VIERA, Fla. — By now, Bryce Harper seems like he’s used to it. He arrived at spring training on Thursday and was greeted by a room full of television cameras and reporters. He sat in front of the bright lights and answered the questions like a seasoned veteran.
His physique wouldn’t have you believe anything else, tipping the scales at what he said was roughly 230-pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame and cutting the type of muscled figure more likely found in a football locker room than a baseball field. As he threw on a t-shirt and shorts and ambled around the clubhouse chatting with his teammates he could’ve easily been mistaken for a guy with far more than 139 games in the major leagues to his name.
Leave it to Harper to deliver the reminder that, well, he’s still, as manager Davey Johnson calls him “the Kid.”
“I’m still 20,” he deadpanned in response to a question about whether he feels like he doesn’t have to play the rookie part this year and then pointing out the obvious. “So, I’m kind of young.”
“It’s going to be the same thing,” Harper continued. “I’m going to treat every single guy on our team with respect. I’m still that young guy out there. I’m still going to play the same game I play, 120 percent every single day I’m out there. If I’m hurt, on my deathbed, it doesn’t really matter. I’m going to go out there, work hard and play the game the right way.”
Ah, there he is. Perhaps a few months older than when we last saw him on a daily basis, but the same Bryce Harper. The one whose intensity and fire for the game is ever-present in his words and his ability combined with his youth is still something that makes him incredibly unique. Asked if he felt a little more comfortable this spring with a sure place on the team, Harper simply answered that he didn’t think you should ever be comfortable.
After a whirlwind rookie season that started in Triple-A Syracuse, made a pit-stop at the All-Star Game, helped lead the Nationals into the playoffs and was capped with the National League Rookie of the Year award, what Harper might do for an encore in his sophomore season is an entertaining thought exercise. If Harper could hit .270 with 22 home runs, 58 extra-base hits and 98 runs scored as a 19-year-old who spent the first month of the season in the minors, what could he possibly do at 20?
He’s thought about it, too. And the personal goals, well, they sound lofty. So lofty, perhaps, that Harper didn’t feel comfortable even sharing them.
“World Series,” Harper said when asked about his aspirations for this season. “That’s the biggest thing on my mind. I have things in my head, goals in my head but I’m not ready to share those because people are probably going to think I’m crazy.
“I like to exceed my expectations and those are the only expectations that really matter to me. But, you know, the World Series is the biggest thing on my mind. I want to take that back to D.C. and give it to this organization and everybody in D.C.” That fits in, of course, with the slogan his manager has given the team’s quest this season.
“It’s going to be a fun year,” Harper said. “The expectations on this team are really high. I don’t know if it’s World Series. Of course, everyone wants to win a World Series and things like that. But hopefully I can play for the next 10, 15 years and have another shot at winning a World Series. But having Davey Johnson in his last year, which I don’t want it to be his last year, but his last year, if we can make him go out on top and get him that World Series.”
As for where he’ll play and where he’ll hit, Harper seemed to slough off the questions easily. Not his responsibility to decide, not his issue to worry about. Jayson Werth may be giving Johnson plenty of input as to where he and Harper should play and hit, but Harper was staying out of it.
He liked hitting in the No. 2 spot last year and he said he’d like to stay there, but Johnson may have gotten a different impression. Either way, the lineup will be borne out during the spring.
“I know I’m not going to the bullpen,” he quipped. “(Left field) is just another spot, trying to make some plays, throw some guys out. And just hit. That’s the biggest thing. As long as I’m in the lineup, I’m hitting, doing anything I can do to help this team. That’s good for me. I think having Denard out there in center field is going to help us a lot, having a real leadoff hitter that gets on base and sees a lot of pitches and just does his thing at the plate and really helps us out and makes us a lot deeper in our lineup.”
After the Nationals’ season ended, Harper went home to Las Vegas. He spent time with his parents, his brother, Bryan, his girlfriend and his dog. He met his new nephew and visited with his sister and brother-in-law. He took a trip to Hawaii for vacation. He watched college football. Clearly, he bulked up and added back some of the weight he’d lost during the 2012 season.
He didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the MLB playoffs. He readied for his sophomore season.
“Bryce is Bryce,” Johnson said. “He’s a gamer. He’s all-in. But one thing, he’s smart. He’s a student of the game. I’m sure that’s not going to change. He knows what they’re trying to do and he studies film and he’s more prepared this year. I thought he went through a little down period and then came back and that kind of experience is invaluable.”