Roughly a year ago, I interviewed Bryce Harper for GQ magazine and wrote the following paragraph.
What makes Harper far more anticipated than your typical phenom is a sense that he not only recognizes the vastness of his potential but also feels plenty comfortable telling you about it. … In a sport in which "paying your dues" is practically in the job description -- an institution that once made Michael Jordan ride around in a bus for five months -- Harper seems to have emerged fully formed to piss off the baseball establishment.
So far, I'm not right about that sentiment. But I bet I will be soon.
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On Opening Day, Bryce Harper hit two home runs in his first two at-bats, providing all the ammunition Stephen Strasburg would need in a 2-0 win over Miami. (The whole game felt like the Nationals' throwing the 2009-10 drafts in the faces of the rest of baseball.) The next day, Harper watched the movie 42 at the White House. Who knows what he will have done by the time you read this? Discover cold fusion, probably.
Right now, we are experiencing the Bryce Harper ascent. He can do no wrong right now, the way that anyone whose otherworldly talents are starting to blossom in front of everyone's eyes can do no wrong. Bryce Harper is a talent unlike any other in baseball, but he's more than that; he is special, in a way that only the most amazing entertainers can be. Mike Trout may have as much talent as Harper, but he doesn't capture the imagination the way Harper does, doesn't yank your eyeballs out of your head and demand you watch him the way Harper does. There's a Twitter account devoted only to informing followers when he is coming to the plate, the virtual equivalent of a baseball town crier. Bryce Harper is going to be the most popular athlete in Major League Baseball extremely soon. It's possible he already is. He's become the player who everyone is talking about, and the one who seems to be doing something we've never seen before, every night. And the season is only three days old.
For all the talk of Harper's supposed brashness, he's generally been a well-behaved baseball citizen. Sure, the wrestler face paint is still pretty ridiculous, and I could have done without the red contact lenses during the NLDS against the Cardinals last season. (Yes, I know that Nike makes those and they're not terribly uncommon. Harper still has a way of making sure people look at him; of the 50 players on the two rosters, he was the only one wearing them. What can I say, I get provincial about the Cardinals in the postseason.) But those are minor quibbles. The incident involving Cole Hamels -- in which the Phillies pitcher intentionally plunked Harper and inspired Nationals GM Mike Rizzo to go after Hamels himself -- was a situation in which the only person who came out looking like an adult was Harper, and by all accounts, his teammates adore him. Harper is a ballplayer, and everybody respects that, even those who are weirdly cranky about dumb things like contact lenses.
But this cannot last. No player this over-the-top talented, with a knack for the dramatic, with an obvious thirst for the spotlight, can remain in the good graces of fans forever. This is what we do, of course. When Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated introduced Harper to the baseball world in June 2009, he called him the LeBron of baseball. You might remember how that LeBron thing worked out. One year after Verducci's article, LeBron became the most hated athlete in sports. He's out of the woods now that he has won his championship, but that's probably a temporary thing too; he's too young and too skilled and too much for fans not eventually to turn on him again. Nobody hated LeBron his first two years in the league. We were too busy being blown away by everything he could do. The backlash came when we started to get used to him. When he wasn't new anymore.
You can see the seeds of this happening with Harper. The way old timers like Mike Schmidt -- who said the "game itself' would have to "police this young man" -- are just waiting for him to do something that breaks an unwritten baseball rule, somewhere. The way he instantly becomes the focal point of every story written about his team, which might very well be the best in baseball this year. The way he's become an obsession of his city, a town that has found itself, out of nowhere, the center of the sports world the last two years. The sense that someday the Yankees are going to give him $500 million.
None of these are things that Harper will have brought on himself. (Other than maybe the face paint.) But this is what we do with our idols: We build them up, like we're doing with Harper, so we can someday tear them down. (And then, of course, allow them the second chance to "redeem" themselves later, like we did with LeBron last year and are doing with Tiger Woods right now.) The way Harper is now, everything seems perfect, and it feels like it will last that way forever. It always feels like that when we're at the ascent. But something as amazing and entertaining as Harper cannot last. We will always punish it.
So I'm gonna try to enjoy Harper as much as I can right now. Because the turn is coming. The good news for Harper is that after he suffers for his talents and his sins, real and imagined, we'll welcome him back with open arms, once we have decided he has been punished enough. It's probably not gonna seem like good news when he goes through it, though. But hey: These days, this is what athletes sign up for. Hell, I bet Scott Boras has already prepped him for it. Bryce Harper is special in a way that Mike Trout isn't. I think I'd rather be Mike Trout.