I recently had the fortune of being able to see Bryce Harper, the #1 pick in the 2010 MLB draft, play in a minor league game when the Washington Nationals’ Single A team came to Lakewood, NJ to play the Blueclaws (Phillies). When I say I had the “fortune” I mean that there is something special about being able to see a highly-touted prospect, who will more than likely achieve great things down the road, in his professional baseball infancy. If Harper becomes the star player most people project him to be, it would be neat knowing I saw him play when he was literally just starting his career.
But along with the excitement of watching the beginning of a potentially great career came the harsh reality that plagues numerous successful athletes. I had heard and read the rumors and gossip about Harper being a primadonna. I suspected he may act like a diva given the attention he has gotten. But I didn’t know for sure. Then it was all but confirmed for me when a very reliable source informed me that Harper alienated himself from his teammates by demanding special treatment and attention. He has questioned why he needs to participate in team drills and do all of the other necessary activities that teams do together. He thinks he should be in Double A…right now…not even a year after being drafted as an 18-year old kid.
This story is not unfamiliar. There are plenty of athletes out there who do the same thing and act the same way. There are plenty of young athletes who have not proven anything at the professional level that do it. It’s not surprising, but it is still disappointing. Harper has the privilege of playing baseball for a living. He has the blessing of possessing tremendous talent and athletic ability. He has the fortune of being so young with such a bright future ahead of him. But right now he lacks the maturity to respect the game, his peers, his coaches, and himself. He still has a lot to learn about the game of baseball and how it is supposed to be played.
In the game I saw him play, Harper ran the gamut in terms of both good and poor qualities. In his first at bat, he struck out looking against a left-handed pitcher. The fact he struck out was not alarming, but it was obvious watching his approach that he was at a complete loss on what to expect from the pitcher. He quickly fell behind in the count before fouling off a couple pitches on swings that were defensive. He would eventually strike out looking at a fastball on a pitch where he was clearly expecting something off-speed. In a later at bat, Harper hit a swinging but out in front of home plate and hustled to first base beating the throw for an infield hit. I commented to my friends that he showed great hustle on that play. But in his final at bat, he skied a lazy flyball to center field that was easily caught. But I watched Harper the entire time and he lazily jogged to first base, not even reaching the bag by the time the centerfielder caught the ball. This bothered me, as it bothers me when any major leaguer doesn’t run a ball out no matter where it is it.
I am not going to indict Harper because he didn’t run a flyball out. But I will criticize him for his lackadaisical attitude when he thinks he is beyond this level at this point. There is a reason why baseball has a minor league system and almost every player goes through it before reaching the big leagues. Harper is learning how to play the outfield, how to play against equal or better competition, and how to become a professional baseball player. Each level of the minor leagues has its own purpose and set of skills to learn. Harper can learn a lot if he wants to, which can only benefit him as he progresses through the Nationals’ system and eventually up to D.C.
Stephen Strasburg, the #1 pick in 2009 and phenom during his major league tenure in 2010, had four years of college to both grow up and improve his craft. Harper attended the College of Southern Nevada for one year, as a 17-year old, and was then drafted in 2010 as an 18-year old kid. Those years of college experience, in both life and baseball, helped Strasburg possess the maturity and poise necessary to become successful at the major league level. Harper should be using this time in the low minor league levels to accumulate knowledge and experience that will better serve him later on. He should also learn to ingratiate himself better with his teammates because the reputation he is building forhimself will not bode well down the road.
A change of attitude and perspective is not hard to do. But Harper must realize that himself. His talent and skillset will eventually speak for itself. Anyone who has to constantly remind others of how great they are probably isn’t that great to begin with. Harper may become great. I’d just rather find that out for myself by watching him play rather than listen to him telling me that.