Fo­cused on the present

Bryce Harper isn’t look­ing ahead — and starts off with a blast

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BARRY SVR­LUGA barry.svr­luga@wash­post.com

west palm beach, fla. — Let this serve as a re­minder: It is Fe­bru­ary 2017, still more than five weeks be­fore the up­com­ing sea­son begins. Be­tween now and Bryce Harper’s po­ten­tial free agency, late in the fall of 2018, the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als will play 324 reg­u­lar sea­son base­ball games. They will aim to win at least one play­off se­ries, and maybe more. They will send rep­re­sen­ta­tives to two All-Star Games — in­clud­ing the 2018 ver­sion, held right at Na­tion­als Park, where Harper has pledged to par­tic­i­pate in the Home Run Derby.

Yet we’re pre­par­ing for Harper’s Wash­ing­ton swan song? Two sea­sons be­fore it hap­pens?

“I get it,” Harper said Thurs­day, sit­ting at a ta­ble on a pa­tio out­side the Nats’ cafe­te­ria here, work­out be­hind him, sea­son still ahead. He ticked off the names in that epic free agent A clean, well-lighted place Nats beat the clock, will open new spring park to fans Tues­day. D8

class: Manny Machado and Matt Har­vey, not to men­tion Josh Don­ald­son and An­drew McCutchen and po­ten­tially Clay­ton Ker­shaw, with Mike Trout to fol­low a year later.

“It’s so many guys peo­ple see de­velop, and de­velop with one team, and it’s like, ‘Man, where’s he go­ing?’ ” Harper said. “‘Where’s that guy go­ing? Can they both go there? Could they both go here? Does he want to stay there?’

“It’s part of the process. For me — and I’ve al­ways said this, and I’m so true to this — I don’t look ahead. I can’t. It’s not fair to my­self. I’ve really got to sit down and look at right now. That’s two years down the road. I have two whole sea­sons to worry about. I have to take care of those two sea­sons. That’s what’s im­por­tant.”

So let’s breathe a lit­tle bit, and en­joy what could be about to hap­pen. Fe­bru­ary games mean next to noth­ing for es­tab­lished play­ers, but darned if all of MLB didn’t take note when Harper launched a mam­moth homer with his first swing of the spring, then fol­lowed with an op­po­site-field sin­gle on his next cut. This all hap­pened, by the way, for the Nats against the Mets.

If you have landed here to dis­cover likely desti­na­tions for Harper in 2019 and be­yond, stop read­ing now. There will be a time and a place for palace in­trigue. But let’s put the tea leaves back in the cup­board for a while and in­stead read what Harper said in a wide-rang­ing in­ter­view af­ter his work­out Thurs­day.

This was open-up-the-spigot-and-let-it-flow Harper, the best ver­sion. We know, long be­fore free agency, that he is ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing the Bonds-like on­base-plus-slugging per­cent­age of 1.109 that led to the MVP award in 2015. We know, too, that he is ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing the more pedes­trian .814 OPS (along with a .243 bat­ting av­er­age) that de­fined a dif­fi­cult 2016.

How can we fig­ure out terms of a con­tract — years and dol­lars — be­fore we know which of those two play­ers is headed to free agency?

Also: How does the same guy pro­duce such dis­parate num­bers in con­sec­u­tive years?

“There were cer­tain times when I hit a ball to the track last year, and I think back and I’m like, ‘That should have been like three rows deep,’ ” Harper said. He re­mem­bered a ball he hit to dead cen­ter in Mil­wau­kee. In his head: Gone. In re­al­ity: Caught.

“I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ ” Harper said. “I’m walk­ing back, and I’m like, ‘Maybe if I had about 10 more pounds on me, or had worked out an­other day in the off­sea­son, that might have been a homer.’ And it might not have been. But the thought was there for me.”

What emerged over the course of Thurs­day’s con­ver­sa­tion was some­thing Na­tion­als fans might find en­cour­ag­ing for the 162 games ahead. Harper said that he ran him­self ragged in the off­sea­son af­ter he won the Na­tional League MVP: a trip here, a spon­sor’s ap­pear­ance there, Jimmy Kim­mel and the Su­per Bowl and what­ever else he could ex­pe­ri­ence. He was a kid. The candy store was ex­pan­sive.

