What a difference one week makes. Last week at this time, I knew everyone by name walking around the Nationals Spring Training complex in Viera, Florida. Today, I hardly knew anyone. The Washington Nationals' first official day of full roster workouts were met with hoards of media and many fans.
The National media, the local DC media and everything else in between were there for basically one reason: to see the spring training debut of the 18-year-old baseball phenom known as Bryce Harper.
Harper made an appearance yesterday and was mobbed by autograph seekers. Nats manager Jim Riggleman admitted to me today that allowing Bryce into the mob was one of his biggest spring training gaffes in recent memory. “That will not happen again,” Riggleman said, and it did not today.
It was amazing to see all of the kids out at camp today, considering yesterday was the school holiday. I spoke with a young 10-year-old boy that told me he was there just to see Bryce Harper.
He also pointed out that he was only eight years younger than Bryce. Feeling even older than I am seeing the young superstar, I thanked the kid for his time and scooted him along his way, calling him a stinking something or another under my breath.
Today, for me, was also about Bryce Harper. A kid whose baseball hero was a guy that passed away when Bryce was three years old fascinates me. A guy he never got to see play, hell, his father, Ron Harper, never got see him play.
I am fascinated by any guy that signs his autograph with a Bible verse attached.
Bryce’s Bible verse is Luke 1:37, “For nothing is impossible with God." It is strange to think that if Bryce’s hero had been as grounded an 18-year-old kid as Bryce is, he may still be with us today.
Mickey Mantle passed away on August 13, 1995 from liver failure brought on by years of alcohol abuse. The irony is that almost 15 years to the date of Mantle’s death, Harper was introduced at a press conference and handed a jersey and hat by Ryan Zimmerman as this year’s newest Nationals young superstar phenom.
He mentioned Mantle in his first press conference and there may be a lot of similarities when it is all said and done. Mantle was just 19 years old when he made his Yankee debut. Mantle, like Harper, was a highly touted prospect and in fact, many were saying that Mickey was the next Joe DiMaggio.
That's a lot of pressure for any kid at any age, especially in New York City. We will see what happens in the next 20 years, but for now, there are some comparisons to be made.
Harper already seems to fit in, he belongs and he will earn his way into this lineup before the end of this year. You just know greatness when you see “it” and this kid has “IT.” It is Bryce’s goal to hear, “Now batting for the Nationals, No. 34, Outfielder Bryce Harper,” before the end of the year.
If I am learning anything about this kid from talking to his dad and others around him, it's when Bryce sets goals, he does accomplish them.
“It’s hard to believe that this is just the beginning, considering everything he has done and how hard he has worked, and still works, to get to this point,” Ron Harper, Bryce’s dad, told me. “Bryce is a focused, grounded kid that welcomes any and all challenges head on.”
“He expects nothing less than to be a good teammate first and a great player second,” Mr. Harper continued. When I asked him how he felt about the whole process and what he must be feeling today for Bryce, he answered “Like any other parent would, nervous, anxious and wanting nothing more than for my son to succeed. I am confident in his abilities in baseball as well as life.” Sounds like Bryce had some pretty good life coaching on top of his baseball training.
Mr. Harper spent most of the day in a tower overlooking the four practice fields, watching Bryce in his first official day of spring workouts. It is too early to tell how quickly Bryce may make the show, but one thing is for sure.
If getting to the "BIGS" were strictly based on being grounded, well rounded and humble enough to be a God fearing 18-year-old making sure to give thanks when possible, then Bryce would be in the opening day lineup next month.
In other spring training news today, the Nationals completed about a three hour session of your basic baseball drill. Pitchers threw live batting practice on fields two and three. The infielders turned double plays and fielded bunts on field one, and an assortment of drills and conditioning took place on field four.
Each player took a turn, rotating fields, making sure they participated in every drill. Nats manager Jim Riggleman seems to be running a nice, focused and smooth camp. He has an array of veteran coaching help. Former Mets and Orioles manager, Davey Johnson, is a spring instructor, as is former manager Pat Corrales. Riggleman has some youth mixed in as well, like Coach Tony Tarassco.
All of the big guns were there taking their swings in the cage. Jayson Werth and his 126 million dollars worth of hair looked ready, as well as the clean-cut Adam LaRoche. Many of the players on all four fields could be overheard discussing the Carmelo Anthony trade to the Knicks.
However, there was one conversation I could not walk away from, a coaching session that just drew me in. On field three, third base coach Bo Porter was covering the signs he would be signaling this year while the players stood in the batter’s box.
Porter’s audience of about 20 players included future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Porter told them that understanding signs was both a verbal and non-verbal communication skill. One that, if they are going to succeed this year, was needed.
He explained the ramifications of missed signs and why it is so very important to pay attention, “If coach has a play on and you miss the sign, then you probably have also cost your team a chance of winning the game. Coach doesn't put a call on if it is not a crucial time of the game," Porter reminded them.
He got down on the ground, pushing both arms in an up and down motion, yelling "get down, get down," to demonstrate how the on deck batter is responsible for the third base runner on a play at the plate. He also said something that a few individuals have probably heard in their careers, but never in a Nats uniform.
A line of thinking that has been missing in DC since the arrival of the Nationals.
He explained in almost an evangelical tone that everyone, regardless of how many years in the league, must be on board with the program. He told them that they need to understand that when he puts his right hand to his right ear, then a sign is coming and it is time to pay attention and listen, they had better be prepared.
He then said, “It is important to learn this now, gentlemen, because when we are playing baseball in late October and there are 55,000 screaming fans, you will know that one of reasons we are there is because you understood the commitment of learning verbal and non verbal communication. It all matters, men."
While it is just day one of full roster workouts in Viera, Florida, it is never a bad omen to remind the players that they have a chance to play deep into the fall. In my mind, it is the only way to start the spring.