Nationals’ Bryce Harper has reason to be confident
The request makes its way to Vin Scully every now and then, the major league baseball player asking for a moment to meet the greatest broadcaster in baseball history. Giancarlo Stanton asked. Brandon McCarthy asked.
And, one day when the Washington Nationals played at Dodger Stadium, Bryce Harper asked.
The reputation that precedes Harper: cocky and arrogant.
“Oh no,” Scully said. “He just came up like a friend. A very pleasant and talented kid.”
That could be explained as the polite way to treat an icon six decades your elder, but Harper is no villain among fans, either. He attracted the most All-Star votes of any National League player ever — some 14 million — and arrives at Tuesday’s All-Star game as baseball’s best player this year.
When Harper arrived at spring training, the story line was different. For the second consecutive spring, according to an ESPN poll of his peers, Harper was ranked as the most overrated player in the major leagues.
“I think some of that was a little justified,” said Tyler Clippard, a teammate of Harper for the previous three seasons and now a pitcher for the Oakland Athletics.
Harper made the All-Star team as a rookie in 2012, when he was hitting .282 with eight home runs at the break.
“He came in the league and made an All-Star team when he probably shouldn’t have,” Clippard said, “but, because he’s Bryce Harper and the fans voted him in, he made it. I think that’s where those polls were coming from.
“I don’t think there is a single player in the league that would say that right now.”
Harper, 22, arrives at this year’s break leading the major leagues in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, with a triple crown very much in his sights. He is one percentage point behind Paul Goldschmidt for the NL batting lead, one home run behind the injured Stanton for the NL lead in that category.
Harper hit 25 home runs in the Nationals’ first 81 games, the true halfway point of the season. The only players to hit more in the first half at age 22 or younger: Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews, and the gifted but disgraced Alex Rodriguez.
New York Mets Manager Terry Collins laughs at the notion that Harper might be cocky.
“He should be,” Collins said. “This game is about confidence. These guys all have huge egos. Bryce does too. But I’ll tell you one thing: he believes that he is a star, and he plays like he is a star.”
What might have been overlooked in the career of an ordinary young player — two injury-plagued seasons, and an incident in which he was yanked for not hustling — became red meat for players looking for flaws in a prodigy dubbed “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated as a teenager.
“He’s a good kid, man,” Clippard said. “He’s still so young. He debuted when he was 19, handling all the media attention and all the stuff going on around him. I don’t think my 19-year-old self could have done half as well as he did with all that.
“I don’t think he has ever disrespected the game in any way. All he has ever done is go out there and play the game hard. But there’s little stuff I’m sure he wishes he hadn’t done, that his teammates are like, ‘Hey, come on, you don’t need to do that kind of stuff.’”
What kind of stuff?
“Like a strike-three call that he didn’t think was a strike, and he might have thrown his bat or broken his helmet,” Clippard said. “It’s not necessarily something malicious, or something that should be perceived negatively. It’s just a reactionary thing for a guy who is ultra-competitive.”
If only Harper could be more like Mike — Mike Trout, that is, the mild-mannered Angels star regarded for the last couple of years as the best player in baseball. The two played in the Arizona Fall League together, got to the majors to stay in the same year, and endured endless comparisons.
Trout was supposed to rule the AL. He did. Harper was supposed to rule the NL. He got delayed by injury, but now he does. He has little interest in a comparison with Trout.
“I’m doing just fine,” Harper said. “I could care less what anybody else thinks. I could care less what he is doing or what she is doing or what anybody else is doing.
“He’s on the West Coast. I’m on the East Coast. He’s in the AL. I’m in the NL. So, truly, I don’t care. My team is winning ballgames. I’m doing what I can to help my team win every single night. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”
Harper said Trout is “absolutely” the best player in baseball.
“Look at his numbers the past three years,” Harper said. “If Miggy [Miguel Cabrera] wouldn’t have won that triple crown, he already would have had two MVPs, or three MVPs. He’s having an MVP year this year.”
Trout said he remains friends with Harper, mostly via text messages. So who does Trout consider the best player in baseball?
“Are you putting me on the spot?” Trout said, after a long pause. “There’s a lot of great players, obviously.”
Harper’s numbers so far make him the greatest this year, at least at the break. He says he does not worry what his peers might say about him, in a poll or otherwise.
“I don’t care. I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t watch you guys or ESPN or anything. I watch college football. I enjoy my family in the off-season. I enjoy my dog. Everything else that anybody says, I don’t care.”
Scully, the venerated broadcaster, said he takes a special interest in the progress of the few players that seek him out, as Harper did.
“So now I am a fan,” Scully said. “You wish that they do very well.”
Scully broke into a mischievous laugh.
“And he,” Scully said, “is doing very well.”
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin
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