Every now and then, a teenage prodigy comes along to take his sport by storm. It happened when Boris Becker won Wimbledon aged 17 and 227 days, while Wayne Rooney was even younger when he was first capped by England in 2003. And now it's happening again – in the utterly implausible setting of a major league baseball team from Washington DC.
Bryce Harper is the name. Baseball players as a rule mature relatively late. But Harper made his debut for the Washington Nationals on 28 April, six months before his 20th birthday, and already comparisons are departing this earthly orbit. For some he is the baseball phenomenon in the movie The Natural made flesh. For other usually sober judges of such matters, he is the most thrilling talent to hit the big leagues since Mickey Mantle exploded with the New York Yankees back in the early 1950s.
The statistics tell us that Harper is on track to have the best major league season by a teenager in a century. But figures do not convey the raw excitement he creates every time he takes the field. In the outfield he has blistering pace and a rocket for a throwing arm. At bat, he's an electrifying mix of power, swagger, and the blissful recklessness of youth.
I was at Harper's ninth game for the Nationals, when the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, Cole Hamels, deliberately hit him with a fastball in the lower back in the first inning. "Welcome to the majors, kid," Hamels cheerfully declared in so many words, earning himself a five-game suspension in the process. And Harper's response, that same inning? He stole home base, one of baseball's rarest feats, accomplished no more than once or twice a season. We hardly believed what we saw.
Then there was his most recent home run, in Toronto on Tuesday, the ball still rising as it smashed into an advertising billboard 140 yards from home plate. The collision, The Washington Post memorably reported, "sounded like a manhole cover dropped from a skyscraper".
He talks a pretty good game, too. Why not celebrate the homer with a drink, a local reporter asked, after all the drinking age in Canada was 19, not 21 as in the US – so what was his favourite beer? "I'm not going to answer that," replied Harper (who is a Mormon and thus a teetotaller). "That's a clown question, bro." Twitterland went crazy, and "Clown Question, Bro" T-shirts are already on the streets. The coolest way of saying "no comment" ever, one political commentator raved: "Let's see Obama use this – or even Romney." They will, they will. And all this from a teenage baseball player from Washington DC.
The game, to put it politely, has had a chequered history here. Yes, the old Washington Senators did win the city's only World Series in 1924, but, after decades of mediocrity, attendances had shrivelled by 1961 to such a point that the team decamped to Minneapolis. A new Senators franchise arose from the ashes, but was still terrible – "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League" ran the weary joke about baseball and the nation's capital.
By 1972 the team had moved again, to Dallas-Fort Worth, where they became the Texas Rangers. Only in 2005 did baseball return, when the languishing Expos moved from Montreal to become the current Nationals, lured by a new $600m river-front stadium, funded by local taxpayers.
For a while the Nationals were as dismal as their predecessors. But in the relegation-less system of US sport, being lousy has its benefits. If you finish last, you get the first pick in the next season's draft of new players. That happened to the Nationals, twice. On the first occasion, in 2009, they picked pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg. The next year, they took Harper – and now Washington is the hottest team in baseball.
Of course, it's not just Harper and Strasburg (who has just become the first pitcher this season to record 100 strike-outs). The Nationals have a core of gifted young position players, and the strongest starting pitching rotation in the majors. The result is a 38-23 record going into today's game with the New York Yankees. Normally, the match-up would pit baseball aristocrats against peasants. This year, it could prefigure the World Series.
The Nats and Harper, of course, won't keep up the present run forever. The baseball season is not a sprint but a 162-game grind, in which slumps for both a team and individual players are inevitable. If the former wins just six games out of every 10, it will almost certainly win its division. A .300 batting average is the mark of a really good hitter – but that implies failure in seven of every 10 at-bats. But just try telling that to Bryce Harper.
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