ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Major League Baseball season is nearing its midpoint and it's no surprise that the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers are in first place in their divisions but the Washington Nationals were not expected to be there. The team has a first-rate pitching roster. And as NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, it has been energized by the game's youngest player, Bryce Harper.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: So, how do you build your baseball legend when you're in the major leagues and you're 19? Actually, that's a pretty good start. You're playing Major League Baseball and you're just 19. Bryce Harper sits at his locker in the clubhouse, before taking batting practice, and says he's just trying to enjoy it all.
BRYCE HARPER: I come in here and try to, you know, laugh and smile as much as I can. You know, I'm 19 and in the big leagues. And, you know, that's the best thing about it: I have a great team around me and, you know, it's just a lot of fun coming in here every day in the club house and, you know, I just have a blast.
SHAPIRO: Harper started building his legend with laser throws from the outfield, by running the base paths so hard that his helmet flies off, and by blasting home runs. Like this one last week, called by the Nationals' radio announcer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Swing, a long one. Deep right center field. Going, going, gone, goodbye. Off the back wall of the Rockies' bullpen. It's a game-tying Harper homer here in the ninth inning.
SHAPIRO: Harper's not one of those modern sluggers who stands at home plate and admires his blast. He takes off running.
HARPER: You know, I've always tried to, you know, get to second base before that ball lands. And, you know, really not try to show up that pitcher or anything like that.
SHAPIRO: He built his legend, too, when Cole Hamels, the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, threw what he later admitted was a deliberate welcome-to-the-Majors-kid fastball to Harper's back. Harper didn't show emotion. But when he advanced to third base, he waited until the pitcher turned to pick-off the runner at first. Then Harper tried a rare steal of home. The announcers on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball called what happened.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He's coming home. Safe.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You sure this kid's 19?
SHAPIRO: Sometimes that teen energy leads to rookie mistakes - like getting thrown out at third base when he should've stopped at second, or the time after grounding out, he slammed his bat against a wall in frustration. Only the bat bounced back and smacked him in the head. Harper ran out to right field the next inning with blood streaming down his face. Later, he'd get 10 stitches. That only added to the legend. Harper says he models the play of some old school greats.
HARPER: Cal Ripken, Jr. and Pete Rose, George Brett, Griffey.
SHAPIRO: Only, those players never had to grow up in an Internet age where everything they did was instant news. In Toronto, a reporter kept pushing whether he'd celebrate a home run with a beer. Nineteen-year-olds can drink legally in Canada. Harper's reply cleverly used the word clown as an adjective and the video clip went viral.
HARPER: That's a clown question, bro.
SHAPIRO: It was also a disrespectful question to ask someone raised as a Mormon. Harper grew up in Las Vegas. His father is a retired steelworker who helped build the city's hotels and casinos. Harper left high school after his sophomore year for community college, where he could play for a year against better competition. He'd already been hitting home runs so far that, at 16, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which declared him Baseball's Chosen One. That helped start the legend, but it created resentment. In basketball, the first three picks in last week's NBA draft were 19 or younger. But baseball expects its heroes to be older. At opponents' ball parks, Harper gets cheers and lots of boos. The Nationals manager, Davey Johnson, says Harper handles the jeering like a pro, too.
DAVEY JOHNSON: He likes tough situations. He's always been competing his whole life with kids a lot older them him. He's very physically strong and he's very mentally strong. But he's very driven to succeed.
SHAPIRO: Now, Harper's competing for the last spot to play in next week's All Star game. Johnson, his manager, says he'd like to see Harper take the days off to rest his sore back. But Harper just wants to play baseball every day. Still, if he's not an All-Star this year, Bryce Harper figures he'll get more chances in the future. Joseph Shapiro. NPR News.