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HERE HE COMES
Tom Verducci
August 01, 2011
The game's future is biding his time in the minors, where he's raking the pitchers and riling his critics. Is Bryce Harper ready? Definitely—but are we ready for Bryce Harper?
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August 01, 2011

Here He Comes

The game's future is biding his time in the minors, where he's raking the pitchers and riling his critics. Is Bryce Harper ready? Definitely—but are we ready for Bryce Harper?

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Rose had already been banned from baseball for three years by the time Harper was born, and yet it is Charlie Hustle, who once said, "I'd walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball," who provides Harper's playing template—he plays hard enough to make enemies. "I'm going to take you out at second base," Harper says. "I'm going to put your catcher in the seats. That's baseball. Look at Pete Rose and the [1970] All-Star Game. It sucks that [catcher Ray Fosse's] career was never the same after that, but that's how [Rose] played. That's what I want people to know about me. I'm going to go out and give 100 percent every single day no matter what."

The Fourth of July was a big day for Harper. It was his first day in Harrisburg after his promotion. One of his first orders of business was to acquire the number 34, which he wore at the College of Southern Nevada (the school retired the number), in spring training and in Hagerstown. Harper likes the number because the digits add up to seven, the number of Mantle. The number in Harrisburg belonged to Hassan Peña, a 26-year-old pitcher. Peña told Harper it would cost him $1,200. Harper countered with $600.

"Deal," Peña told him. "That's a car payment."

Five minutes before the first pitch on the Fourth, Harper signed autographs for fans along the rightfield line and, without prompting, jumped into the team photo for a youth baseball club that was on the field. Harper's appeal to youngsters is enormous. He has reenergized the baseball card industry. (One of his cards sold last October for the very adult price of $12,500.) When he wore his Ultimate Warrior facade in high school—garish triangles of eye black underneath each eye—the look quickly spread throughout youth baseball. Of the 50 or so fans who wait outside the Senators' clubhouse after games for his autograph, almost all of them are preteen and teenage boys. "I'll tell the adults, 'I'm signing for the kids, and maybe if I have time I'll get you guys later,' " Harper said. "They may start cussing me out or telling me I'm terrible, and the next day it's, 'Oh, we love you. Sign this.' It's going to happen, I guess.

"I love taking time with little kids no matter what, because those are the guys that are going to be watching me the rest of my life. Those are the ones who are going to be looking up to me in the next couple of years, and hopefully I'll be playing this game for a while. Those are the type of guys I need to sign for. I want them to look up to me and say, 'Hey, Bryce plays the game the right way.' "

Playing the game too hard, at least according to its unwritten rules, is why Erie welcomed Harper to Double A by treating him like a pyramid of wooden milk bottles at a county fair. Five innings into his first game at that level, with the Senators up 8--0, Harper was on first base and broke on his own to steal second. When the batter chopped the ball to shortstop, Harper kept running, moving up two bases on a ball that traveled about 75 feet. It was an impressive piece of baserunning, but exhibiting that kind of aggressiveness with your team holding such a big lead goes against the game's honor code. Harrisburg manager Tony Beasley, who also coaches third base, immediately advised Harper of his error. Angry players in the Erie dugout did the same. "I was just locked in and not thinking about the score," says Harper. "I just got caught up, I guess."

His next time up, Harper was nearly hit three times by pitches from Tyler Stohr, an Erie righthander six years older than Harper. After Stohr's third attempt at justice missed, SeaWolves manager Cron ran out to the mound. "I told him, 'O.K., now it's time to get him out,' " Cron says. Harper walked.

"If I was pitching, I probably would have done the same thing," says Harper. "A kid going first to third with the score eight-nothing? If I was up on the bump, I would buzz the tower too."

Learning when not to run, learning how to throw from the outfield without the ball cutting, learning how pitchers are trying to get him out, learning how to stay mentally and physically sharp for six months with precious few off days ... those are but a small part of the minor league curriculum. Harper's education is obvious already. He has scaled back the huge swing he took in high school, a "kind of slo-pitch-softball swing" that the lower velocities of high school pitchers allowed him to get away with. He has ditched the Ultimate Warrior look for a more traditional application of eye black. When Harris saw him in April, Harper ran the bases like a high schooler, trying to bait throws. In June he saw a smarter runner stealing bases with textbook technique.

Even his quotes are less outrageous. Asked if he needed to change, Harper says, "I don't think I do. I think maybe when I was younger I did, coming out of high school. My mentality was, Hey, I'm better than you. Better than everybody in the world.... Thing is, if you don't have that mentality, you're not going to perform. When you step in that batters' box, you have to know you're better than that pitcher."

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