It took four at bats into the Double A career of Bryce Harper for a pitcher to throw at him—three pitches in a row, the last causing him to spin his head out of harm's way—and for the opposing dugout to scream that he is overpaid and overrated. Harper was booed at the Class A South Atlantic League All-Star Game. He was booed at the Futures Game during the major league All-Star festivities in Phoenix. He has been heckled in his home ballpark.
Jim Bowden, the former Nationals general manager, chided Harper for "immaturity issues." Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, sensing a lack of humility from Harper, said opponents will "police" such a scofflaw of baseball protocol. Few are the nights that pass when Harper is not challenged by opponents, chased or cursed by autograph collectors, criticized by media or insulted by fans. He says there was a stalker in junior college.
Bryce Harper is 18 years old. He is younger than Nick Jonas, than the dissolution of the Soviet Union and than the World Wide Web. He should have just completed his senior year of high school. Instead, having already destroyed junior college and Class A pitching, he is playing Double A ball for the Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators with teammates who all are at least three years and as many as 11 years older than he is.
Already both famous and infamous, Harper, the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft by the Nationals, is the future of baseball—which explains his enormous potential value to the game and industry of Major League Baseball. Not since Barry Bonds played his last game in 2007 has baseball had a true every-day drawing card. But sitting on top of a picnic table outside the Senators' home clubhouse—out of uniform, without the shades and the gobs of eye black, without the number 34 he bought from a teammate for $600, without one of the most freakishly fast and powerful swings ever seen from a prospect—Harper looks every bit the teenager. He is strong (6'3" and 225 pounds) but more fast-twitch-fiber strong than heavily-muscled strong. There is little thickness to his body. A comically modest attempt at a mustache, the karmic accompaniment to a hitting streak, is gone.
"Some of the stuff I hear, I can't say," he says. "It's bad stuff. I do hear stuff like 'moneymaker,' 'moneybags.' ... I get 'overrated' a lot—that's just old. It comes with the territory, I guess. I'm not going to let it bother me."
Ron and Sheri Harper's youngest son, the kid brother to Bryan and Brittany, is growing up as a ballplayer and a young man with the world watching, if not always rooting for him. When he blew a kiss at a pitcher during a June 6 home run trot, for instance, the video and the criticism of his perceived arrogance (with little understanding of the circumstances) went viral. Almost nobody stopped to think about the lab-rat quality to the episode. This was not a grainy cellphone video. For a Class A ball game between the Hagerstown Suns and the Greensboro Grasshoppers in Hagerstown, Md., a hardscrabble town of 39,662 tucked into a valley between the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny mountains, Comcast Sports Network isolated a camera on an 18-year-old kid playing his first professional season.
Harper, a travel-baseball phenom out of Las Vegas at 10, an SI cover boy at 16 and a $9.9 million signee at 17, is the most well-known minor leaguer since Michael Jordan. But Jordan was a novelty, not a prospect. Harper is the most scrutinized prospect since....
"Jackie Robinson," says Tony Tarasco, a former major leaguer and a Nationals minor league coordinator who has become Harper's player-development Yoda. "You have to go back to Jackie Robinson to find anybody who goes through this much scrutiny. It wasn't like this for [Stephen] Strasburg. Wasn't like this for Alex Rodriguez."
Jackie Robinson? Surely Doug Harris, the Nationals' director of player development, with 21 years in pro ball as a player, scout and executive, would find a different comparable for Harper. Independent of Tarasco, Harris offered, "This is really unfair and it's totally different, but if I can make a comparison to one guy that has been scrutinized like this, it would be Jackie Robinson. And it's unfair because it was a different standard. He was under a microscope in an era when we didn't have Internet, didn't have cellphones.
"Now, Jackie Robinson had his life threatened. I'm not comparing Bryce to that. But as far as nonstop scrutiny? Absolutely. Day to day."