KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bryce Harper went from laughing with Chipper Jones to shaking hands with George Brett and saying hello to Frank Robinson. The game’s greats surrounded him, watched him take batting practice.
“I’m a big fan of yours,” Brett told Harper.
“Ah, that was pretty unbelievable,” Harper said later. “No words.”
But there was a 7-year-old kid squealing inside his 6-foot-3 frame. Brett — the same George Brett Harper used to imitate with takeout slides at second base in Little League — was a fan of his. That was a running theme this week in Kansas City as Harper partook in his first All-Star Game.
“He seems like a really good dude,” said Brewers slugger Ryan Braun. “He’s handled himself great. He’s very humble. Dealing with everything he’s had to deal with? I don’t think he gets enough credit.”
How could that be? Harper’s supposed to be a brash, cocky punk who carries himself without regard for anyone, right?
“I’ll be the first to admit I was hesitant to give him much credit when he first got here,” Jones said. “But man, he’s changed my thought process.”
Bryce Harper, the kid who’s been anointed the next greatest-ever since before he was old enough to drive, isn’t supposed to be this likable and easy to respect.
“More times than not, I would say people have a bad perception of him,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, one of a handful of Nationals veterans who have been integral in Harper’s transition to the major leagues. “And then they play against him for three games. And more times than not it completely changes to the other way.”
“ESPN shows him hitting a home run and blowing a kiss to a pitcher, you know?” Jones said. “They don’t relay the fact that the pitcher threw one behind him the pitch before. They don’t relay that. That’s where everybody’s opinion gets skewed.”
As Harper has navigated through his first 63 games, he has allowed his play and his personality to take care of those perceptions. He’s not unaccustomed to the opposition loathing him, but the big leagues are a different story.
“I think everybody had this misconception that I was going to come up here, be a lollygagger and pimp home runs,” Harper said. “But my brother is a pitcher. Somebody showboated him, I’d get [upset] as a catcher. I never wanted to do that.”
But before he could change the mind of someone like Jones, Harper had to work on his own clubhouse — on veterans such as outfielder Jayson Werth, who didn’t immediately gravitate to him given his truncated path to the big leagues,
“Werth, our first spring training together, he was always on me,” Harper said. “But I think Werth’s been the biggest help out of anybody.”
“We were all taught the same thing. It would be selfish of us to not help him. He could go on to be, whatever, the best player to ever play the game — but it’s up to us to make him fit in.”
Werth has a lot in common with Harper. He’s a former first-round pick and a former catcher. But his path to the major leagues, and to starring in them, was anything but direct. He made sure Harper knew his vaunted road didn’t make him any different.
“He was, in his own way, trying to give him that tough-love type of thing and, ‘You’ve got to earn this, kid,’ ” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “And as the year went by and he came back this spring training, it was a much more of a mentorship.”
Harper’s seen the space above his locker feature monikers such as Joe Namath and Roy Hobbs. In spring training this year, Werth got a duplicate of his own nameplate and slotted it into an empty stall beside Harper‘s. The message was simple: No rookie gets two lockers.
This is not a new process.
“I had to do the same things as everybody else does, too,” Braun recalled. “I sang on the bus, I carried the beer, all those things.”
“For me, if you’re part of the team and you’re helping the team win, that’s a lot different than being some kid in big-league camp in spring training,” Werth said. “You’ve got to respect the way he plays the game, and you’ve got to respect the player that he is. But he has to respect the game the right way and continue to play the right way to continue to gain our respect.
“He’s got a lot to learn and he’s got a long way to go, but my dad always told me that it takes no talent to hustle. Those are words to live by. So far Bryce has done a great job doing that.”
There are times, though, when it gets exhausting being “Bryce Harper, future face of baseball.”
A week ago, Harper talked about how excited he was to go home to Las Vegas and just be “Bryce” for a few days. Instead he found himself staring into cameras and recorders four rows deep at All-Star media day. At one point, his face reddened from the heat of the lights, Harper turned to his right, clenched his teeth and broke into an overwhelmed smile.
When he has those moments with the Nationals, one of their veterans has been there to help. Ankiel, especially, has tried to impart to Harper the importance of enjoying the moment he’s in when he’s in it. While Harper has made a concerted effort to tone down some of his actions on the field and learn to deal with failure more appropriately, he’s also tried to enjoy what’s happening in life — and know it’s OK to still act like he’s 19 every now and then.
“We’re playing a game for a job,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not like we’re all the most mature, either.”
Harper looked plenty mature sitting on a podium with Angels outfielder Mike Trout on Tuesday, talking about respect. “I think you’ve got to give respect to get respect,” he said. “I’ve been here for like 20 days. I haven’t done anything in this game yet.”
Down the hall, inside a clubhouse filled with the best players in the game, that was not the perception.
“Through the first [part] of his major league career, he’s handled his business and he’s handled it very maturely and the right way,” Jones said. “He’s played the game the right way. That garners respect from players, and he’s certainly got mine.”
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