Harper won’t turn away from scru­tiny at All-Star Game

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Barry Svr­luga

It is the week­end be­fore baseball’s All-Star Game, and Bryce Harper knows what that means for him. On Mon­day in Mi­ami, a gag­gle of scribes and tele­vi­sion re­porters will gather around, lob­bing ques­tions about his sea­son thus far and — let’s be re­al­is­tic — about two sea­sons from now, about where he might end up play­ing baseball. It is fool­ish, re­ally, be­cause the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als are in first place, Harper is their right fielder and three-hole hit­ter for this sea­son and next, and what’s he sup­posed to say about his fu­ture when his present is so com­pelling?

“I’ll an­swer ’em all day,” he said. “It doesn’t scare me.”

And yet, boil­er­plate ain’t Bryce. So he can’t help him­self. Harper, in so many ways, will be at the cen­ter of the All-Star Game be­cause he is at the cen­ter of his

sport. When leg­endary baseball writer Peter Gam­mons, as in­formed an ob­server as the sport has known over the past half-cen­tury, went on a Chicago ra­dio sta­tion last month and said, “I have peo­ple tell me that Bryce Harper re­ally would pre­fer to play for the Cubs,” not only did baseball fans — in Wash­ing­ton, Chicago, ev­ery­where — no­tice. Cubs ex­ec­u­tives cer­tainly no­ticed. Scott Bo­ras, Harper’s agent, called his client and asked whether he had talked to Gam­mons. Baseball, as an in­dus­try, took note.

Harper did, too, and largely shrugged. “I love Peter Gam­mons,” he said Fri­day, stand­ing with one foot on a stool in front of his locker at Na­tion­als Park. “One of the best baseball his­to­ri­ans ever. But I have no idea what the hell he’s talk­ing about.”

Yet when the Cubs vis­ited Wash­ing­ton later in the month, Harper de­cided to tweak the sport back. He and Chicago third base­man Kris Bryant, win­ners of the past two Na­tional League MVP awards, both grew up in Las Ve­gas and both mar­ried Las Ve­gas girls. So af­ter one of the Cubs-Nats games, Harper posted a pic­ture of the two cou­ples to his In­sta­gram ac­count.

“Just two Ve­gas boys liv­ing out our dream with the ones we love!” he wrote, in part. And then, far from ac­ci­den­tally, he added the hash­tag “#Back­2Back­OneDay.” Spec­u­late away. “For what rea­son?” Harper said at his locker, smil­ing. “I do that to the me­dia be­cause they stir it more than I do. That’s why I do the things I do at times be­cause it’s funny to me. It’s like, ‘All right, peo­ple want to talk about this and talk about that. Why not just throw this out there and make them think about it?’ ”

They are think­ing about it, the en­tire sport. Harper’s free agency — which, bar­ring an ex­ten­sion with the Na­tion­als, will come fol­low­ing the 2018 sea­son — is an in­escapable baseball-wide story line, even as he plays for a franchise seek­ing its fourth divi­sion ti­tle in six sea­sons. The en­tire sport ex­pects — in­deed, would bet on, and heav­ily — Harper’s con­tract to be the most lu­cra­tive in baseball his­tory, which would make it the most lu­cra­tive in the his­tory of Amer­i­can sports, blow­ing away the $325 mil­lion deal signed by Mi­ami slug­ger Gian­carlo Stan­ton. That’s a story, no two ways about it, and Harper will be asked about all as­pects of it at the All-Star Game. It does not bother him.

“I’m so truth­ful with what I say, so I don’t have to put on a cape or an act or what­ever — like I’ve got to be a dif­fer­ent per­son kind of a thing,” he said. “Of course, I [B.S.] some­times, be­cause I have to. But things about the fu­ture and things like that, I don’t shy away from it. I’ve al­ways said: I en­joy play­ing in D.C. But as much as it’s my choice, it’s the team’s choice as well.”

It’s also the team’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to be pre­pared for life should Harper leave. Thus, an in­evitable but awk­ward, dy­namic comes into play. All of the Na­tion­als play­ers know this team — with all-stars Max Scherzer and Stephen Stras­burg fronting the ro­ta­tion, with the Na­tional League’s high­est-scor­ing lineup — is one or two re­liev­ers away from be­ing in po­si­tion to push to a place it has never been be­fore, the late days of Oc­to­ber.

So the sen­ti­ment is there: Trade what­ever prospect you need, in­clud­ing stud-to-be out­fielder Vic­tor Robles, to up­grade the bullpen, to truly con­tend for a cham­pi­onship. Plus, if Harper stayed, what do you need Robles for any­way? Adam Ea­ton, Michael A. Tay­lor and Brian Good­win are all un­der the Nats’ con­trol through at least 2021. By keep­ing ev­ery­one, isn’t that sub­tly show­ing Harper the door be­fore he has even ap­proached the thresh­old?

