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AKRON, Ohio -- As Bryce Harper sat in the visitors' dugout at Canal Park before batting practice the other day, shaving his bat handle with a pair of scissors, a photographer swooped in and snapped a series of still shots.
As Harper entered that same dugout minutes before the Double-A game between the Harrisburg Senators and the Akron Aeros, a couple dozen fans swarmed the steps, looking to land an autograph.
And as Harper stepped to the plate for his first at-bat, a few boo-birds could be heard among the fans and furry friends who had assembled for a "take your pet to the park" promotion.
LeBron James played his high school games a mile from the ballpark, so Akron is a town that knows what it's like to witness the Next Big Thing. James went straight from the high school hardwood to the NBA stage, promising to light up Cleveland "like Las Vegas" when he arrived to the Cavaliers.
The Vegas-native Harper's ascent has, thus far, taken him to decidedly less Vegas-like (or even Cleveland-like) locales in Hagerstown, Md., and Harrisburg, Pa., but that hasn't prevented his every word and every action from getting the big league treatment in Minor League settings.
This was evident again as Harper left Thursday night's game against the Aeros with a right hamstring injury. Almost instantly, he became a trending Twitter topic, the baseball world wondering the extent of the injury, which was to be re-evaluated on Friday. It was just the latest example that every move Harper makes gets dissected by the sporting public at large.
In a Major League clubhouse a few weeks back, two players sat in a corner -- one reading up on Harper online, the other perusing a recent Sports Illustrated feature on him.
"He says he models his game after Mickey Mantle," the first player chirped.
"What a ridiculous comment," the other replied.
"This guy's going to get eaten alive up here."
So it is with the most-hyped, most-hounded and, yes, most-hated prospect in the game. Harper, who turns 19 in October, is the only player I've ever seen booed at the All-Star Futures Game, and he's given similar treatment in virtually every city the Senators visit.
"Everywhere except Bowie," says Harrisburg manager Tony Beasley, "because it's closer to D.C., and we have a lot of Nats fans there. But yeah, he catches it on the road."
This is what happens to a modern-day sporting "messiah." Harper was allegedly hitting 500-foot home runs at 15, was on the SI cover at 16, and signed his first professional contract, worth $9.9 million, with the Nationals
at 17. He's already achieved a greater level of fame and amassed a bigger bank account than many Major Leaguers, so he is bound to face his fair share of jealousy, resentment or some combination of the two.
It doesn't help that Harper's confidence is often, fair or not, construed as cockiness.
"He doesn't want to be good," Beasley says. "He wants to be great. Sometimes guys that want to be great have a different mindset and their level of confidence is different than everyone else's. And sometimes that can be misleading as far as who they are as an individual."
Most of us don't know much about Harper as an individual. But plenty of us have formed an opinion about him through social media snippets. And if Harper's experience in his first Minor League season has taught us anything, it's that a phenom of his stature is not eased gently into his professional existence.
When Harper blew a kiss to an opposing pitcher after hitting a home run in Class A on June 6, the video went viral. Likewise the footage from last week of Harper slamming his helmet to the ground after a called third strike, getting in an umpire's face and earning his first Double-A ejection.
Neither of these scenes could provide us proper context. We can't tell from the kiss cam that Zachary Neal, the pitcher on the receiving end of Harper's smooch, had been staring at the Hagerstown dugout after every strikeout and that both sides were jawing back and forth throughout the game. We can't tell from the ejection footage that umpire Max Guyll's strike zone had drawn the ire of both dugouts or that Harper's at-bat came at a pivotal moment in a pennant race.
In this day and age, a 30-second spurt of video can become your legacy, or at the least provide the basis for beliefs about your behavior.
But the Nats, for what it's worth, don't seem to believe Harper is in need of an attitude overhaul. They downplay the temper tantrums that have become YouTube material.
Basically, they remember that he is 18 years old and learning how best to channel his aggressive instincts. How many of us are finished products in our teens? How many of us are finished products ever
"What we try to do is keep things in context," player development director Doug Harris says. "We're not going to ride highs and lows. It's all part of the learning curve that most people don't endure under a microscope."
"He doesn't want to be good. He wants to be great. Sometimes guys that want to be great have a different mindset and their level of confidence is different than everyone else's. And sometimes that can be misleading as far as who they are as an individual."
-- Harrisburg manager|
In the aforementioned SI story, Harris attempted to sum up this scrutiny by comparing it to what Jackie Robinson once endured. It was an over-the-top effort to put Harper's experience in perspective, and Harris rightly apologized for it later. Yet the point he was trying to make was clear, even if the means were messy. By nature, Minor Leaguers simply aren't subjected to the kind of attention Harper receives.
"The statements that were made were probably a bit overstated," Harris says. "But he really has handled himself extremely well through a lot of scrutiny, and we're really proud of him."
The Nats have also gone to extraordinary lengths to protect Harper from the poking and prodding. Media members are strictly forbidden from talking to Harper before games. After games, they are at the mercy of whether or not Harper feels like talking, and all questions are expected to be related only to the game itself.
This, naturally, has the short-term effect of shielding Harper from distractions, but one has to wonder about the long-term implications of getting the kid accustomed to a cocoon that doesn't exist at the big league level.
And the James comparison calls to mind another concern. Treat an athlete like an idol at a young age, give him the magazine covers and endorsement deals and billboard treatment, and it could obviously have the effect of aggrandizing the ego. "The Decision" remains an epic example of the absurdity of self-importance.
That said, in my admittedly limited dealings with Harper, he doesn't appear to have a head circumference larger than his batting average, so that's certainly a good start. And even that embarrassing attempt at a mullet-and-moustache combo he sported in the kiss video has, thankfully, gone the way of the warrior eye black and been tossed from the Harper visage.
Rather than coming across as a privileged punk, Harper strikes me as a cutthroat competitor who genuinely lives to win. But as Beasley noted, sometimes that can rub people the wrong way.
"I just try to go out there and play the game I know how to play," Harper said recently. "If it's not fun, you shouldn't be out there. As long as we're winning and playing hard, that's the biggest thing."
Little, if any, doubt exists that Harper's raw talent will carry him to the Majors, perhaps as soon as next spring. But that doesn't mean this first professional season has been devoid of development. Harper hit .318 with a .977 OPS in 72 games with Hagerstown. He's had a less impactful presence with Harrisburg, batting .254 with a .721 OPS, but he had been showing improvement before the hamstring injury.
Proof of a healthy Harper's run-production prowess exists in his profound plate appearance last Friday. With a runner on first, one out and the Senators trailing visiting Trenton by a run in the bottom of the ninth, Harper hit a mammoth home run over the center-field wall. The ball traveled halfway to Hummelstown.
Again, though, to fully understand the moment, some context is in order.
"The ball doesn't carry to center field at that park," Beasley says. "And if you look at the whole at-bat, he started it with two strikes and no balls. He worked the count to 3-2. He gets a curveball over the plate, gets the barrel on the ball and ... it was one of the farthest balls I've ever seen hit. You'd have to calculate it at 480-500 feet. It was impressive to see someone his age have the strength to do that and have the calmness to have that type of at-bat in that situation.
"That was special."
But why take Beasley's word for it? The video is, of course, instantly available. Because wherever Harper goes -- whether it's to the plate or, possibly, to the disabled list -- the baseball world is watching.