LOS ANGELES — It all began here. Under the clear, blue sky, with the palm trees and the mountains framing the backdrop and the lights of Hollywood twinkling in the distance. With a legend calling the game.
When Bryce Harper arrived at Dodger Stadium 380 days ago, he knew it would be the day he’d go from uber-hyped prospect to major leaguer. It wasn’t necessarily the way it had been drawn up in general manager Mike Rizzo’s office, but here it was.
And other than the nervous energy coursing through his body, he tried to focus on making the game itself like any other.
As Harper made his way to Nationals Park on Sunday morning, his bags packed to return to the site of his debut for the first time since that weekend last April, he thought about it a little bit. His mind ran over the details of that night.
The walk into the stadium; finding his way to the clubhouse; the media scrum; the anticipation. The double off the base of the wall. The pair of fans who used the occasion of Harper’s first hit to moon the world that was watching and force the footage of it to be censored for eternity.
The family and friends who had traveled to see him, and waited in an otherwise empty stadium until he emerged after the game to hug after hug after hug.
“To play in a place like that for the first time, it was incredible,” Harper said. “They have great fans and there’s such great history in that park — and Vin Scully being able to do my first game was pretty incredible. It was an incredible moment.”
Regardless of how long he plays, or how many ballparks he does it in, Dodger Stadium will always have a special designation for the Nationals outfielder.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It was my first park.”
He’ll return carrying a .297 average on the season with 10 home runs and a 1.006 on-base plus slugging percentage. His hairstyle is different, as is his place on the team. How far his talent can take him is the question delighting so many who ponder his career arc.
As he has said often, in the days before he arrived in Los Angeles last year and since, that part of it — the part where he made it to the major leagues at age 19 and instantly boosted the Nationals’ offense — was only the first step in his plan to become one of the greatest major leaguers who has ever played this game. That’s his goal, and he doesn’t shy away from it.
A few weeks ago, on the occasion of his one-year anniversary in the major leagues, Harper wasn’t much interested in looking back. It was the same day he had reached 162 major league games, a full season’s worth. He had hit 31 home runs in that “season,” 31 doubles, 10 triples, driven in 77 runs and scored 115 with a .284 batting average and an .873 on-base plus slugging percentage.
And it had started with a double in Los Angeles.
But as Harper’s mind drifted back Sunday morning, it wandered more toward the trip that came after it, to the District on the day after his debut, for his first game at Nationals Park.
“I’m just glad,” he said with a laugh, “that I don’t have to come back and stay in a hotel for seven days this time.”
His family and a few friends will return to Dodger Stadium this week as well, the location just a four-hour drive from Harper’s home in Las Vegas. His team has a chance to re-take first place in the National League East against the talent-laden Dodgers, who have gotten off to a rough start.
“I’m really going to try to meet [Scully] this year,” Harper said. “I wanted to meet him and I never did. I really want to get a picture with him.”