Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bryce Harper: Youth Gone Viral

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in May 2012

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

As Buffalo Springfield once said, “there’s something happening here…and what it is ain’t exactly clear.” 

For 20 years Washington D.C. sports has been a gory horror flick on a continuous loop.  It’s been so bad, for so long that District sports fans have forgotten how to support a winner.  This was once a fan base that carried itself with a confident swagger and puffed out its chest at any mouthy challenger.  Now, our profound pessimism, the product of nearly peerless futility, is so omnipotent that we snuff out any indication of better days and will our negative prophecies into reality.  You see, D.C. is the town where a fan’s hope goes to die.  That’s just how it is…and at this point we can’t imagine it any other way.

With that odd but true rant over, it’s understandable why the recent confluence of goodness that’s descended upon the nation’s capital has been so confounding.  First, the ‘Skins boldly acquired Robert Griffin III – the exact person, player and position the franchise and fan base needed.  Then the Capitals, perennial playoffs disasters that they mostly have been, seem to have hacked into the winning formula for playoff hockey and pleasantly overachieved this year.  And finally, while even jaded Nationals fans would have acknowledged the team’s likely improvement this year, I don’t think anyone expected them to be this good.  Despite a rash of injuries, the Nats keep winning behind the tried and true formula of exceptional pitching and timely hitting.  What’s more promising though – for both the short- and long-term - is the return to form of pitching ace Stephen Strasburg and the recent addition of a teenage sparkplug.

Bryce Harper, 19, isn’t just another prospect.  Harper, who followed Strasburg as the Nationals’ second consecutive #1 overall pick in the MLB draft, was from day one considered a franchise-altering talent.  Like most teenagers, Harper’s performance to date has been inconsistent and there were rumblings about his arrogance and immaturity.  The organization’s plan was to season Harper a little more at Triple-A and call him up later in the year.  Injuries and a desperate need for some offensive pop accelerated Harper’s ascent and he was tapped to make his major league debut on April 28th

Let me admit this up front: except for a few random minor league clips, I hadn’t laid eyes on Harper between the lines until he threw on a Nationals uniform.  I expected to see an ordinary pro with flashes of exceptional talent.  By “ordinary pro” I mean a guy who glides through games with a grace that indicates he is perhaps more concerned about pacing himself through a 162-game regular season rather than exerting maximum effort to win any particular game.  You know what I’m talking about.  Major League games are littered with batters jogging out fly balls or running out base hits with the assumption the outfield will field it cleanly as opposed to “thinking two” from the crack of the bat and looking to capitalize on the slightest bobble in the outfield.  That’s just how major-leaguers play the game.

Harper didn’t get that memo.  Harper, bursting with youthful exuberance, plays like there’s no game tomorrow, never mind the ~125 games remaining this summer.  He hustles out every ball, throws his body all over the field and regularly exits with a bloodied and heavily soiled uniform.  The kid’s crash-test-dummy approach reminds me of the passion regularly on display during the County’s Rocking Chair Softball League’s hey day.  Indeed, Harper would have fit right in with Pennies, the Hollywood Stars and the legendary Hobos.   

On a major league diamond, though, Harper’s effort looks out of place.  It is, however, unequivocally contagious.  You can see it in the joyously infected eyes of the Nats’ coaches and Harper’s teammates.  Harper’s ornery determination is making the occasionally mundane baseball regular season fun and it’s translating to wins.  Call it the gift of youth.  It’s something every organization can use a shot of.  Harper’s enthusiasm and his team’s success are even threatening to lift the pessimistic haze from over D.C. and its expansive suburbia.  Yikes…what are we going to do???  

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