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Lightening in a Bottle: Washington’s Teenage Outfielder

The Bryce Harper Topps' Rookie Card

Sometimes you just know it when you see it. Like the friend of mine who remembers watching a young Yankee shortstop take the field for the first time in 1996. It didn’t matter that he was a rookie playing his very first game in the big leagues; it was in his carriage and attitude and demeanor. It was obvious and it was Derek Jeter.

In DC, the Bryce Harper era has begun…ahead of schedule. The young man who was all of 15 when he crushed a 500-foot exhibition homerun at Tropicana Field in Tampa and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, got called up from the minors after a barrage of injuries beset the Washington Nationals.

So there he was in left field Saturday night, clearly taking in the sights and sounds of Dodger Stadium as if pinching himself that, at last, here he was, at The Show. We all collectively worried- would the 19-year old prodigy wilt under the pressure? Are they ruining him by bringing him to the majors too soon?

Are you kidding? In his first game, he scorched a double over the centerfielder’s head that landed at the foot of the wall. Later, in left field, in a tight scoreless game, he threw a 370-foot laser beam- a perfect strike to home plate that would have easily thrown out the runner if the catcher hadn’t dropped the ball.

Ok…flukey first game. Let’s see how the kid does Sunday. This time in center field, he made a leaping, wild catch that led him right into the outfield wall. He got another hit, a solid single to left field. Then while his teammates were striking out 13 times against suffocating Dodger pitching, he coaxed a walk to get on base late in the game. He showed more maturity and patience in that base on balls than any of his older teammates that day.

He doesn’t walk to the field to take his position- he hustles. He’s known for his power, but he runs like a gazelle. He fears nothing- not outfield walls, not the glare of the spotlight, not failing amid some of the highest expectations ever held for any young prospect in the history of the game.

National’s manager, Davey Johnson has been here before. He was the one in the New York Mets organization who back in 1985, successfully argued that a young pitcher with the most amazing stuff he’d ever seen should be brought up to the majors and it didn’t matter to him one hoot that it was a 19 year- old teenager. That was Dwight Gooden. The next year, that kid helped lead the Mets to a World Series title. It is no wonder Davey Johnson was suggesting out of spring training, that Harper too should move up to the big leagues…NOW. He saw this a quarter century ago. Which seems about right for a player like that who only comes along once or twice in a generation. The Nationals have the other once-a-generation guy too- Stephen Strasburg.

But in Harper, I imagine this is what it must have been like to see a young Mickey Mantle, who when he wasn’t hitting monster homeruns, was flying like the wind, running from home plate to 1st base in just over three seconds. The Mantle I remember was already a busted up mess with an alcohol problem and knees so damaged he had to be taped up like a mummy before games just so he could walk out to the field.

Because people like me don’t put enough pressure on Harper– comparing him to the likes of Derek Jeter, Dwight Gooden and Mickey Mantle- let me also add he reminds me of Secretariat as a one-year old thoroughbred. Grace and power and speed; running like a young colt in a Virginia meadow just for the joy of it.

Harper’s meadow is the outfield at National’s Park and the joy is not just his, but ours as well.

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