Controversy around him, Harper stays mature

Controversy around him, Harper stays mature
May 7, 2012, 4:52 pm
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So, Cole Hamels happily acknowledges he plunked Bryce Harper on purpose, saying "I'm not going to deny it" and "I'm just trying to continue the old baseball."

Then Mike Rizzo lambastes the Phillies left-hander, telling the Washington Post "I've never seen a more classless, gutless chicken bleep act in my 30 years in baseball" and saying Hamels is "fake tough."

And where is Harper during all this chaos? What does the Nationals rookie have to say about the maelstrom that has developed all around him, and about the pitcher who publicly admitted throwing at him in the eighth game of his career?

"He's a great guy, great pitcher and knows how to pitch," Harper said. "He's an All-Star. It's all good."

What does it say that between a 28-year-old former World Series MVP, a 51-year-old general manager of a major-league club and a 19-year-old outfielder with one week of big-league experience, the only one showing restraint right now is the 19-year-old?

This may come as a disappointment to all those scouts, opponents and media members who have been trying to label Harper as a punk from the moment he burst onto the national scene, but the kid has been a complete model citizen since his promotion to Washington nine days ago. He couldn't be any more respectful of the game, his teammates and opponents.

Wait, Bryce Harper? Respectful? Yes, that's right.

Credit his own increased maturity. Credit the Nationals' coaching staff and player development folks. Credit his family. Maybe even credit Scott Boras. Whoever is responsible for it, Harper has arrived in the big leagues under perhaps more scrutiny than any rookie in baseball history and has handled it all with aplomb.

He's said all the right things in front of cameras and notebooks, despite plenty of attempts by reporters to get him to slip up. He's done all the right things in the clubhouse, showing he knows his place among a roomful of veterans. And he's certainly played the game the right way, displaying more hustle and baseball instincts than guys with a decade more experience.

"He's smart," Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think his baseball IQ, and the way he adjusts and the things he does at his age is impressive. ... It's only the beginning of it. That's the scary part. He's only going to get better."

Harper plays the game with a boatload of emotion, but he also seems to understand how to channel that emotion into positive play. How many other big leaguers -- 19, 29 or 39 -- would have responded to Hamels' plunking last night the way Harper did?

He didn't charge the mound. He didn't try to overdo himself and make a stupid play on the bases. Instead, he hustled. He went first-to-third on Jayson Werth's routine single to left. And then (on the advice of Werth and third base coach Bo Porter) he timed Hamels' pickoff move perfectly, bolted for the plate and became the first teenager in 48 years to steal home.

"A lot of times, whether it's coaches or media, you get caught up and go: 'Wow,'" Porter said. "Is it 'wow' because he's playing the game unlike other people, or because he's playing the game the way it's supposed to be played? If you ask me, he plays the game the way it's supposed to be played."

And then at the end of the night, Harper stood in front of a dozen reporters trying to get him to say something controversial and revealed what truly matters to him.

"We lost 9-3. That sucks," he said. "I don't like losing. That's the only thing that comes in my mind when we walk away from that field."

Harper is a lot of things right now. He's electric. He's talented. He's taking the baseball world by storm.

Everyone wants to proclaim him the best 19-year-old in the big leagues since A-Rod, since Griffey, since Mantle. Whether he deserves to be lumped in with those greats remains to be seen.

But this much is certain: Bryce Harper's tremendous skills on the field at 19 are being surpassed by only one thing. His maturity.