The next Mantle?
We’ve been waiting for Bryce Harper for three years, ever since we were introduced to the then 16-year-old on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I don’t know what you were doing at 16, but I was playing junior varsity tennis and riding my bike to my job at the grocery store. Bryce’s high school years were just a little bit different.
Two facts stood out to me from Tom Verducci’s excellent article back in June of 2009. Harper’s high school coach, Sam Thomas, re-measured the distance of a massive home run hit by Harper. Verducci recounted how he must have heard Thomas wrong because no 15-year-old could hit a ball 517 feet. Harper in fact didn’t hit the ball 517 feet. He hit it 570 feet.
Verducci explained Harper’s speed by recounting how he had scored—from second base—six times that past season on wild pitches.
Can Harper also scale tall buildings in a single bound? While there’s no record of him doing that, you go ahead and bet against him having pulled that off.
We’ve certainly seen young phenoms before, but none quite like Harper. After his sophomore year in high school, he got his GED and enrolled in junior college at the College of Southern Nevada. This made him eligible for the Major League Baseball draft a year early. That season he hit .443 with 31 home runs and 98 RBI in 66 games. The previous single season home run record was 12. Take a minute to digest.
In June of 2010 the Washington Nationals made Harper the top pick in the draft. There was no debate in the war room. This came one year after they picked Steven Steven Strasburg with the first pick. It’s nice to be the Washington Nationals.
Fast forward to April 28, 2012 and 19-year-old Bryce Harper is playing left field and batting seventh for the Nationals at Dodger Stadium. I planned on going to see Harper play for my hometown's team, the Syracuse Chiefs, the Nationals’ AAA team. So much for that as he didn’t last a month in the Salt City.
Fascinating fact from Harper’s debut. The Dodgers’ announcer is still the incomparable Vin Scully. The comparisons between Harper and all-time great Mickey Mantle have been well-documented. Mantle’s major league debut? An exhibition game at Ebbets Field against the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 14, 1951. Vin Scully was a member of the Dodgers’ broadcast team that day. Wait, more X-Files stuff.
Steven Strasburg was the Nationals’ starting pitcher when Harper played his first game. The two will be linked for years. The recently retired Pudge Rodriguez caught Strasburg who was born in 1988. Pudge also caught Nolan Ryan who was born in 1947. That has nothing to do with Harper or Mantle, but I couldn’t resist.
The big question for Harper is whether or not he can tone down his attitude that has kindly been called cocky. His blowing a kiss to a pitcher he homered off of at Southern Nevada was not looked on too kindly by baseball people who believe the game should be treated with respect.
Let’s remember he’s just 19. I don’t know about you, but put me in Harper’s shoes at 19 and I’d have been out of control with no chance of my big head getting through the clubhouse door.
For the past year or longer, Harper has said all the right things to the media. I expect he’ll begin to follow the lead of veterans and handle himself off the field with the same success he’ll have on it.
The Nationals are saying that Harper is only up until Ryan Zimmerman comes off the DL. I’m thinking I blew my chance to see him in Syracuse.