Skip to main content

Harper and Nationals bring baseball hope to D.C.

By Larry Lazo, CNN
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Fri May 18, 2012
Bryce Harper made his major league debut against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28.
Bryce Harper made his major league debut against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bryce Harper is less than a month into his baseball career with the Washington Nationals
  • The Nationals are banking on the 19-year-old to put Washington baseball on the map
  • Most top players Harper's age play for college or the minors, he's already in the majors
  • A baseball history buff, Harper idolizes baseball legends; he's been compared to Willie Mays

(CNN) -- He's brash, bold and has the skills to back it up. 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper is less than a month into his baseball career with the Washington Nationals, and he's already making his presence felt in the nation's capital. With high-profile magazine covers and international baseball experience already on his resume, the Nationals are looking to Harper to be one of their building blocks as they try to put Washington baseball on the map.

Even though he's only batting .227, he's hit two home runs and has displayed a rocket for an arm. "He seems to have been born to be this baseball player," said Thom Loverro, a columnist for the Washington Examiner and a radio show host on ESPN 980 in Washington. "He takes the game so seriously when he's on the field."

Harper's attention to detail and approach to the game even has baseball icons taking notice. "Bryce obviously has the skills to play in the big leagues," said baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., "But I am amazed with his poise and his patience at the plate. And I love his aggressiveness on the base paths. He is going to be a good all-around player."

Former Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard says he's seen enough already. "You might suppress that young talent for a week, a month, maybe two months," he said. "He can beat you five ways. Bat contact, bat power, glove, arm strength and running speed."

Harper, a Las Vegas native, has always shown talent beyond his years. When he was 12 he was playing in out-of-state tournaments and once went 12-for-12 with 11 homers. When kids his age were playing high school baseball he was playing in tournaments around the world. Now, while most of the top players his age are playing college ball or working their way through the minors, he is already in the major leagues.

Playing in the majors hasn't curtailed the 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound Harper's confidence. Barely a week into his big league career, Harper was hit in the back by Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels in a nationally televised game. Harper said nothing and jogged to first base. He ended up stealing home.

"I liked the way he handled the whole situation," said Ripken "He downplayed getting hit but you could see in his eyes that he was determined to pay back the Phillies where it matters most... by doing something in the game. In this case it was stealing home."

SI: Bryce Harper photo gallery

Bold plays like that and winning baseball haven't been a big part of Washington baseball history. The Nationals have never finished with a winning record since moving from Montreal (they were formerly the Expos) in 2005. Poor play and embarrassing moments were the norm. In one game then-first baseman Adam Dunn and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman trotted out on the field wearing a Nationals jersey that had been misspelled and read "Natinals."

The Nationals are actually the third incarnation of baseball in Washington.

The original Washington Senators were there from 1901-1960, before leaving for Minnesota and becoming the Twins. Baseball gave the city another Senators franchise in 1961 and that team left for Texas in 1971 to become the Rangers. Washington hasn't seen a World Series since 1933.

This generation of Washington baseball fans are looking ahead and like their team. "Who hasn't suffered from growing pains?" asked Brendan Hurley, a native of the Washington area and a season ticket holder. "The best way to ensure they don't become a punch line again is to win," he said.

So far they are winning. They open an interleague series tonight against the Baltimore Orioles, who play less than an hour up Interstate 95 from Washington. They are just a half-game out of first place in the National League East, and, to give the series more life than Washington-area baseball fans are used to, the Orioles are also surprisingly in first place after years as American League East doormats.

Harper has been preparing for this stage all his life. He not only has honed his skills on the field but off the field as well. "He respects the history of the game," said Loverro. "When he's on the field he plays the game and knows the game like he's a 10-year veteran... and that's pretty amazing for a 19-year-old kid."

Harper idolizes old-school baseball players, and he's been compared to all-time great Willie Mays, who also debuted at 19. When Harper joined a softball game being played by the Washington Monument, it evoked memories of a young Mays playing stickball on the streets of New York in the 1950's.

Casual softball games, YouTube clips and magazine covers will only go so far in the major leagues though. "The American people love winners," Howard said, "If you win you're gonna draw. If you don't win, you're gonna struggle putting fannies in the seats."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT