Bryce Harper: Can Baseball's 18-Year-Old Phenom Become Phenomenal?

The Washington Nationals' rookie plays his first game tonight for the Single-A Hagerstown Suns. Why all baseball fans should be excited.



If you are a Yankees fan, you might not care about Bryce Harper.

When you root for a winning baseball team, you don't have to care about a rookie catcher-turned-outfielder who will take his first regular season professional swings this week for the Single-A Hagerstown Suns. If you are lucky enough to follow the Yankees, Phillies, Giants, Red Sox, Rangers, or any other successful team, you get to spend all summer thinking about a pennant race.

If you are a fan of a bad team, however, you don't get that luxury. If you love a team like the Pirates, Orioles, or Nationals—who made Bryce Harper the first overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft—you need to find other ways of enjoying the sport.

Like sitting in the sunshine, for instance. Fans of bad baseball teams are quick to point out that simply being at the ballpark is a big part of the game's appeal. Which it is. Baseball, with its manicured, perfected version of nature, is our national monument to Jefferson's pastoral dream. Romantic pastoralism, however, can only take a fan so far. Especially when it costs ten bucks to park. We're drawn to baseball because we love a good story. And the taut, fitful game in which we have invested so much of the national soul is perhaps the country's greatest venue for telling stories to ourselves, about ourselves—be they stories of teamwork and sportsmanship, segregation and civil rights, or tacitly communicating the right way for an American to walk.

The most important story baseball tells, though, isn't nationalistic, but universal. Ultimately, the greatest gift the game can give—the greatest gift that any game can give, really—is hope. Hope is why Bryce Harper matters to baseball fans, no matter where their favorite team sits in the standings. Hope is why the Nationals made the left-handed hitter their first pick, and it's why fans around the country will pay attention when this 18-year-old plays his first game for the Suns tonight.

Harper, you see, isn't just a prospect. He's a phenom, and phenoms tell us perhaps the most hopeful story humans can hear. They tell us that we, as a species, are getting better.

Athletes are the literal embodiment of human evolution—forever going higher, farther, faster. Usually, however, that process is barely perceptible, moving by fractions of an inch or tenths of a second. The truly exceptional athlete, though, makes a quantum leap. Superior athletes don't just improve records, they shatter them. Like Tiger Woods winning the Masters by 12 strokes, Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a game, or Babe Ruth hitting 54 homers when no one had even hit 30. Athletes like that don't merely win. They change how the game is played. In so doing, in transcending the limits of their sport, they show us that it's possible to transcend the circumstances of our own lives.

Bryce Harper, there's no question, has the mark of greatness.

In 2008, playing for a team in his native Las Vegas, Harper hit a home-run that his coaches measured at 570 feet. The deepest field in the Major Leagues, by comparison, is Houston's Minute Maid Park, with a center field wall 436 feet from home. The longest verifiable home run of all-time, hit by Babe Ruth in Detroit, measured about 575 feet.

Harper was a high school freshman at the time.

In 2009, he was at the Tampa Bay Rays' home, Tropicana Field. Hitting in a showcase event for young players, Harper drove a shot to right that smacked off the stadium's back wall. They called that one 502 feet—the longest ball ever hit at Tropicana Field. In 13 years of Major League Baseball at the Trop, no one had ever hit the back wall—not Manny Ramirez, not Jim Thome, or a juiced-up Rafael Palmeiro and Jason Giambi. Check out the video of Harper's swings, and listen to the PA announcer go absolutely bonkers when he realizes what he's seeing.

But, you might object, Harper was using an aluminum bat, which can increase a ball's distance by five or ten percent. True. But he was also still just 17.

Harper's sophomore season in Las Vegas, he hit an unheard-of .626. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover. ESPN's E60 news magazine show did a segment on him. He left high school two years early, getting his GED, and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada, making himself eligible for baseball's June 2010 amateur draft. At CSC, where they use wooden bats like the pros—he promptly hit .443, with 98 RBI and an incredible 31 home runs over 66 games.

Need more?

In the district finals of the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series, Harper hit for the cycle. The next day was a doubleheader. In the opener, he went 2-for-5. Not satisfied with .400, Harper went 6-for-6 in the nightcap. Four of those six hits were home runs.

As expected, the Nationals made Harper the first pick of last year's draft on June 7, and he signed a five-year deal worth $9.9 million. After batting .319 in the Nats' fall instructional league, then .389 in 2011 Spring Training games, Harper was optioned to Class-A Hagerstown. Now a hulking 6'3'', 225 pounds, he could make his major league debut as soon as September, becoming the first 18-year old to play in the bigs since Alex Rodriguez made his Mariners debut in 1994.

Harper's swing is certainly mesmerizing. The bat held high, front leg poised, hands back and loose, a wrist break so fast and smooth it's over before you can see it start. No wonder that his coaches get a misty, faraway look in the eye when they talk about him. But every fan has seen plenty of Next Big Things become also-rans. Can Harper go from phenom to phenomenal?

ESPN's David Schoenfield looked at every hitter who ranked in the top five of Baseball America's prospects since 1990. About 80 percent have put together decent big league careers. Several turned out to be All-Stars. One, A-Rod, will go to the Hall of Fame. Of the 20 percent that can be legitimately be called flops, barring injury, there one overriding reason they fail: strike-outs.

At the high school, college and minors league level, most of the pitchers are mostly throwing fastballs. In the bigs, as Crash Davis famously said, they throw "ungodly breaking stuff" and "exploding sliders." They also throw curves that go right-to-left, or left-to-right, and nasty off-speed stuff with backwards rotation that come out of a pitcher's hand looking like a 100 mph fastball, then seem to fall off a table midway to the plate.

Being successful as a big league hitter ultimately isn't an issue of physical strength—of great bat speed, eye-hand coordination, and reflexes—even though all those things are necessary to succeed. Intellect also plays a role. Harper will have to perpetually study pitchers, looking for tendencies and potential weakness. He will also have to control his sometimes fiery temper, and learn to deal with the inevitable failures coming his way. But greatness demands something more—some ineffable sixth sense—for drama, and for what the pitcher will throw next. The only way to know if Harper has that magic quality is to wait and see. One day, the country will see a player so good he will change baseball the way Tiger changed golf, Wilt changed the NBA, and Babe Ruth changed baseball. Bryce Harper looks like he might be that player. As fans, we can only hope.