Game recognize game: Why Bryce Harper admires LeBron James

Tim Brown
MLB columnist
Bryce Harper returned from his three-game suspension on Sunday. (AP Images)

LOS ANGELES – The prospects arrive on the front ends of parades, their swings and arm actions having been harped on and broken down for years, and when it is time to be a big leaguer it’s a wonder they still can breathe.

They’re asked to survive, only more than that. They’re going to have to be the next somebody, and that somebody is never a somebody you’ve not heard of. The money has to be lived up to. The draft pick has to mean something. The minor-league numbers have to amount to something here, today, right now, because there’s a game to play, and there’s hype to oblige.

Bryce Harper pulled up a chair Monday afternoon, placed his foot on the seat, his elbow on his knee. He was that guy. At 24, still is that guy maybe. The world needs to know about tomorrow. How good? How much? What’s next? And where?

Harper has had the good fortune (and talent) to become the player of all but the most extreme projections. He still smiles, plays unapologetically, produces relentlessly, fights if he must. He still breathes, and there’s talent in that, too.

“It’s just part of it,” he said.

It’s not just the game, see. It’s the impatience for imperfection within the game, which is the very game. It’s the uniform he’ll wear in a year-and-a-half, and what that’ll mean for the team that owns that uniform in dollars and other sacrifices. He’ll be in New York. Unless he’s in Chicago. Unless the Washington Nationals pony up. Somewhere else, maybe. And then he’ll have to be the next somebody again, or a better him.

The moments pass furiously, which is complicating, because that’s where the fastballs are, and you can’t miss those.

“The biggest thing is I’ve been going through it my whole life,” he said. “It’s not something that came because I made it to the big leagues. So you control what you see. You control your room and what you put in it.”

Out in the world, folks decide good and evil, bargain and over-rated, Yankees and Cubs, $300 million and $400 million – sometimes by the at-bat. They’re not invited to the room. By virtue of his game and the way he plays it, and his age, and the numbers he puts up or doesn’t, and the attention it all draws, the space that remains would seem confining. Harper, however, views it as opportunity. Maybe it’s easier when a guy is batting .324, which he is. Or leads the league in on-base percentage. Which he is. Or has 15 home runs. He’s lived the other side of it too, though, and the rules were the same. Show up. Tend to the important things, like family. Lean into his foundation, Harper’s Heroes, which serves children with leukemia, the disease from which his best friend in high school suffered. And then, only then, hit. Play the game. And breathe.

“It’s always a new day,” he said. “What’s in the past is in the past. What’s ahead of me I can’t control. I don’t really care about next year. The year after. I have to beat the Dodgers today.”

It’s a grown-up perspective that can be especially difficult for grown-ups, and Harper admitted to wavering once or twice.

“When I really felt it a lot was when I didn’t want to be in the minor leagues anymore,” he said, grinning. “I wanted to be in the big leagues. When your ass is in Hagerstown and you wanted to be in Washington, it’s a bad place to be.”

He said he watched – or watches – the best at it. So, in his opinion, that’s Tom Brady. Or Derek Jeter. Or LeBron James. Especially LeBron James.

“I tip my cap to him,” Harper said of James. “He does it with such class and dignity. He does everything the right way. It’s incredible how good he is at what he does in all aspects. At home. In the community. On the floor.”

Brace yourself, because Harper meant the following in the healthiest of ways: “There are things bigger than baseball.”

Until it’s time for baseball. Around the baseball, he said, he hardly ponders the baseball. He hardly reads about it, hardly turns the television to it, hardly talks about it. He said he almost never knows the name of the pitcher he’ll face until he arrives at the ballpark. Whatever the expectations and whatever the speculation, he said, passes overhead, unnoticed by him. The job is the job, he said, “It’s not you.”

The alternative brings too much commotion. So when he’s forced to fight for his place on the field, when that choice carries a suspension and four days away, he goes home to Las Vegas, to his parents and his wife and his nieces and nephews, to the place he calls “everyday life.” It’s healthy there, at least as healthy as it is here, in the parade instead of out in front of it.

“It gets to be too much,” he said. “You only control what is in your room. What type of carpet is on the floor. The furniture. The paintings on the walls.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re hitting .260 or .360. You play hard. You try to be the best player on the field, every day. My expectations are higher than anybody else’s out there anyway. So what drives me is every guy in this clubhouse. The fans in D.C. Every night I go out there, there’s a new clean slate. And I know I can change a game like that.”

He snapped his fingers, for the moment that comes and goes. They’re all important, a breath in every one, a fastball in some of them.

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