against each other in high school.
“Kris is awesome,” Harper said. “He’s an unbelievable ballplayer. He’s got a lot of upside, great pop. And I think he’s somebody that is going to help the Cubs for a long time to come.”
Harper earned his GED in two years at Las Vegas High School and the Nationals drafted him first overall in 2010. Bryant – who’s actually 10 months older – signaled that he had a strong commitment to the University of San Diego and would want first-round money out of high school. He fell to the 18th round in 2010, but didn’t sign with the Toronto Blue Jays.
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After out-homering more than 200 Division I programs as a junior, Bryant jumped up the draft board this spring. While being advised by Scott Boras – the same agent who represents Harper – Bryant agreed to a $6.7 million signing bonus last month.
Back in Las Vegas, was there a rivalry between Harper and Bryant?
“When we played together, we were only 12, 13 years old, so there was nothing like that,” Harper said. “We were just trying to win tournaments. Kris has always been good. He played short. He played third. He was a pitcher and he could always hit for pretty good power. He’s a pretty unbelievable ballplayer.”
During last season’s Rookie of the Year campaign, Harper hit .270 with 22 homers, 59 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 139 games for a 98-win team. He credited manager Davey Johnson and a good clubhouse blend of young players and established veterans for the smooth transition.
The great expectations are a given for Bryant, who last week skipped Kane County on his way to advanced Class-A Daytona, where he’s hitting .360 with a 1.145 OPS through seven games. Just check the reactions from fans on Twitter.
Bryant will have to handle the pressure that comes when you’re supposed to be the next big thing.
“Last year was just a special group of guys that we had,” Harper said. “I was very fortunate to be in an organization that just let me play (and) they didn’t try to change me at all. I think everybody’s going to like Kris a lot. He’s got a great attitude.
“He doesn’t talk a lot. Very shy – he’s not going to say a bunch. But he’s going to let his play determine where he goes. I think (Cubs fans) should be very excited. He’s going to do a great job for the organization.”
After Rule 5 pick Lendy Castillo almost hit Harper last September, nearly inciting a huge bench-clearing brawl at Nationals Park, it was interesting to hear someone like Alfonso Soriano say: “I love the way he plays.” The Cubs didn’t view Harper as a punk or a spoiled brat. They respected how he ran into walls and sprinted around the bases.
“When I was in the minors, I played the same game,” Harper said. “I’m going to battle for my team and try to do everything I can to help the team win. Some people are going to like that. Some people aren’t.
“In-house, I never had any troubles or anything with anybody. I’ve always said: ‘I’m going to play the game.’ I’m going to keep doing that, playing it hard.”