Harper's skills alone are fascinating enough to watch. He swings the bat with a ferocity that borders on felonious. The modern subtleties of "working the count" or "seeing pitches"—the popular passive-aggressive approach to hitting—have no room in his throwback world of blunt-force trauma. Said Erie SeaWolves manager Chris Cron upon watching Harper scorch the first pitch he saw in Double A for a line-drive single, "You can tell he's ready to hit, and I mean do damage, at all times. He's figured that out at 18 when some guys never do."
Moreover, Harper is a base stealer with above-average speed (the SeaWolves respectfully pitched out the first time he reached base) and has a throwing arm that would rank among the best of major leaguers. (The first time he threw to bases in Double A in pregame practice, there were audible whoops and gasps from his teammates.) In his second game for Harrisburg, Harper fielded a hit in the extreme leftfield corner by the foul pole and, on a fly, threw out the batter trying to reach second. Two innings later, on a ball hit to his left, deep in the gap, Harper threw another no-bounce laser to the bag to nail another batter trying for a double. In the Futures Game on July 10 he threw from the leftfield foul pole to the plate on a short hop, though off-line.
What makes Harper more fascinating, however, is not what his development says about him, but what it says about us. In another, less invasive time—say, 1951, when Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle arrived in the majors—his youthfulness and talent would serve as gossamer wings to let our optimism soar. Today those same traits—and the idea, shaped by an Internet video clip, that he is too much, too soon and too confident—are reason to tear him down.
"Jealousy," says Senators second baseman Josh Johnson. "People are jealous. There are people in this clubhouse who are jealous of him. And they are totally wrong about him.
"I got to know him in spring training. I like to get in the cage early. I'm typically the first one in there—6:30, quarter to seven every morning. Who's the one guy who shows up every day that early? Bryce."
Says Harris, "This is a wonderful kid. Don't mistake his intensity and his passion for a guy who doesn't have a care or concern about other people. Because that's not the case at all.
"Watch the kid prepare. Watch his intensity and then come back and tell me you have a different opinion about him. Most parents, if they had a son out there in that situation, they would hope that their son prepares and goes about his business the way he does."
Major league attendance fell each of the last three seasons. Scoring is at its lowest level since 1992, and batting average hasn't been this poor since the American League added the designated hitter in 1973. And the game has an 18-year-old who is a once-in-a-generation hitting prospect, who reads the Bible, who has MOM and POPS tattooed on the undersides of his wrists, who doesn't drink or smoke, who visited a children's hospital upon arriving in Phoenix for All-Star weekend, who signs autographs every day for kids (even minutes before the first pitch), who is such a respectful student of baseball history he can tell you the hitting styles of 1970s stars and who plays the game so hard, in the spirit of Pete Rose, one of his playing inspirations, as to rankle opponents.
And this is the kid we choose to boo and, turning the tables on him, to kiss off.
LeBron James went straight to Cleveland. Sidney Crosby went to Pittsburgh. Bryce Harper went to Hagerstown. He took an apartment by himself a half hour away in Waynesboro, Pa., in part to enjoy the unwinding ride home, listening to country music in his pickup truck, then griddling himself late-night pancakes. Baseball requires such a wide array of skills and such a deep understanding of terabytes of game information that even the most talented players cannot be rushed.