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Hype doesn’t get in way

Harper has been student of game

By Alex Prewitt
Globe Correspondent / June 9, 2012
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When Bryce Harper was born on Oct. 16, 1992, Wade Boggs had just finished his last season in a Red Sox uniform. David Ortiz was soon to be signed out of high school by the Seattle Mariners.

Nineteen years later, Major League Baseball’s youngest player arrived with a bang at the league’s oldest park, delivering a 3-for-5, 2-run homer, 3-RBI performance in Friday night’s 7-4 Washington victory.

Not that it detracted from the historical magnitude of arriving at - and playing in - Fenway Park.

“You see people that know about the game of baseball, know what’s going on,’’ said Harper, who leads the Nationals in average, runs, hits, triples and homers since May 20. “To have an atmosphere like that, playing here for the first time at Fenway, it was an unbelievable experience. So much fun.’’

Consider this weekend Harper’s professional introduction to the hallowed green grounds of history, where he will toe the same lefthanded batter’s box and jog out to the same cavernous center-field triangle as some Sox legends.

“He’s studied the game, more so than some of his seniors, about the history of the game,’’ Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “He probably knows some of the guys that I followed. The Ted Williamses, the Henry Aarons. I’m sure he’s read up everything on them.’’

Harper had been to Fenway before, when he was 11, while his San Diego youth team was east for a tournament at Cooperstown Dreams Park in New York.

Months after Harper’s visit, the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, 11 days after his birthday.

“It was the year they won it, so I guess I’m pretty good luck,’’ Harper joked. “It’s great coming in here at that age, looking up at the Monster, thinking it’s 100 feet tall.’’

Though certainly too early to start connecting Harper’s rookie play with future enshrinement in Cooperstown, his contributions to the first-place Nationals have been Rookie of the Year-worthy. In 36 games since he was called up from Triple A Syracuse, Harper is hitting .288 with 8 doubles, 4 triples, and 6 homers, scoring 25 runs. His first round-tripper, off San Diego’s Tim Stauffer on May 14, made him the youngest major leaguer to homer since Adrian Beltre in 1998.Harper’s homer Friday, a fourth-inning blast to center off Felix Doubront, made him the second-youngest visiting player to homer at Fenway. He robbed Jarrod Saltalamacchia of extra bases with a snow-cone catch in the second, then throwing the ball nearly 300 feet to a surprised Adam LaRoche at first, and nearly beat out a routine grounder to short in the ninth.

“Since he’s gotten to the big leagues, I’ve seen his interviews and I appreciate what he says,’’ said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who gave Harper “good job’’ at second base following Harper’s third-inning double.

“Like a guy who plays hard,’’ Pedroia said. “He does the little things. He’s good for the sport.’’

Harper and Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks were teammates on the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League last year. They made their MLB debuts four days apart, Harper on April 28, Middlebrooks on May 2. Harper texted Middlebrooks to congratulate him on his call-up.

Sox manager Bobby Valentine knows about the challenges Harper is facing. Valentine was a “token September call-up’’ for the Dodgers in 1969 at age 19, saying he was “nowhere near ready to play in the major leagues.’’

Harper’s situation is a bit different.

“Following his ascent to the big leagues, I’ve been very impressed,’’ Valentine said. “When he left high school and went to junior college I was amazed. When he hit all those home runs I was even more amazed. Drafted No. 1 and said he’d get to the big leagues before you know it. This is an amazing, amazing young man.’’

One who is taking the time to absorb history.

“It’s great to walk into this park and feel that presence of the old time with baseball,’’ Harper said. “Seeing Peter Gammons hanging out in the corridor out there was pretty cool as well.’’

Alex Prewitt can be reached at aprewitt@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt.

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