Mickey Mantle is another of his heroes. In fact, the uniform number he chose — 34 — is a tribute to the late Mantle, who’s synonymous with the No. 7 (three plus four). You don’t have to tell Harper that Mantle made the Yankees when he was just 19 and helped them win the World Series that year. He already knows.
Give his father Ron, an iron worker, credit for that. “I wanted him to respect the history of the game,” he said while watching his son take batting practice. “I wanted him to have a feel for what those guys [from yesteryear] did to improve things for the younger guys today”
When he stepped into the cage, Bryce, the adrenaline flowing, put on a show. He crushed balls over the fence in right and center field, knocking one into a picnic area well over 400 feet away. After the fireworks were over, his dad turned to Kurt Stillwell, the former ballplayer who works for Bryce’s agent, Scott Boras, and said, “Pretty good BP. He’s staying back nice. Hands are working pretty good, huh, Still?”
It’s OK if Harper isn’t the next Ted Williams, but it would be nice for the Nationals if he were. The team hasn’t finished north of .500 in its six seasons in Washington, and in both 2008 and 2009 it lost more than 100 games. Had the Nats not been so horrible, though, they wouldn’t have been in position to draft Harper last year with the first overall pick (and smoke-throwing Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 selection the year before). In baseball, there are spoils even in defeat.
The Nationals’ veterans have taken a big-brotherly interest in Harper. Knowing how exposed he must feel because of endless hype surrounding him, they’re always giving him words of wisdom. His favorite bit of advice? “Just go out there and play like you’re playing in your backyard.”