Bryce Harper debuted for the Nationals tonight. His ascent to the Majors has been swift, but relative to how long we’ve been hearing about him, it’s taken a lifetime.
This is the kid whose career has been as shrewdly orchestrated as Guy MacKendrick’s. He had an “agent” when regular kids were having their first kisses and beers. He was on the cover of SI as a high schooler. He gamed MLB’s silly draft rules by pitstopping at a junior college for a year.
And to further enhance the fabricated villain angle, he looks and occasionally acts like an utter douche. He has a mohawk and sometimes an ironic mustache. He wears too much eye black. He blew a kiss at an opposing pitcher after hitting a homer last year. He’s not handsome but has a jaw cut from stone and blue eyes like a Siberian Husky, the kind of pronounced features that make you look at them and try to figure out where the hell they came from.
What’s not to hate about that? It smacks of Brycie having been manufactured into some kind of contrived caricature by his parents in an epic fit of creepy stagemomery.
So, the-guy-you’ll-love-to-hate narrative was in place. But after being treated by Harper to an astonishing athletic display, I can’t help but to call bullshit on that.
Harper plays his ass off, and he is a physical marvel. To watch him run is captivating; his speed is impressive but his stride severe, like an all-out-effort guy’s. He possesses what is undoubtedly the next great arm, and he is aggressive with it (there’s a mentality that must accompany having such an arm so it may be wielded correctly, and Harper owns it). His swing is tremendously powerful, the action of it like a tightly wound spring uncoiling to create a violent bat whip.
Harper is 19, and he is a talent that typically finds its way to the NFL or NBA. But he is aware of this. He’s a showman but only because he understands that people want to see the extraordinary things he can do on a baseball field. He self-consciously busted to first base on a no-chance comebacker in his first at-bat. It was a sure sign that he wouldn’t cheat his many curious onlookers when he broke into a sprint despite his obvious fate of being beaten to the bag by a good two strides.
The home-team Dodgers fans in attendance were not easy on Harper as he was introduced for that first at-bat, but I sensed his later feats softened them if not because they realized they were seeing something special, then certainly because they were simply awed dumb.
The game itself was terrific, with only the equally impressive athlete Matt Kemp ending it all on a walkoff home run to slightly right of center field. I don’t think the baseballpornmongers had entirely forgotten about Kemp during Harper’s show, but the former certainly insinuated himself into what was otherwise his first game this season in which he was not the only player belonging to a better talent planet.
I love Harper right now, and I really hope he doesn’t change that by trademarking the helmet takeoff between first and second base.