Bryce Mantle?

So as the spring training games begin, Bryce Harper (1-for-2 against the Astros this afternoon) now says “I want to be up here. I want to play, and I want to play in D.C.” This after Davey Johnson was publicly pushing for him to be on the Opening Day roster and General Manager Mike Rizzo confessed Johnson had convinced him to “keep an open mind.” Thus the most amazing question of the spring isn’t about whether or not Harper is going to open the season with the Nationals, nor the one that goes “are the Nats seriously considering it?” The answer is: what happens if it doesn’t work?

The historical “comp” is Mickey Mantle, who worked his way from a wild-armed shortstop in a pre-Spring Training special showcase camp of top minor league prospects for the benefit of Manager Casey Stengel, to the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup in 1951 (batting third, in an outfield also featuring Joe DiMaggio and an even-more prized youngster that spring, 56-game big league veteran Jackie Jensen). The comparison between Harper and Mantle as players is speculative at best, but the useful history might be what happened when Mantle made the Yankees out-of-nowhere as a 19-year old rightfielder – and then failed.

When Mantle was sent down to AAA Kansas City after the game of July 13, his numbers didn’t look all that bad. In 69 games, he’d batted .260, logged nine doubles, five triples, and seven homers, and driven in 46 runs, while stealing seven bases. But American League pitchers had begun to deny him fastballs late in May, and in his last six weeks before the demotion Mantle had hit just .211. The rest is history: Mantle said he got to Kansas City, called his father to say he now doubted he could cut it, was surprised to find his father in his hotel room a few hours later. Instead of the pat on the back he expected, Mickey saw “Mutt” Mantle begin to empty his son’s clothes into a suitcase and tell him he wasn’t a man and he should come back home and join him in the copper mines.

That worked.

Mantle drove in 50 runs in 40 games and returned to the Yankees on August 24th: six homers, 20 RBI, .284 in his last 27 games.

But Mantle’s demotion came 61 years ago. There was no internet, no cable, no tv sports news to think of, no radio call-ins, no blogs. The Yankees who didn’t get sent to the minors that season included Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, coach Bill Dickey, and manager Casey Stengel. They were the two-time defending World Champions and, frankly, it is possible that a lot of Yankee fans had no idea for days or weeks that Mantle had even been sent back to the minors.

That will most assuredly not happen if Bryce Harper struggles in the majors – if he bats .211 over 100 agonizing at bats and Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson decide they have to send him to AAA. The coverage would be intense, uninterrupted, and brutal, and it would not stop the day Harper went to Syracuse or Harrisburg. It would be relentless.

Thus the question isn’t whether or not the Nats are thinking of taking Bryce Harper north or summoning him early in the season. The question is how much time they’ve spent game-planning the worst case scenario.


  1. Patricia Ellyn Powell

    My question is whether or not you will be served Cheerios again in first class! I quit the Junior League years ago because they held meetings to plan meetings. One wonders if they ever heard of the “best laid plans of mice and men.” Happy Spring!

  2. Sam

    Mantle also didn’t blow kisses after home runs and talk trash to pitchers after the inning was over– he probably handled the demotion better than Harper would.

    • djpostl

      Amen. Baseball Prospectus put it best:

      “It’s impossible to find any talent evaluator who isn’t blown away by Harper’s ability on the field, but it’s equally difficult to find one who doesn’t genuinely dislike the kid.

      “One scout called him among the worst amateur players he’s ever seen from a makeup standpoint, with top-of-the-scale arrogance, a disturbingly large sense of entitlement, and on-field behavior that includes taunting opponents.”

      “He’s just a bad, bad guy,” one front-office official told Baseball Prospectus. “He’s basically the anti-Joe Mauer.”

  3. Jim McKenna (@jmck36)

    Now that the “Steroid Era” (ok KO, insert joke here) is over, MLB is becoming a young mans game again. I say BH should start the year in the show. Lets see what he can do. He has been tested at every level and has been able to make adjustments to succeed. Harper’s swagger and playing style is just what the Nats need to contend in the NL East this year. A comparison to Mantle might be a little extreme. Harper reminds me more of Griffey Jr. then the Mick!

  4. Linda Monk

    As we approach the second anniversary of your Dad’s death, any thoughts about the last six months of his care? Specifically, if you had it to do over, would you do anything differently about managing his care? Thank you for sharing your journey with all of us who are facing such decisions with our parents–and, eventually, ourselves.

  5. Andy Wood

    Lead and zinc mining down here. Not copper. Mantle was, and is, a legend in the NE Oklahoma, SW Missouri and SE Kansas area.

  6. Man Wall

    Weren’t we just having this same discussion about Strasburg last season? It’s always going to be a mix of bad and good, especially when a kid this young is involved. I don’t think it’s fair to hate on a kid who doesn’t know anything except being the best among his peers for as long as he can remember, would you be modest if you have had scouts harassing you since middle school?

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