May 04, 2012 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
A young man, not even to 20, strode up to the plate at Dodger Stadium for his first major league at-bat – and heard the boos cascade down, as if he was from San Francisco.
Alas, Bryce Harper is with the Washington Nationals. But the team affiliation did not matter. The talent he possesses, and the impact he could have on baseball, was the reason why his debut was so eagerly covered and analyzed.
Local fans had two reasons to feel conflicted about this. First, he ended up spending less than a month in Syracuse, only hitting .250 or so, his call-up a product not of overwhelming greatness, but of necessity, since Ryan Zimmerman was going to the DL.
Also, thanks to his national profile, Harper’s debut greatly overshadowed that of a local product, Cicero-North Syracuse’s Patrick Corbin. The left-hander went from Double-A to the Arizona Diamondbacks and, on Monday, won his first-ever start, beating the Miami Marlins.
Still, it’s impossible to avoid the Harper story. One theme throughout baseball history is the emergence of a young phenom, either at the plate or on the mound, with the Roy Hobbs mindset of wanting to be the best that ever was.
What’s just as certain is that you can’t predict how they’ll turn out.
Bob Feller went to the Cleveland Indians at 17. Al Kaline skipped the minor leagues and went straight to the Detroit Tigers at 18, and Robin Yount was also 18 when he started with the Milwaukee Brewers. Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were in Seattle uniforms not long after their high school prom. They all did rather well.
At the other extreme is David Clyde, the textbook cautionary tale. Drafted first overall in 1973 by the Texas Rangers, the Houston high school prodigy, at 18, was rushed into the big leagues that summer because the Rangers, just two years into its Arlington tenure, was desperate for both attendance and publicity.
In front of 37,000, Clyde won his first start – the worst thing that could have possibly happened. Not caring one bit about his physical or emotional development, Texas had Clyde start 17 more times in that ’73 season, and he never got better, instead developing serious arm trouble. Eight years, two teams and one comeback attempt later, David Clyde was finished, at 26.
Then there’s the instance where a little bit of both scenarios unfold – namely, Dwight Gooden. Doc had his first full season with the Mets at 19, won the pitching Triple Crown and Cy Young at 20, and helped his team win a World Series at 21. Cooperstown seemed inevitable.
Yet we all know now that it was way too much, way too soon. Gooden’s descent into drug abuse and other off-the-field woes is well-chronicled. Simply put, he couldn’t handle overwhelming fame, and it trumped his immense pitching talent.
This brings us to Bryce Harper. What he got was something none of the above-mentioned teen stars had to worry about, which was a Niagara of publicity capped by an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated, when he was 16. Just try and stay humble when that happens.
That’s one knock about Harper, that he brings a cocky attitude to the diamond. It led to some rough spots in his rise through the minor leagues, though no one bothers to point out that, in baseball, without a lot of self-confidence, there’s no way you make it to The Show.
Besides, the physical gifts are something to behold, as the Dodgers found out in that first game. At 6-3 and 215 pounds, Harper possesses a well-honed swing from the left side with easy power, and he hits lots of screaming line drives. That first hit traveled close to 400 feet and almost was a home run, and more doubles followed, two of which led to wins at home against Arizona. He runs pretty well, too, and hustles every time to first base.
Even more of a knockout is what Harper can do in the field. Twice in his first four games, he threw absolute pegs to the plate, nearly stopping someone from scoring. Any player that brings excitement to the game just with his defense is inordinately valuable.
Opinion is divided over whether Harper is in D.C. to stay. Some are convinced that this is just a temporary assignment and that he’ll be back in Syracuse or some other minor-league situation. Others figure that the call-up is permanent and that we’d better get used to Harper donning a number 34 for the Nationals.
Just as fascinating is to see how much slack Harper will get cut in our era of Twitter and instant judgments about everything. Any slump will get dissected as a sign of talent gone to waste. Any surge will get treated as the Second Coming…of something, anyway.
Baseball’s annals are filled with the glorious tales of youthful promise that turned into legend, and also littered by similar stories of failure by would-be greats. Bryce Harper occupies neither territory now, but the journey he will take, whatever the result, will fascinate us all.