At the news conference in which he was announced as a National League all-star along with Washington Nationals teammates Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle, Bryce Harper sat in the middle chair, wearing a T-shirt that read “The District” on top of a rendering of the U.S. Capitol.
Perhaps, as a hometown all-star, he wanted to show his support for Washington. Perhaps, as the more ambitious mind-readers might suggest, Harper was affirming his love for the city so many believe he will leave in free agency after this season. Perhaps, his locker almost entirely cleaned out for Futures Game participants and his suitcase packed for the Nationals’ road trip to Pittsburgh and New York, it was just the shirt he felt like wearing. Such is the analysis to which Harper has always been subjected. Such is the level of scrutiny he will experience when the baseball world coalesces around him for the 2018 All-Star Game in the city in which he plays.
Harper, along with Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman, was tapped as an all-star ambassador for the first Midsummer Classic in D.C. since 1969. Part of his duties are to promote the events of all-star week, to be an emissary to fans and to advocate for the city where he has played his home games since he was a teenager. Scherzer signed the biggest contract in team history and has emerged as the most decorated pitcher in the D.C. history of the franchise. Zimmerman is the figurehead, the living statue in the back of the clubhouse, the local kid who was the franchise’s first hope.
Then there is Harper, the homegrown star having a down-ish year at the worst time, whose name had hardly been announced as a fifth-time all-star starter before the pundits started asking if he deserved to be there at all. He has hit 22 homers and driven in 51 runs at a decidedly all-star pace. His batting average is lower than ever.
And as Harper tries to convince suitors he deserves the record contract everyone (except him) has always said he should get, he is in the awkward position of being the most talked-about star on the host team for this game largely because he might be headed elsewhere after this season — but also because so much will be expected of him here.
“I think every year you come in and try to have a good first half as a team, do things you can to help your team win,” Harper said when asked if he felt extra pressure to make the all-star team and represent the host franchise. “There are two guys beside me who have done a great job of that, and I think we’re excited to do it here in D.C.”
Harper gave all the right answers in that news conference. He has, by and large, given all the right answers about the all-star experience in general. When asked to plug the city, he has done so dutifully. Though he waffled on the point, according to those close to him, he eventually announced he would keep to his word and participate in the Home Run Derby when it is held at Nationals Park.
“Just excited for the fans, to be able to do that in front of them, as well,” Harper said. “It’s the main reason why I’m doing it. If we weren’t in D.C., I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I’m looking forward to going out there and representing the Nationals — and hopefully bring home the trophy.”
Harper hasn’t participated in a Home Run Derby in five years, and word is Major League Baseball felt the need to do some convincing. Others around him had opinions about the matter, too. Such is the world of Harper, in which the machine moves around him — a machine he built, sure — but one he now seems powerless to stop.
“Bryce is sort of the first of the newer generation. Whether you like it or not, you’re put out there since age 12,” Zimmerman said. “You don’t have much choice with all the media and social media.”
With all due respect to Zimmerman, Harper is not the first of a newer generation doomed to his experience. He remains, and probably will for some time, the most vaunted and touted and analyzed player of his generation — unique in his experience, in part because he was unique in the way he embraced the hype initially. But as it becomes time for his fourth consecutive all-star start and fifth overall, the effects of that treatment are becoming more obvious than ever.
He has pared down his obligations, eschewing the odd interview and unnecessary attention for the big stuff — the endorsement deals, or the things he and the Nationals have agreed he will do. He has pared down his personality, too, if not always on the field, then certainly in front of the cameras. Even when reporters ask silly questions, Harper now answers them seriously. When they ask pointed ones, he dodges. Harper, once so willing to say anything, has mastered the art of saying nothing.
“Every day people are picking apart his words. People are trying to interpret them to fit a narrative they already have in their mind — or they’re trying to think, ‘Did he just drop a hint as to free agency?’ ” said Doolittle, Harper’s all-star teammate who was placed on the disabled list Tuesday. “For me, I think even though he does play with that fire and that intensity, he’s a pretty quiet person.
“It’s like Twitter, where you type something out and think, ‘Oh, I don’t want people to take that the wrong way,’ so you delete it and start again,” Doolittle added. “Then you type and think, ‘Maybe not.’ By the end, it becomes so watered down. It’s that, but in real time. I think people might not be able to relate to how emotionally draining that can be when you have to do that every day.”
Harper will spend all of all-star week serving as one of the more analyzed ambassadors this city has known. His clothes, his words, his Home Run Derby performance, his hustle, his enthusiasm, his frowns and his smiles will all be accumulated and spit back out like they are here, as if they can somehow portray who the 25-year-old has become.
One could argue he has become something other than the face of this Nationals team. Maybe his future is too tenuous to hold that title. Zimmerman has been hurt for much of the first half, relegated to representing the host team off the field because his chances of representing it as an all-star evaporated early. Scherzer is the heart and soul of the team, the early favorite to become the first man to wear a Curly W hat to the Hall of Fame.
But it is Harper who will be expected to lift the same city that is mentally preparing for his potential departure — an initially eager superstar recently trained into reticence. He is always too loud or too quiet for someone. He is destined to be both as he sits awkwardly in the spotlight during one of the biggest weeks in Washington baseball history, months before he might cease to represent this city at all.