Harper brings youthful confidence to Arizona
Nats phenom ready for Fall League action with Scottsdale
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- On the eve of his Arizona Fall League debut, Bryce Harper walked onto the field at Scottsdale Stadium on Tuesday like he owned the place.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder politely greeted media members and AFL officials with handshakes. He joked with Scottsdale Scorpions teammates, smiled at his father in the stands and stepped in front of a host of television cameras like he was born to give interviews.
Harper was poised. He had a presence. He looked like a Major League player and he spoke like a veteran, not the 18-year-old phenom first introduced to the baseball world when he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16.
The teenager appeared to be living up to the Harper hype and he had not even picked up a bat yet.
Asked what it felt like to participate in the Arizona Fall League, Harper came this close to answering with a "stoked" but caught himself and responded with an "excited" instead. Then he smiled and everyone else did, too.
Harper has been only 18 for three days and every once in a while, he'll reminds everyone just how young he really is. He's confident, sometimes bold, but for all of his adult mannerism, Harper is still very much a kid. Baseball's next man-child is not full-grown yet.
spring chickens/fall league
But he's getting there.
"He plays like he's 25 at times but he has a lot to learn, a whole lot to learn," said Harper's father, Ron. "But he will adapt. He always has. He does what he needs to do. I know people think he has an attitude but they don't know Bryce. He wants to win."
Harper's path to this point is well-documented. After starring for two years at Las Vegas High School, he received his high school equivalency in lieu of becoming a junior in high school. He went on to star at the College of Southern Nevada and was later selected by the Nationals with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
The catcher-turned-outfielder hit .319 with a .407 on-base percentage for the Nationals in the instructional league. He also led the team in hits, home runs, RBIs and walks. The Nationals say he will begin the 2011 season at Class A. There is no big league timetable.
"I'm just trying to get out here and get the games in and take it day by day and have a lot of fun," Harper said. "I'm trying to get better every day and we'll see what happens in the next couple of years."
If Harper looks like he is having fun, it's because he is. He's living his dream -- the baseball dream. Harper's cleats read "J-Roll," a tribute to Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins. It's not hard to imagine that one day Harper will have his own name on his shoes, but for now, he's content wearing shoes that fit.
In one of the many light moments of the afternoon, Harper's eyes lit up when he spoke of meeting the Rangers' Josh Hamilton, one of his baseball heroes, at the All-Star Game. He also fondly recalled the time Cincinnati's Joey Votto told him that Nationals Park is among his favorite places to hit. He talked about Willie Mays as if he had actually seen him play.
Harper is living the good life. His problem on Monday was not really a problem at all. The slugger grew up cheering for the Yankees, but how could he not root for Rangers starter Cliff Lee, the down-to-earth star from Arkansas, in the American League Championship Series?
Harper solved the problem by rooting for both. He's a baseball fan. He's also one of the most heralded amateurs to ever participate in the AFL.
"You can't help but like his swing and you have to like the way the ball comes off of his bat," said Scorpions manager Randy Knorr, Washington's skipper at Double-A Harrisburg. "We still understand that he is only 18. He is a mature 18 but he's going to act like a kid sometimes, and we want him to. We want him to enjoy the game. There are some times we need him to be serious and work and get better."
Knorr knows of what he speaks. He was 17 when he was drafted by Toronto in 1986 began play for the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in the Pioneer League a few days after graduating from high school. Baseball helped make Knorr the man he is today. He believes baseball can do the same for Harper.
"This experience is going to be good for him," Knorr said. "He's facing the best of Double-A and Triple-A, the guys that didn't go play winter ball and are staying here. He's going to be seeing the best from each organization and it's going to be interesting to see how he handles it."
Ron Harper is not worried how his son will deal with adversity in the AFL. For all of his son's success, he's raised him to overcome failure.
"He'll handle it fine," the elder Harper said. "You are not mistake-free in this life. The biggest thing is allowing your kids to fail and fall down. I didn't go grab my kids every time they fell down. They got up. Bryce will get up no matter what. I know what's in his heart."
Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him at @JesseSanchezMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.