Harper says plenty with­out say­ing a lot

Na­tion­als’ star out­fielder bal­ances his old bravado with mea­sured re­sponses

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CHELSEA JANES

west palm beach, fla. — Bryce Harper tossed a red rub­ber ball back and forth be­tween his hands as he an­swered ques­tions from the me­dia for the first time since Oc­to­ber, which he did in a red shirt that read “Warm Body, Cold Mind,” stand­ing on the new agility field that is among the more talked-about ameni­ties at the Ball­park of the Palm Beaches.

Back and forth went the ball as Harper ma­neu­vered through ques­tions about the past, his fu­ture and the present state of the fran­chise that drafted him. Back and forth it went, and Harper seemed to do the same, fight­ing back the kid who used to say what­ever he wanted, choos­ing the more cal­cu­lated ap­proach of a 24-year-old man try­ing not to say much at all.

This is Harper, a year re­moved from his MVP sea­son. That po­lar­iz­ing bravado re­mains in­tact, but it seems to have dimmed some­what af­ter a roller-coaster 2016 in which his pro­duc­tion dropped dra­mat­i­cally. Gone are the un­abashed mus­ings about World Se­ries rings and “mak­ing

base­ball fun again.” Satur­day, Harper re­placed them with cliches and art­ful dodges.

When asked about last year’s drop-off, for ex­am­ple, Harper said he knew “ex­actly why” he de­volved quickly into mere mor­tal­ity. But when asked for the rea­son, he ram­bled about his team and hard work. Then he hinted at that mys­tery in­jury he and his agent Scott Bo­ras keep al­lud­ing to — the one Harper told Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker and the train­ing staff did not ex­ist late last sea­son.

“. . . I stayed in the lineup last year and tried to help this team win ev­ery sin­gle day,” Harper said. “And that’s your goal ev­ery sin­gle day.”

Prod­ded later, he re­it­er­ated, “I stayed in the lineup, tried to play 150 games, went in to Dusty and wanted to play ev­ery sin­gle day.”

A cou­ple of hours later, Baker ac­knowl­edged there were times when Harper lob­bied to play in­stead of rest. Baker said he sat his right fielder once in a while to keep him fresh. Baker also said he has his own the­o­ries about what went wrong for Harper last sea­son, and that he shared them with the four-time all-star.

“You’re in the big leagues, and these guys aren’t go­ing to let you just keep beat­ing on them,” Baker said. “They’re go­ing to make ad­just­ments. And now it’s up to you to make counter-ad­just­ments.”

Harper is ad­just­ing off the field, too. He is grow­ing out of ques­tions about his prodi­gious young tal­ent and grow­ing into ques­tions about his fu­ture — most no­tably his much-dis­cussed free agency, which is still two sea­sons away. Asked about his fu­ture Satur­day, Harper said ev­ery­thing the face of a fran­chise is sup­posed to say.

“Be­ing a Wash­ing­ton Na­tional, I love it. I en­joy play­ing in the city of D.C. and I en­joy the fans,” said Harper, who went on to thank his wed­ding guests “Mr. and Mrs. Lerner” and re­called the time Rizzo came to see him play in per­son when he was in ju­nior col­lege. He praised Rizzo again later and talked about the trust he has in his gen­eral man­ager’s de­ci­sions. But when asked about his team’s off­sea­son moves, his ini­tial re­ac­tion was not-so-sub­tly eva­sive.

“I’m ex­cited for the move down to West Palm, to tell you the truth. That’s my big­gest move I’m ex­cited about,” said Harper, who took to Twit­ter this win­ter to ex­press sur­prise af­ter the much-an­a­lyzed trade for Adam Ea­ton and also tweeted his de­sire for the Na­tion­als to spend on catcher Matt Wi­eters and re­liever Greg Hol­land in­stead of their spring train­ing fa­cil­ity.

“But yeah,” he con­tin­ued later, “as a whole, as a club, I think we did a great job. Of course, every­body has wants and needs and stuff like that.”

Back and forth he went, some­times mak­ing im­pli­ca­tions, some­times avoid­ing com­pli­ca­tion, that old Bryce Harper edge dulled by the mine­field in which he op­er­ates, but still there. He works in two worlds, per­cep­tion and re­al­ity, both of which have al­ways been more en­tan­gled in his case than most.

In his flashy In­sta­gram posts and en­dorse­ment deals, Harper seems de­ter­mined to cul­ti­vate some pub­lic im­age. In mea­sured answers and un­seen club­house ac­tions, he seems de­ter­mined to re­spect base­ball’s some­times an­ti­quated code. When he ar­rived in the new Na­tion­als club­house, for ex­am­ple, he saw his locker had more space around it than that of Jayson Werth — 13 years his el­der. He asked club­house staff to switch them. Now Werth has the corner spot.

Harper only dropped the rub­ber ball once; it bounced away while he gushed about his off­sea­son, in which he mar­ried his “beau­ti­ful bride” and was able to en­joy his fam­ily. In that mo­ment, the fa­cade seemed to fall away, too, re­veal­ing some of that old un­fet­tered en­thu­si­asm, that devil-may-care hon­esty.

“Every­body that said I was wor­ried about base­ball this off­sea­son, I could care less,” Harper said. “. . . This was def­i­nitely one of the best off­sea­sons I’ve had in a long time. I ac­tu­ally en­joyed this off­sea­son a lot more than my MVP year.”

A reporter handed Harper the ball, and he be­gan to toss it again, back and forth be­tween the hands that hold the key to his base­ball fu­ture, his rep­u­ta­tion, and per­haps the Na­tion­als’ sea­son, too. An­other MVP-cal­iber sea­son could ce­ment his place among base­ball’s elite. An­other sea­son of any­thing less could change his sta­tus. His long-term fu­ture might not in­clude the Na­tion­als. His past and present are de­pen­dent upon them. Back and forth he goes, like that ball he tossed all morn­ing, try­ing to quell con­tro­versy while some­times stir­ring it, wrestling hon­esty and duty as he em­barks on a sea­son with the po­ten­tial to de­fine the first chapter of his young ca­reer, one way or an­other.

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