Yet baseball knows the dif­fi­culty in re­tain­ing a would-be free agent should he, in fact, reach the point when he is el­i­gi­ble to ne­go­ti­ate with 29 other teams, too. Those re­la­tion­ships can be­come fraught. The team watches its homegrown player flirt with the rest of the league. Af­ter that, can a mar­riage re­ally work? The ev­i­dence is there: Of the top 25 free agent con­tracts in baseball his­tory, only one was is­sued by a team to re­tain its own player: Bal­ti­more’s seven-year, $161 mil­lion deal to keep first base­man Chris Davis. The other 24: See ya.

“I’m not go­ing to talk about that stuff in the mid­dle of the sea­son,” Harper said. “I have to be the best I can for this team be­cause ev­ery­thing I say or do re­flects on [Gen­eral Man­ager] Mike Rizzo and the Lern­ers [own­er­ship group], the Na­tion­als — and not just that, the name on the back, Harper.

“What I say af­fects ev­ery­body in this club­house. It af­fects the or­ga­ni­za­tion. It af­fects this guy, that guy, the guy next to me. So of course I’m go­ing to say the right thing — or try to. But at the same time, I don’t shy away from any ques­tion.”

Given the way he is pro­duc­ing, there is no rea­son to shy away from any­thing. Af­ter 2015, when he won his MVP award, hit 42 homers and posted a Bond­s­like on-base-plus-slug­ging per­cent­age of 1.109, there was the sense that he had bro­ken through, that he would re­peat such a per­for­mance ev­ery year. Then last sea­son, he strug­gled — at least for him. In the second half, he hit an in­con­ceiv­able .226 with a .709 OPS amid a swirl of in­nu­endo that he was in­jured.

Harper re­mains some­what cryptic on the sub­ject, but it’s also clear now — as he is healthy, as his av­er­age is up to .322 and his OPS to 1.020 — that some­thing was wrong. His neck? His shoul­der? Some­thing.

“Last year sucked,” he said. “It was just, with me not feel­ing right and things like that from what­ever it was, I wasn’t able to get in the gym and do the things that I wanted to do and re­ally do it with a clear mind of, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ and I’m go­ing to feel bet­ter and not worse.”

This spring, Harper said he spent the win­ter recom­mit­ted to train­ing. That has con­tin­ued into the sea­son. Harper has been dili­gent in lift­ing one day, tak­ing the next off, lift­ing the next, tak­ing the next off. It has helped him, he said, re­tain both his weight and his strength. He en­tered the sea­son at 225 pounds. He said he will en­ter the all-star break at 220, solid main­te­nance given baseball’s un­re­lent­ing sched­ule.

“Ob­vi­ously, ev­ery­body knows there was an [in­jury] is­sue that kind of held him back a lit­tle bit last year,” said Mark Philippi, Harper’s Las Ve­gas-based trainer. “To his credit, he’s the type of guy who’s not go­ing to use it as an ex­cuse, but it prob­a­bly lim­ited a lot of what he could do. The whole idea was to get him healthy and get him to main­tain his strength through­out the year. He is more di­aled in than he has been in a long time. He was re­mark­ably fo­cused this off­sea­son, and he has car­ried it in to the sea­son.”

So, sta­tis­ti­cally, he is a force again, trail­ing only Cincin­nati’s Joey Votto in OPS among Na­tional Lea­guers, on pace to drive in more than 100 runs for the first time in his ca­reer and, with all-stars Ryan Zim­mer­man and Daniel Mur­phy hit­ting be­hind him, al­most cer­tain to score more than 100.

“I don’t think he has any­thing to prove to try to outdo the MVP year,” Man­ager Dusty Baker said. “. . . I like to see him when he’s calm. You can sort of tell by his calm­ness, his de­meanor. He’s hav­ing a great year, but you know it could even be greater.”

It is that qual­ity, more than any, that puts Harper in the po­si­tion he will be in at the All-Star Game. He is all of 24 but is five times an all-star, well es­tab­lished among the game’s best play­ers. And yet, given his tal­ent and his pro­duc­tion and his age, couldn’t there be more? He is watched more closely than any player in the sport. Peo­ple will of­fer their opin­ions about what he should do, about how much he will earn, about where he will play. Bring ’em on. “My Grandma Harper, bless her soul, she’s awesome,” Harper said. “But she’s not po­lit­i­cally cor­rect. Grow­ing up, she would al­ways say to me, ‘Opin­ions are like [noses]. Ev­ery­body’s got one.’

“That’s how I ap­proach things ev­ery day. It’s part of ev­ery­thing that I go through . . . . I would laugh and be like, ‘Yeah, you’re crazy, Grandma. What­ever.’ But now, it’s the truth.”

The truth finds Bryce Harper, mid­way through the 2017 sea­son, right where he ex­pects to be, right where he wants to be: at the cen­ter of his sport, able to ab­sorb ev­ery­one’s thoughts about him and fight back with those of his own.

For more by Barry Svr­luga, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/svr­luga.

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Bryce Harper won’t be a free agent un­til af­ter next sea­son, but that won’t pre­vent him from fac­ing ques­tions about his fu­ture this week.

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