BY MATT LaWELL
AKRON, Ohio | Somewhere deep inside Canal Park, Bryce Harper is on a trainer’s table, his hamstring tweaked, his rookie season finished at least two weeks too early. At the same time, out on the concourse, hundreds of people squeeze together around a wrestling ring and watch Beautiful Bobby body slam Little Kato into a trash can.
Harper, of course, is the top prospect in all of baseball, the Washington Nationals natural drafted first overall two years ago, signed for nearly $10 million and promptly sent to a small town tucked in the Allegheny mountains. Beautiful Bobby is the new world champion of midget wrestling. And despite the differences in their appearances, their professions, their bank accounts, the mob cheers for both to fail and hurt, to suffer.
More than seven months have passed since that night when Harper rounded second and hobbled into third clutching at his leg, a hustle play when little hustle was needed, but the public perception has hardly changed. He is a teenager still, and we heckle him from the safety of our seats. We target him for our vitriol. On the field, Harper ignores it. This is the world in which he plays, always a villain.
Will we ever cheer for him?
♦ ♦ ♦
Harper might be brash, but he’s also as effective a draw as anyone or anything else in minor league baseball today. He played three nights in Ohio last season after his promotion from the Hagerstown Suns of the Low-A South Atlantic League to the Harrisburg Senators of the Double-A Eastern League, all of them during the middle of the week, and fans flocked more than an hour before every first pitch. They might have jeered him later, but they wanted him to sign first.
The first night, a Tuesday, more than 100 people clustered outside the two main gates of Canal Park by 5:45 p.m. for a 7:05 start. Within 10 minutes, that number doubled. A couple dozen of them arrived early for an opportunity to walk their dogs on the field -- a promotional Bark at the Park parade -- but the rest were there to see Harper. They carried fresh baseballs in lucite boxes, glossy photographs sleeved in plastic, unbroken bats suitable for display in the home or for sale on the Internet. They wanted an autograph from the superstar-in-training.
They wanted a memory.
When the gates opened at 6:05, nearly everybody rushed toward the field to secure a spot by the rail. They talked while they waited, and most seemed to know his story. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, eye black and all, at 16. Skipped his junior and senior years of high school to enroll in a junior college so he could enter the draft a year earlier than his peers. Selected first overall by the Nationals and signed to a contract worth nearly eight figures. Seems to like fastballs, long drives and leisurely walks around the bases.
A woman walked down the steps to a seat in the second row in the middle of the crowd.
“Why are there so many people here?” she asked me.
“They want to see Bryce Harper,” I responded.
“They want to see who?” she asked. “Price Harper?”
“Bryce,” I said.
“Is he good?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. I wanted to say more, but yes would suffice.
“Well, I don’t know who Bryce Harper is,” she said, holding up an envelope. “I’m here because my work gave me a ticket and a food coupon.” And for the next hour, the woman sat in her seat and the crowd grew around her.
Harper trotted onto the field at 6:15, about 10 minutes after the gates opened, and started to stretch. Then he ran and threw and watched his teammates throw. He ignored all the noise around him. He looked nothing like a teenager. The crowd waited.
Finally, at 6:52, Harper walked toward the rail and started to sign autographs. He worked methodically, moving left to right down the line toward first base, signing every third or fourth item placed in front of him, skipping most adults. Seven minutes later, he trotted toward the dugout to audible groans. “C’mon, Bryce,” a man in a Nationals T-shirt pleaded. “Just one more.”
Harper batted fifth that night, protected by Harrisburg first baseman Tyler Moore, one of only two minor leaguers who hit 30 or more home runs each of the last two seasons. There were no bat flips or home run admirations or kisses blown out toward the mound. He grounded to the pitcher in the second, popped out to the pitcher in the fourth, struck out on three pitches in the fifth. In the eighth, the public address announcer introduced him as “Harper. Comma. Bryce,” and he hit a line drive to left that died at the warning track.
He delivered in the bottom of the eighth, though, when he fielded a single and fired a bullet from left that hit catcher Derek Norris in the glove and beat the runner by 15 feet, the kind of throw that most Major Leaguers fail to make. He singled to right in the 10th, too, his only hit of the night. The Senators lost in 12.
The next night, Wednesday, Harper received a scheduled day off, so he sat in the dugout and watched. He didn’t stretch, didn’t run, didn’t throw or sign or play. The last night, Thursday, he batted fifth again, singled in the second, grounded to short in the third, struck out looking in the sixth -- and was heckled every time he held his post in left. “Hey, Moneyballs,” one man said. “You suck,” another said.
Harper walked to lead off the eighth, the Senators already leading the Aeros 4-1. A quartet of fans shouted high behind third base. They wanted Harper to try and steal second. “You’re gonna get a face full of glove!” one of them yelled across the infield. Three pitches later, Akron reliever Rob Bryson pitched a fastball, Harrisburg right fielder Archie Gilbert singled to center and Harper started to run. He raced around second, full speed, and dropped his head.
And then he pulled up and hobbled into third.
The park exhaled, the source of its enmity out of the game, back in the dugout, away from its eye. The Senators played 18 more games, but Harper missed all of them. He didn’t play again until the Scottsdale Scorpions started their Arizona Fall League schedule more than two months later. When he showed up at spring training in February, his hamstring was fine. He turned 19 in October. He heals quickly.
♦ ♦ ♦
More than 14,000 people attended those three games in Akron last August — an average of 4,751 and better than 1,000 more per game than the Aeros averaged last season. Harper played a considerably bigger part in that number than any other player, but still received boos every moment he was in sight.
Why? Is it the money? The hype? Is it our desire, like the protagonist in Fight Club, to destroy something beautiful, even if for an inning or game? Even if in our mind?
Harper will open his second professional season on Thursday with the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League, one step from the Majors. If he plays well, learns enough, he might land in Washington, the word “Nationals” finally stretched across his chest this season. If he gets the call, he will still field boos as well as he does fly balls. He hears them, of course, but shows no sign that he does.
He will be a villain only if we say he is.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.