By Joe Lemire
NEW YORK -- The play that captures the relentless competitiveness of Bryce Harper might have been lost in the commotion of the Nationals' comeback victory on Opening Day. After smacking a hard, one-hop liner off Mets second baseman Eric Young Jr. for a seventh-inning single, Harper bolted toward second on Ian Desmond's grounder to shortstop and slid hard to the base to break up the double play.
That's probably not the hard slide into second base you were thinking of, the one later repeated on every baseball broadcast in the country on Monday. As Harper crashed hard into the bag during a very similar sequence in the second inning, Young inadvertently kicked him in the head, a blow that nearly knocked Harper out of the game and onto the disabled list. (He later passed two concussion tests administered three hours apart.)
What set apart the seemingly less eventful second slide into second was not that Harper, one of the game's brightest stars, would sacrifice his well-being for the team, but that he did the exact same thing five innings later despite a splitting headache and full cognizance of the consequences. Harper said he never hesitated.
"No, I've been sliding hard my whole life," he later said matter-of-factly. For the record, the Mets didn't turn either double play.
The early accident, which initially left Harper lying on the dirt, took place just three hours after the club's general manager, Mike Rizzo, told a reporter that he hadn't spoken to his young prodigy about tempering his maximum-effort style. Maybe Harper should be more cautious, but that's not in his DNA.
"We're just going to let him be who he is," Rizzo had said. "We wouldn't want to stifle his passion for the game and his skill set."
What makes Harper so compelling isn't just his well-documented light-tower power, but this uncommon moxie and motor. Veteran Scott Hairston says his new Nationals teammate has "that Pete Rose kind of charisma" -- in other words, Harper is captivatingly competitive.
Though only 21, Harper is now a third-year veteran whose impetuous early days -- blowing a kiss to a pitcher he homered off in Class A ball-- are long gone. He plays hard and runs out routine ground balls, the types of things old-school armchair fans like to claim are missing in today's game. His Mohawk is gone in favor of simple, slicked-back hair. ("It's business season," he explained.) He's respectful and polite in conversation. He cares deeply about the game's history. (His choice of number, 34, is an homage to Mickey Mantle because 3 + 4 equals Mantle's 7.) Heck, just the other day he turned on Frank Sinatra while hitting in the batting cage. (But he was wearing a cartoon Captain America on his shirt.)
The notion of having one "Face of MLB" -- a contest the league's network and website ran this offseason -- was always somewhat misconceived. The game is too diverse, with too many games in too many cities across too big a continent, for any one man to be an adequate summation of the sport. But Harper ought to be on the short list because of his talent, hustle and a personality he's actually willing to let fans see.
Less than 24 hours after his second-base collision, Harper appeared at the MLB Fan Cave to promote Gatorade, which he is newly endorsing, and to appear on the new league-affiliated MTV2 show, Off the Bat.
"I think it's great for baseball," Harper said. "Baseball's a changing game. I believe that having things off the field with players intertwining with other celebrities is something that's really important."
Harper says he admires the way Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has always conducted himself on and off the field -- "the captain of baseball," Harper called him -- but at the same time, Harper says he enjoys interacting with fans on Twitter, something Jeter would never do. Harper says his is a conscious decision not to be so guarded, which jibes well with his generation's reliance on social media.
"Yeah, I think people want to get to know you," he said. "Baseball is a game for the fans. If we don't have our fans, then we don't have baseball."
It helps, of course, that Harper has the experience of a long-tenured veteran in the public spotlight. He did his first interview with a local newspaper in his native Las Vegas when he was nine years old, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 and won the NL Rookie of the Year at 19.
Harper has done things almost no one his age has ever done on a baseball field, but it doesn't help his cause that one of the reasons for the insertion of "almost" in the first half of this sentence is a contemporary, Angels phenom Mike Trout. The game is so spoiled with young talent that somehow an ESPN The Magazine poll of MLB players actually said Harper was the most overrated player in the game, which seems preposterous.
Harper is already a two-time All-Star and was the youngest NL All-Star starter in history; his .834 OPS in his first two seasons ranks sixth among players to log 200 or more games before their age-21 season, trailing only Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Alex Rodriguez, Mantle and Tony Conigliaro. While some players deemed him overrated, some analysts are forecasting a breakout MVP season. The club is quick to temper projections.
"We expect him to be who he is," Rizzo said, "and make steady progress over what he's done in the past and just have a good and healthy season and have his ability take over."
Harper slugged 20 home runs with an .854 OPS last year despite not being completely healthy, owing largely to his full-speed collision with Dodger Stadium's outfield wall. His knee required surgery after the season. (Harper increased the amount of yoga and Pilates in his workout routine while recovering from the operation.) And he and the Nationals were lucky Monday when he escaped without a concussion.
"That's the way Bryce plays," new manager Matt Williams said. "He plays hard, so those things are going to happen from time to time."
Said Rizzo, "His job, in his mind, is to play 162 games, and he gave his best effort to play as many games as he could."
Rizzo's qualifier of "in his mind" suggests that management would be relieved to see Harper take a break or two. Even if Washington's front office hasn't asked him to tone down his hard-nosed game, there must be unspoken concerns that he could suffer from recurring on-field injuries. Josh Hamilton, for instance, is another former No. 1 overall pick who is a left-handed, power-hitting outfielder with a tenacious style of play who's made repeated trips to the disabled list and averaged just 127 games in seven seasons.
Harper joked about how he has one such collision each season: His own bat hit him above the eye after smashing a dugout tunnel as a rookie; he crashed into the outfield wall last year; and he collided with Young on Monday.
"This year I got it out of the way in the first game," he said, "and [I'll be] fine the rest of the year."
Baseball should hope so, as a once polarizing player is now poised to be a unifying force.
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Joe Lemire is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer and current New York-based freelance writer who can be found on Twitter at @LemireJoe.