Bryce Harper’s collisions with outfield walls in Atlanta and Los Angeles over the last four weeks and his subsequent collapse in offensive production are not coincidental.
The 2012 National League Rookie of the Year at 19, Harper was well on his way to topping his impressive debut with nine homers, 18 RBI and a .356 batting average in the season’s first 25 games when he slammed into the right field wall at Turner Field with the Nationals trailing the Braves 5-1 in the fifth inning on April 30. Harper managed just two hits in his next 19 at-bats.
Then on May 13, Harper ran chin-first into the right field wall at Dodger Stadium with Washington cruising 6-0 behind the superb pitching of Jordan Zimmermann. Baseball’s budding superstar wound up with 11 stitches in his chin, bruises on his left shoulder and knee and a generally aching body, but amazingly no concussion. Still, he missed the next two starts and recently admitted that he expects that the knee which sidelined him again last night will be a problem all year.
All told in the four weeks since he first ran into an unforgiving wall, Harper has missed six games, been scolded by Nats closer Rafael Soriano for misplaying another deep fly, and is hitting a meek .193 with two homers and five RBI in 57 at-bats. His slugging average, .744 during his scorching start, is .239 during his extended tailspin. In short, Harper’s two wildly contrasting halves of the 2013 season have been bound for Cooperstown followed by below the Mendoza line.
Certainly part of what makes Harper such a special player is his extraordinary Pete Rose-like hustle no matter the situation. However, as is the case with Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, whose own 2012 Rookie of the Year season ended with a knee injury that required surgery, the gung-ho, all-out attitude needs to be tempered.
No matter what Soriano – who has never played the outfield – says, it’s foolish for Harper to run into a wall when there’s little or no chance of catching the ball just as Griffin needs to learn to go down rather than absorbing tremendous punishment from a tackler to gain another yard when a first down is out of the question.
Harper, 20, and Griffin, 23, are the most valuable players on their teams and among the most dynamic athletes in their sports, but they have to learn to live to fight another day or their careers won’t be nearly as long or as spectacular as they should be.
When Harper went running into the wall in Chavez Ravine for the second straight spring, I immediately thought of Brooklyn outfielder Pete Reiser, who plummeted from the game’s next prodigy at 22 in 1941 to a has-been at 28 because he didn’t stop crashing into inanimate objects at full speed. I also thought about a hot Dodgers prospect of another generation with a similar Achilles heel, Bobby Valentine, who never fulfilled his potential. Valentine’s battered body was worn out at 29 and he turned to the dugout where he lasted a lot longer as a manager.
In the big picture of Washington sports, we are living in an unprecedented era of superlative young talent with Nats right hander Stephen Strasburg, 24, Wizards guards John Wall, 22, and Bradley Beal, 19, and Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin, 27.
Watching all of these terrific players is a joy, but the sad reality is that Strasburg has already missed a year following elbow reconstruction while Wall was sidelined for 13 games as a rookie and 33 this season with injuries and Beal was unable to play in 26 games in 2012-13. Griffin was forced from the Redskins’ first playoff game in five years with an injury that threatens his availability for the start of this season, and Harper keeps hurling his body around like the seemingly indestructible Ovechkin hammering an opponent into the boards.
As Joni Mitchell sang in Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Bryce and RGIII are just beginning. They can be smart without losing what makes them scintillating. If they remain stubborn, they won’t remain at the top very long and we’ll all be sorry.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin