Sunday, I woke up to unsettling information. Bryce Harper — the great hope for my Washington Nationals — made the All-Star game.
For those who have not been paying attention, he’s a rookie with an arm like a train engine and a swing that accelerates fast enough to make the owner of a Lamborghini jealous. He’s the most hyped field player in recent history. And with stats on level with the greatest rookies of all time, he has not disappointed. The selection is wonderful news, a validation of Harper’s buzz and an optimistic omen for his career.
But here’s the kicker: he’s 19. If he were in college, he would be going into his sophomore year. Given different circumstances, he could have just finished pledging in my fraternity.
Instead, Tuesday night, he stood on second base during one of the most exclusive contests in sports.
This is of particular fascination to me as a Penn student. Teenage achievement, after all, is the mark of membership at this school. This is an Ivy. No matter how successful any student at Penn ends up, he or she will die knowing that — at the age of 17 or 18 — someone thought they were one of the very best the United States had to offer.
For most, this was not an accident. Many of us attended competitive high schools and getting into a college like this was considered a vital measure of success. Our parents and teachers nagged us. We worked hard and filled our schedules to the brim with extracurricular activities. We stressed over grades. And, with Penn’s acceptance, we fared about as well as any high-school senior can.
Harper’s adolescence, as well, has been defined by a need to achieve. His life has been marked with unimaginable expectations and a single, eclipsing motivation to play in the major leagues. At 16, he dropped out of school to play at a junior college. The same year, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the title, “The Chosen One.” He has been called a future great and compared to Lebron James so many times that a Google search for both names yields 618,000 results.
Harper meets his expectations with unbounded ambition. He has told friends that he wants to be the greatest to ever play the game. On the field, he has a reputation for being intense to the point of cockiness. He sprints to first base and rockets balls home from his position in right field. He has also argued with umps and blown kisses to opposing pitchers. It is surely no coincidence that his baseball hero is Pete Rose, a tough, surly man famous for his hardnosed play.
Minor moment intensity — and a belief that each instant is a test — seems to be an indicator of a teenage prodigy. Looking back at my own pressure-cooker public school, a few brilliant eggheads come to mind, though no jocks, who tended to be much more balanced. Most kids — even very smart ones — accepted the idea of being strong students in a high-achieving school. However, a few seemed determined to be the very best at everything. They were usually snarky, competitive even in conversation. They tended to view achievement as an end in itself. If they received a 98 on a test, they would wonder what happened to the two percentage points. If they were accepted to Yale, they would be angry that they were rejected from Harvard. Every facet of life – SATs, GPA, college, social standing, etc. — was a competition. They had to — or they just might die! — succeed.
Professionally, at least, Harper’s ambitions are even narrower. Those kids in my high school cared only about success. Harper’s aspiration is success as a player. This may explain his meager response when he learned he would be playing in the All-Star game. “I guess that’s pretty cool,” he said. To interest Harper, it had to be a hit, an out, or a win.