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.
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.