With Harper, future of Nationals -- and maybe the game -- has arrived
Bryce Harper, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, made his MLB debut last Saturday
Harper and Stephen Strasburg could make Washington an annual contender
Those two are already among the biggest drawing cards in the entire sport
On April 7, 1984, a 19-year-old phenom named Dwight Gooden walked to the mound at the Astrodome in Houston for his big league debut with the New York Mets while a 22-year-old named Darryl Strawberry took his place in rightfield for career game number 126 and Davey Johnson, a manager in his first full season with the team, watched from the dugout. Gooden would win the game, Strawberry would hit a home run and the balance of power in the National League reached a tipping point. Over the next seven seasons no team won more games, no team delighted and annoyed more fans and no team drew more attention than the New York Mets.
Twenty-eight years and 21 days later, 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper and 23-year-old pitcher Stephen Strasburg were on a major league field together for the first time, as Harper made his debut at Dodger Stadium for the Washington Nationals and Strasburg made career start number 22. And the manager watching from the dugout, in his first full season with the team, was Davey Johnson.
What happens next -- tonight, when Harper makes his home debut, tomorrow, and over at least these next five years (the Nats control Strasburg through 2016, Harper through 2018) -- will be one of the most compelling narratives in baseball. The fascination lingers whether the Nationals become another version of the Gooden-Strawberry Mets or an empty promise. Harper, an irresistible, potent mix of power, speed, youth and ferocious confidence, and Strasburg, a jaw-dropping power pitcher, already are two of the five biggest drawing cards in baseball.
The future of the franchise, if not the game itself, begins now. Until now Washington was a pathetic baseball town. The fans showed up in 2005 to check out the team that arrived from Montreal, but decided quickly they didn't like what they saw. Washington ranked 11, 14, 13, 13, 14 and 14 in attendance among the 16 NL teams while putting a losing product on the field every year. The team's television ratings were so low as to be almost non-existent by ratings standards.
Before Gooden and Strawberry, the Mets strung together seven losing seasons and ranked between 7 and 12 in attendance among 12 NL teams. Their attendance shot up 66 percent in the transformative season of 1984, when the club won 90 games.
Washington, like New York in 1984, is a sleeping giant of a baseball town, with strong demographics and a rich history that needs a good dusting. In Strasburg and Harper, the town hit the baseball lottery twice in a row. Strasburg should have wound up in Seattle, but the Mariners blew the No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft by making the mistake of winning their last three games, allowing Washington to pass them for the worst record in baseball. Yuniesky Betancourt will live in Seattle infamy for going all Ted Williams in that final series, smacking seven hits in 12 at-bats. If not for a fluky hot streak by Betancourt, the Mariners might have Strasburg and Felix Hernandez in the same rotation.
The Nationals earned the first pick of the next draft, too, with a 103-loss season in 2009. Sitting there for them was Harper, a convenience made possible only because Harper, bored with high school baseball, skipped his senior year, earned a General Equivalency Diploma, and enrolled in junior college to accelerate the start of his pro career. The family and the kid took some grief for the strategy -- how dare he miss the senior prom! -- while nobody said boo when the Oakland A's handed 16-year-old Dominican pitcher Michael Ynoa $4.25 million, or more money than they ever gave a prospect, including polished college pitcher Mark Mulder.
Harper's strategy was a huge success. Last Friday, Bryce called his father, Ron, an ironworker from Las Vegas, from the cold of Syracuse, N.Y., and delivered the news of a dream come true.
"Pops," he said, "I'm going to the show."
Said Ron, "He got choked up telling me. I just think Bryce was born to do this. He worked his butt off. The one thing I told him was, 'Don't put too much pressure on yourself.' It's like something I told him when I saw him in Syracuse. It was 10 days earlier. And I left him with three words: 'Just be Bryce.' I basically was telling him 'you have to be yourself.'"
In his first game, Harper smashed a line drive off the base of the wall in centerfield for a here-I-am double, flipping his helmet off his head between first and second in defiance that anything dare slow him down. Harper was 19 years and 195 days old. Only four players in the past 40 years were so young when they smashed an extra-base hit in their debut: Adrian Beltre, Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey Jr. and Robin Yount.
Harper also made a laser beam of a throw to the plate, knocked in a run with a sacrifice fly and ran to first base on a routine comebacker to the mound as if his pants were afire. It was like a Maria Callas performance: an impressive range all there on display in just one night.
The most telling moment of all, however, occurred when Harper was introduced for his first major league at-bat. The crowd booed. By now we're used to such snarky groupthink, but stop and think about this one: people booed a teenager who had never played a day in the big leagues.
