Bryce Harper might be one of the greatest young talents in baseball, a four-time All-Star outfielder for the Washington Nationals, but he can’t bring himself to watch the games he doesn’t play.
He can be defiant, and he oozes with bravado with every step he takes, but he’s as awestruck as a 7-year-old getting his first autographed baseball card when meeting those who played the game before him.
An All-Star by 19, he’s now a three-time division winner and a married man at 24.
He also just so happens to be a walking contradiction to popular belief, which amuses him more than angers him, as he captivates the baseball world like no other.
This is a player opposing fans love to hate, but if only they knew he’s actually not merely the precocious product of a hype machine but also one of the most engaging, charming and passionate players in the game.
“I seriously don’t think about what people are saying about me,” Harper tells USA TODAY Sports. “I just say whatever comes to mind. I mean, I really don’t sugarcoat anything. I don’t really try to be proper.
“You’re going to get what you see, and that’s always how I’ve been. But I sure don’t try to disrespect anybody or anything.”
People look at him and see that 24-year-old face, but if only they knew the old soul inside his youthful body.
“The biggest thing that bothers me with these young kids is that they don’t know the tradition of the game,” Harper says. “They don’t know Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, George Brett, Ken Griffey Jr. There are kids that don’t even know about Junior, and that’s absurd to me.”
Folks keep pondering Harper’s future when he’s eligible for free agency in two years, wondering whether he’ll become baseball’s first $400 million player or possibly command $540 million over 13 years, as the Nationals ownership fears. But if only they knew he’s looking no further ahead than to his next spring training at-bat.
“That’s still two years down the road, and we’ve still got, what, 324 more (regular-season) games to go,” Harper says. “It wouldn’t be fair to anybody in this clubhouse if I started worrying about free agency. If you worry about the future, that’s when you get yourself in trouble. You start thinking, ‘I got to do this, I got to do that.’
“I want to live for now.”
The industry’s speculation — assumption, really — is that his talent and personality are made for the New York Yankees, who are preparing for the star-studded 2018 free agent class. His consistent response is about his love for Washington, D.C., and its history.
“It’s such a great place to play in such a monumental town,” Harper says. “They have so many incredible people that have come through the city. You drive down 395, and you see the Washington monuments, the Jefferson Memorial, and right down the road is the White House.
“It’s just beautiful.”
Even the Nationals want to believe that Harper beat himself up all winter after hitting .243 last season, on the heels of his 42-homer National League MVP effort in 2015.
The man himself has a different perspective.
“To tell you the truth, when I got to the offseason, baseball was the last thing on my mind,” Harper says. “I had a big-boy offseason, really. Buying a house. Moving into the house. Getting furniture. Designing the exterior. The interior. Planning a wedding.
“So baseball didn’t eat me up at all or anything like that. The only thing that mattered to me was my family.
“Besides, everybody says this and that about my year, but personally I thought I had a pretty good year. Not my best year, of course, but if that’s the worst year (24 homers, 86 RBI, 21 stolen bases and a .814 on-base plus slugging percentage) I’m ever going to have, I’ll take it. Why not?”
Despite all of his exposure from the time he graced Sports Illustrated’s cover at 16, Harper somehow remains the man the baseball world can’t quite figure out.
“He’s a throwback baseball player,” Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch says, “which is unique nowadays because of the attention that was given to him at 16 years old. You watch him prepare. You watch him compete in the box. He gives off a very unique throwback baseball vibe when you watch him play.”
There were times last year when Harper barely resembled the player from 2015, when his league-leading 1.109 OPS helped make him a unanimous MVP.
The Nationals say he played with a stiff neck, causing him to miss five consecutive games at one point. There were reports of an ailing shoulder that restricted his swing. There was speculation that Harper was never fully healthy the final few months of the season.
Harper remains purposely vague on the subject.
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.