VIERA, Fla. - If there’s a tagline attached to Bryce Harper’s second major league spring training, it’s this: D.C. or bust.
The Nationals’ top prospect arrived at Space Coast Stadium on Monday, still tiptoeing between cockiness and confidence, yet still sure that he can break camp with the Nats and contribute at the major league level as a 19-year-old.
“They’re going to make their decisions and I’m going to come here and play. ... I think that’s the biggest thing,” Harper said. “If I come here and work hard in the outfield, work hard hitting, try to make their decision hard - that’s the most I can do. If they want to send me back down, that’s them. I want to be up here, like I said. I want to play and I want to play in D.C.”
General manager Mike Rizzo is already aware of his future star’s stated preference, and that’s who Harper must convince that he’s ready. Harper already has an ally in manager Davey Johnson, who has been stumping for his young outfielder since last season.
“It’s huge to have the manager on your side,” Harper said. “I’m really excited, like I said, to come in here and play and just to be here is an honor. I’m going to come here, work as hard as I can, keep my mouth shut and play. ... I got to learn from everybody around me, come in here, work as hard as I can and try to make this team.”
All Johnson wants is a chance for Harper to make an impact. The rest, Johnson said, is up to the player.
“I mentioned to Rizz when I was named manager, knowing the roster and the talent that we had here, he should definitely keep an open mind for two reasons,” Johnson said. “No. 1, when (Harper) was 18, he thought he was going to make the club then in his mind. I got the feeling that it wouldn’t have been overpowering to him mentally because his whole life, he’s been competing with guys older than him ... and this was not a new scenario for him. Probably since he was age 12, he was competing with people who were more established than him and at a higher level.
“(No.) 2 is that if you looked at the talent at that point, prior to the Winter Meetings, we were short an everyday outfielder. And in the organization, he was in that mix, as a left-handed bat - which I’d like to get more left-handed presence in the lineup. ... I would have said it regardless because I felt like he could hit, his bat could handle the pitching if given the chance to compete.”
And if Harper is given that opportunity?
“When I’m out on the field, I think I play the game a certain way,” Harper said. “I play it hard, and if that’s what they like, then they like it. I go out there and bust my butt every day and that’s what they’re going to get from me. I play at 110 percent and I’m going to go out there and try to beat the team that’s in the other dugout. That’s the fire in me.”
And, as if to anticipate questions about his pattern in the minors of starting slow then heating up, Harper acknowledged he will encounter some growing pains if he starts 2012 in the majors.
“Every single level, I’ve struggled. So if I struggle in the big leagues at the beginning, I’m just trying to get in the swing of things. That first year is all about getting going and learning everything up at the big league level and there’s so many things that you’ve got to learn that I’ve still got to learn. If I can make this team, that would be great. If I go down to the minors, which I don’t want to talk about, then that happens, too. I’m trying to make this club out of camp, and that’s the biggest thing right now.”
Harper has established clear goals for himself this spring: improve his outfield play, continue to work on his throwing mechanics, become a better baserunner, do whatever he can on defense to help his pitchers, listen and learn.
“I want to be a Gold Glove out there, too,” he said. “I don’t want to be just known as a hitter.”
Not making the club would be disappointing, even more so than it was last season when he was sent out after demonstrating he could hold his own against major league pitchers, but not every step Harper has to make is between the foul lines. There are concerns within the organization that he has to mature a little bit more, not seek out attention and make himself less of a lightning rod for criticism from fans, media, teammates and opponents.
But Harper said no one has told him to tone down his sometimes inflammatory commentary via Twitter, where he’ll engage in back-and-forth with those who follows him. And even if he did, Harper contends, that might not solve what some perceive as a problem.
“I’m going to get blown up either way, whether I say something right or say something wrong,” he said. “That’s just how it’s going to be and there’s nothing I can really do about that, Maybe some things I really shouldn’t say, some things I’ve got to learn from and some things I should just keep my mouth shut on. I need to grow up in that aspect, I guess. But I’m not going to back down from anything.”
So Harper will allow the Nationals’ public relations staff to work with him “and learn from my mistakes. ... They’re going to let me be me and not shelter me.” That strategy also ensures that Harper’s fans and followers see him as he really is.
“I want everyone to know the real me,” he said.