“I mean, that’s my choice,” he said. “And it’s on me. There’s cer­tain things, it’s like, ‘Man, that’d be cool. I can’t pass that up. That’s a once-in-a-life­time thing.’ But this off­sea­son, I really sat down and was like, ‘You know, that’s prob­a­bly not a good idea.’ ”

His body is, he said, “def­i­nitely” more rested and pre­pared than it was a year ago at this time. But what about his mind? One rea­son he could seem more ma­ture: his off­sea­son mar­riage to his long­time girl­friend, Kayla Varner. But Harper, 24, said that’s sim­plis­tic anal­y­sis.

“It’s not like I’m go­ing to come into the club­house like, ‘Oh, I’m a grown-up now,’ ” he said. Rather, any new­found ma­tu­rity — and it’s not a qual­ity that’s been pub­licly es­tab­lished yet, just a pos­si­bil­ity — would come in Harper’s other off­sea­son choices. He skipped the Su­per Bowl and in­stead watched with his family from the couch. The next day, rather than a flight, he had a work­out. He could have gone to the Gram­mys but de­cided against it.

When you’re Bryce Harper, op­por­tu­ni­ties and gifts fall in your lap. (Wed­nes­day, he opened a box of free Wash­ing­ton-cen­tric base­ball hats and tossed them around the room to team­mates. He has been warm­ing up in the on-deck cir­cle with a bat en­cased in heavy barbed wire, sent to him from the mak­ers of the TV se­ries “The Walk­ing Dead,” which he gave up on a while ago.) His rep­re­sen­ta­tives at Scott Bo­ras’s agency deal with a con­stant in­flux of pulls on his time — com­pa­nies whose prod­ucts he en­dorses, MLB, the play­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion, me­dia, char­i­ties, gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions, the Nats, on and on. Harper’s les­son: “You have to learn to say no.”

Now, Harper has to learn how to play more like he did two years ago, not like he did last year. When he was hit­ting .330 with 42 home runs in 2015, he seemed to en­joy sim­ply be­ing at the ball­park more than he did hit­ting .243 with 24 bombs in 2016.

“When you’re hit­ting .240 and you think you should be hit­ting .340, that goes through your mind,” Harper said.

But could Harper be happy in 2015 when the club­house im­ploded and the team fiz­zled? Could he be mis­er­able in 2016 when they led the divi­sion for all but four days and went to the post­sea­son?

“I can’t tell you I was happy with hit­ting .240,” Harper said. “Was I happy for us win­ning? Ab­so­lutely. Was I happy for [Daniel Mur­phy and Trea Turner, who had break­out years]? Ab­so­lutely. But me per­son­ally, I can’t be happy with hit­ting that amount.”

What­ever he hits, for the next two years at least, he will do it in Wash­ing­ton, for Wash­ing­ton. Harper the base­ball his­to­rian has long ad­mired play­ers who spent their en­tire ca­reers in one uni­form, the Derek Jeter tra­jec­tory. For him, that can hap­pen in only one place. I asked him what he finds ap­peal­ing about that path.

“I mean, the fans there, they watch you grow,” he said. “You grow up in that city . . . . My first stand­ing ‘O’ in my whole life was at Nats Park. You don’t for­get that.”

And then, he was off, an ode to his pro­fes­sional home town. Yes, he wore a Dal­las Cow­boys hat when he at­tended a pro wrestling event in Las Ve­gas, where he lives. But some­how, I can never get him to stop talk­ing about D.C.

“I’ve al­ways said: I love the city of D.C.,” Harper said. “That’s no BS. That’s me open­ing my heart.”

He talked about driv­ing in on 395, look­ing at the Jef­fer­son Memo­rial on his left, the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment be­yond that. He talked about walk­ing through the Department of Trans­porta­tion farm­ers mar­ket on his way to the ball­park, of go­ing out to eat, of min­gling with fans.

“Know­ing that the freak­ing White House is right there, the Capi­tol build­ing, you have it all,” Harper said. “It’s such a mon­u­men­tal town. And then your home sta­dium’s right there. I’m sit­ting here get­ting chills.”

It was a warm, pleas­ant day in South Florida. Chills? Really?

“For me, I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true,” he said. “I’ve al­ways said that. I’m not fake with that stuff. If I hated it, ev­ery­body in the world would know, ‘Bryce Harper hates this place.’ ”

What does that mean for three years from now? Chill out. It’s three years from now.

What it means: On April 3, Bryce Harper will wear the home white of the Na­tion­als when they open the sea­son against Miami. What it means: For 161 more games be­yond that, his hat will sport a Curly W. What it means: Wash­ing­ton has him now. Might as well en­joy it. For more by Barry Svr­luga, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/ svr­luga.

Barry Svr­luga

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