The moment was telling not so much about what it said about Harper but what it said about us and our times. Harper's debut was the most anticipated debut in baseball history, if only because of the volume, scope and speed of coverage we give professional sports. Harper, unlike any rookie before him, came fully known -- or what the casual, gossip-hungry sports fan would like to believe is fully known. The kid was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler, he talked about his desire to be historically great, he wore that ridiculous eye black, he was thrown out of a junior college game for arguing a strike call and he blew a kiss to a Class A pitcher after hitting a home run.
He had done nothing wrong off the field -- was involved in no jurisprudence -- but we connected a few dots and rushed to decide this wasn't the kind of ballplayer we like. We want baseball players who are humble, who put their head down when they hit a home run, who "stay within themselves," who drive a nice car but not too nice, who say they would play for free, who hit behind the runner, who know how to bunt and who sign autographs for every last man, woman and child.
Harper? We made up our minds about him before he played a day in the big leagues: an arrogant jerk "who hasn't done anything yet." The mistakes of a teenager went viral. The minor league kiss was viewed online nearly three million times. Nevermind that his own team had tired of the trash talking from the opposing pitcher that night and delighted in Harper's token payback. The kiss was quick and subtle, but the camera was trained on a teenager playing Class A ball in the wilds of Maryland. He is the first star of the first generation produced under this Big Brother society.
We form opinions not with wet clay but with concrete. And so there was no room to balance Harper's immature braggadocio with his blue-collar love for baseball, including its history and its social responsibility. Mere minutes before the first pitch of his first big league game, he signed autographs for fans along the rightfield line at Dodger Stadium. A stunt? I saw him do the same thing before his first game at Double-A Harrisburg. He wants the responsibility of stardom. And if anything, Harper plays the game too hard, just like one of his idols, Pete Rose. He is guaranteed to tick off players in the opposing dugout because he does not have the temerity to downshift (though he already has toned down his mannerisms; the eyeblack and the dirt-rubbing ritual before an at-bat are gone).
There was a time, not too long ago, where we knew less about athletes and in those great crevices of what was unknown we liked to fill with pleasant images. Going far back, guys like DiMaggio and Mantle grew larger and more popular because so little about them was truly known and so much was conjured.
Today the equation has flipped. We know too much and fill in the rest with skepticism or, worse, negativity. Try this at your next stop at the water cooler: bring up the names of LeBron James, Tim Tebow and Bryce Harper and then duck.
But this much is also true of them: Like them or not, we must watch them. Harper, like Strawberry, is a compelling player with stay-in-your-seat power. The concession business grinds to a halt when it's his turn at bat. Strawberry had a looping, majestic swing that was more beauty than violence. Harper's swing is the inverse: brute force and effort. He will hit some home runs but, until the long learning curve of baseball is traversed, is unlikely to hit for a high average. Ken Griffey Jr., with a da Vinci of a swing, hit .264 at age 19.
There are so few comparisons to what we are seeing. Only four teenagers ever have hit more than 10 home runs: Tony Conigliaro, whose career was shortened by a terrible beaning, and three inner circle Hall of Famers: Griffey, Mantle and Mel Ott. It happens roughly once a generation. If Harper doesn't hit more than 10 home runs, it will be because he needed to go back to the minor leagues. The Nationals brought him to the big leagues not because he was tearing up Triple-A but because their 3-4 hitters, Mike Morse and Ryan Zimmerman, are on the disabled list and their leftfielders were hitting .093. They needed a bat and Harper was the best available. There are no guarantees that he will stay.
Mantle started 8-for-38. Mays started 1-for-26. But that was 1951, when, compared to Harper's minor league career, they had far fewer eyes on them.
Strawberry and Gooden, despite their promise and talent, got off the road to Cooperstown. Drugs and alcohol sent them astray. But the height of their rise has been obscured by the tabloid nature of their downfall. What's been lost is that they did succeed mightily. In those transformative seven seasons, from 1984 through 1990, Strawberry hit more home runs than anybody in baseball (226) and Gooden won more games (119) than anybody except Frank Viola, and did so with a major-league best .721 winning percentage.
Tonight Washington gets its first look at Harper and in three days its first look at Strasburg and Harper in the same lineup when the Nationals host the rival Phillies. The Nationals already are a changed team. Tonight the ballpark will be electric like never before. The Nationals, like the 1984 Mets, matter. The Nationals have gone national. They command attention. This nexus is like the first page of a thick book or the opening scene of a blockbuster movie: After so much packaging and hype, we know we're in for something, good or bad, with almost no potential for the disappointment of mediocrity.