In the ‘80s, I loved two things in life: Saturday morning cartoons and the New York Mets. In those days, tickets to attend a baseball game were dirt-cheap and my mother would purchase nosebleed seats at Shea Stadium for her and I to go crazy over the Amazin’s. Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden became my idols. Davey Johnson was the manager who kept them in line and helped to engineer one of the greatest sports memories of my life, when the Mets won the 1986 World Series. I was six.
Since then, my love for America’s favorite pastime has been replaced with my affinity for all-things-basketball. My feelings for the game returns ever so often– especially when the Yankees reign triumphant– when I reminisce of the ’86 Mets. So it was to my surprise while I was in Los Angeles a couple weeks back, that a blast from the past would help to rekindle my baseball fervor.
I had the opportunity, courtesy of Harley-Davidson, to ride out and attend a Dodgers game with the legendary street-artist Mister Cartoon and his low-rider Lifestyle crew. We rolled to Dodger Stadium in style –hitting switches along the way– and were ushered to an executive suite once we parked. The suite was a nice upgrade from my days of drinking hot cocoa to stay warm in the bleachers at Shea with my mother. As I grabbed a beer from the fridge and proceeded to take my seat to watch the Magic Johnson-Group owned L.A. Dodgers take on the surging Washington Nationals, I realized that this perhaps was the biggest game of the new season thus far.
Matt Kemp was off to an MVP start and the Nationals’ young pitcher Stephen Strasburg was throwing heat like no other in his 22nd career start. It was two of the majors’ biggest names going head-to-head. That would have been enough to make any fanatic jump for joy, but what delighted me the most was to see old Davey Johnson back in the dugout– in his first full season as manager of the Nationals. But, what I discovered next was better than the last sip of beer from my cup; because 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper was making his major league debut with Washington that warm night in April, and I was fortunate to be seated in the sky box directly next to his family– witnessing his parents most proudest moment.
Harper was baseball’s first preordained hero, invading a space previously occupied by LeBron James. At the age of 16, he hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field –home of the Tampa Bay Rays– that measured 502 feet, but would have traveled further had the ball not smashed off the back wall of the dome. In 2009, Sports Illustrated headlined Harper as “The Chosen One,” issuing the same bold prediction and cover story that sparked James’ rapid ascent in ‘02. Every big leaguer knew his story, and every major league scout wanted to sign the 6’3”, 205-pound man-child left-handed hitter. Harper was so good, that he received his GED after his sophomore year of high school in Las Vegas, enrolled in junior college to be exposed to better competition and to accelerate his eligibility for the 2010 MLB draft. When asked what his goals were by S.I. “The Chosen One” stated, “Be in the Hall of Fame, definitely. Play in Yankee Stadium. Play in the pinstripes. Be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived. I can’t wait.” At age 17, Harper left the JUCO College of Southern Nevada early and was selected as No.1 overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Nationals. A year after taking Strasburg – who was similarly hyped coming up– as the top pick and anointing him as their ace, the Nationals’ made Harper their heavy-hitter signing him to a five-year, $9.9 million contract, which included $6.5 million in signing bonuses.
After a brief stint with the Nationals’ minor league affiliate in Syracuse, Harper made his major league debut at Dodger Stadium on April 29, where the prodigy was teamed with the 23-year-old Strasburg for the first time. As his family proudly cheered on, Harper, who rocks a Mohawk under his helmet, doubled and had a sacrifice fly in the ninth-inning, that briefly put Washington ahead of L.A. 2-1, in his first start. The thrilling game ended up going into extra innings and Strasburg received a no decision, after Kemp’s tenth-inning home run gave the Dodgers a 4-3 victory. What most impressed me about the 19-years-old performance was not his ability –an irresistible, potent mix of power, speed, youth and sure-fire confidence– but his level of maturity on the field. Under a clear blue Southern-California sky, the Dodgers faithful rained down boos at Harper’s first at-bat. By the time the game was over, L.A. fans acknowledged and respected what many experts have been raving about for the past three years.
In his 17 games with the Nationals, Harper was quickly moved from seventh to second to third in the batting order. He hit .300 with a .905 OPS through his first nine games after hitting .250 in 20 games at Triple-A Syracuse. After Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels beamed the new kid on the block in the back with a pitch, in a ‘welcome to the big league’s’ sort of way, Bryce took the heat-check and ended up stealing home a few plays later, on Hamels’ watch, as an ‘I arrived and you can’t stop me’ retort. Others took noticed, and the Phillies walked him three times, and right-handed pitcher Kyle Kendrick admitted to pitching around him.
Despite some exhilarating plays, including packing a rocket for a throwing arm, Harper hit the rookie wall, hitting .238 in his first 17 games, though he has gone 5-for-16 (.313) in his last four games. This week, the left-field rookie logged his first two homeruns against the San Diego Padres on Monday and Tuesday, helping to raise his batting average back up after it bottomed out at .213 over the weekend in Cincinnati– where his batting frustration became evident when he ended up with ten stitches above his left eye, when he slammed his bat into a dugout wall and it bounced back and hit him. The ebbs and flows of his rookie season are expected and Harper’s learning curve on how to become a complete player increases with every game, à la King James, during his rookie season in Cleveland in ’03.
What happens next? I would say the most compelling narrative in baseball since the Amazin’ Mets debuted Strawberry and Gooden in ‘84. With Johnson calling the shots from the dugout, Strasburg on the mound and “The Chosen One” in the batter’s box, Washington is already in control of the National League East with a half-game lead over the Atlanta Braves at 23-14. The Nationals’ own the rights to Strasburg through 2016, and Harper through 2018, and the duo are already two of the biggest draws in baseball. It’s safe to say that the future of the Nationals, if not the game itself, has already begun.