Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper (PHOTO: Alex Brandon/AP Photo)
It wasn’t long ago that it seemed every baseball fan outside the immediate Harper family hated Bryce Harper. Harper was a teenager at the time, doing the same silly things many of us would do at that age if we were blessed with his baseball talent. But because he was thrust into the spotlight looking and hitting like a full-grown man at 16, some may have expected him to be atypically mature off the field as well.
If you’ve Rip Van Winkled the last four years, here’s a general timeline: Harper became a YouTube sensation by hitting 500-foot home runs at a talent showcase at Tropicana Field. Shortly thereafter, for a cover feature in Sports Illustrated, he told Tom Verducci that his goal was to “be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived.” After getting a GED to skip his final two years of high school in favor of junior college and expedite the start of his professional career, he was drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals in 2010 and held out for a $9.9 million contract.
While playing in the minors, Harper was asked to describe himself in one word and considered “gorgeous” before settling on “Hercules.” In a radio interview, he admitted he rooted for the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Cowboys and Duke basketball. Then he blew a kiss to a Class AA pitcher after he homered, inspiring vitriol from traditionally stodgy baseball fans and media everywhere — even if the same pitcher had plunked him earlier in the game.
Shortly after Harper joined the big-league Nationals nearly a year ago, Philadelphia Phillies starter Cole Hamels hit him with a pitch on purpose on behalf of “the old-school, prestigious way of baseball.” Harper took third on an ensuing single then stole home when Hamels threw a pick-off attempt to first and took the high road in a postgame interview. He did the same when a reporter in Toronto asked him if he’d be taking advantage of Canada’s lower drinking age, famously responding, “that’s a clown question, bro.“
(PHOTO: Alex Brandon/AP Photo)
By the time he homered twice on opening day of the 2013 season, Harper seemed more revered than reviled. Maybe it was the Hamels incident, or the clown-question thing. More likely, we all got more opportunities to appreciate the way Harper plays baseball, how he appears to do everything hard all the time — from hitting the ball to running the bases to chasing down flies to throwing out…