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Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.
Mike Trout, Bryce Harper relish roles as baseball's new stars
By Larry Stone
Seattle Times baseball reporter
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Someone asked Bryce Harper on Monday how he felt about people expecting him and Mike Trout to become the new faces of baseball.
"Oooh, too much pressure," he said in mock surrender.
Then he laughed the confident laugh of someone for whom pressure, if even acknowledged, is just another challenge to be conquered.
"If they want that," he said, "I'm all in."
Oh, they want that. Trust me, baseball is salivating at the prospect of having two new, young, dynamic stars to carry the mantle that Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones, among others, are about to leave behind. And in Harper and Trout — two of a record five rookie All-Stars this year — they have a combo package almost too good to be true.
Trout is 20, Harper 19. Both are charismatic and flashy. Both play the game with old-school aggression, diving into bases and running into walls. In fact, after Trout crashed once too many times in Colorado, team elders Jered Weaver and Dan Haren pulled him aside to gently urge him to be careful out there — the Angels needed him for the long haul.
"He wants to do everything he can to help us win, even if it means running into walls or stealing bases and getting all beat up," Weaver said. "But sometimes, you need to mellow it down. For the most part, he knows what he's doing out there. He'll be all right."
Harper, too, has earned a reputation for playing with his hair on fire. More importantly, he has belied the reputation he had coming up in the minors as a brash showboater who thought he was a little better than everyone else. Since coming up to the majors on April 27 — on the same day Trout was called up, fittingly enough — Harper has taken pains to be respectful to the Nationals' veterans. And he has won them over with his all-out style of play.
"He's a class act," said Nationals All-Star Gio Gonzalez during Monday's media session. "He's a professional. Through thick and thin, he goes out there and competes the way he's supposed to compete. I think everything he does, his presence, it speaks for itself. You guys are going to see history in the making with that kid."
Mostly, with Trout and Harper, it's about the talent — transcendent talent embodying all aspects of the game.
Trout, after scuffling to a .220 average in 40 games last season, has been a consistent flash of brilliance since rejoining the flailing Angels and sparking their charge back into contention. He leads the American League with a .341 average. From the leadoff spot, he has hit 12 homers and stolen 26 bases while playing superbly in the outfield. You might have to go back to Mickey Mantle to find his combination of speed and power.
"I feel more comfortable out on the field," Trout said. "I feel like myself. Last year, I didn't feel like myself at all. I was trying to do too much, trying to get that long home run instead of going with my approach."
Harper is hitting .282 with eight homers and 25 runs batted in, not bad for a teenager but merely scratching the surface of his potential. Like Trout, he is likely to have an October showcase that will further raise his profile, playing on a Nationals team that reached the break with the best record in the National League.
"When I got there, I just tried to play the game I knew how to play," he said. "I didn't want to change the vibe, because we were winning. I just wanted to come in, keep my mouth shut, work hard and respect everyone around me."
Whereas Harper's arrival has been heavily anticipated since he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school sophomore, Trout sneaked up on the industry. In 2009, the Angels astutely made him the 25th pick of the first round out of Millville (N.J.) High School, disregarding the prejudice against kids from that baseball-challenged region of the country. To compound matters, it was a bad-weather spring, severely limiting the opportunities to scout him.
You might recall that Stephen Strasburg — here as a first-time All-Star with the Nationals — went No. 1 in that draft, followed by Dustin Ackley by Seattle at No. 2. But the Mariners weren't the only team that whiffed on Trout. Twenty-one other teams had a crack at him until the Angels pulled the trigger with the second of their consecutive picks.
"I was a lot of risk, I think," Trout said. "I was an East Coast kid, didn't play all year. You look at kids in Florida and California, they have perfect weather all year. They can play all year. That probably factored in, that I wasn't playing year-round. That's probably what it was."
And when he looks back at players taken ahead of him, still stuck in the minors or yet to make an impact?
"When I got picked 25th, I made myself work harder to be No. 1," he said. "It's been working so far."
Harper and Trout have already bonded as teammates on the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League last October and November. They often text each other during the year.
"He's always not taking the game for granted," Trout said of Harper. "Just the way he plays the game is the right way."
"He's a game-changer." Harper said of Trout. "Nothing you can say about that kid that's bad."
Neither quite has mastered the art of the quip, but then again, Jeter — Trout's idol — isn't exactly Louis CK. Harper did get some attention for responding to an off-the-wall query with the now-viral, "That's a clown question, bro." And he got off a good one Monday when asked if he was getting a lot of clown questions.
"That one right there," he said, without skipping a beat.
Both Trout and Harper relished telling the tale of a game in the Fall League, the Scorpions against the Mesa Solar Sox, when Harper told teammates that if the first two guys got on, he was going to hit a walkoff homer. Yeah, right, they said.
"I promise you," Harper replied. "I'm going to hit a bomb, walk off this field and tell them we own this place."
Harper says now, "I was kidding, but serious at the same time."
Of course, it happened just as Harper called it, right down to the hanging changeup he told everyone he was going to get.
"Everyone ran inside the clubhouse," Harper said. "It was a great moment."
Trout said that's when he knew Harper was the real thing. The rest of the baseball world is finding that out now. About both of them.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com.
Starting lineups NATIONAL LEAGUE AMERICAN LEAGUE Carlos Gonzalez Colorado dh Derek Jeter N.Y. Yankees ss Melky Cabrera San Francisco cf Robinson Cano N.Y. Yankees 2b Ryan Braun Milwaukee lf Josh Hamilton Texas lf Joey Votto Cincinnati 1b Jose Bautista Toronto rf Carlos Beltran St. Louis rf Prince Fielder Detroit 1b Buster Posey San Francisco c Adrian Beltre Texas 3b Pablo Sandoval San Francisco 3b David Ortiz Boston dh Dan Uggla Atlanta 2b Mike Napoli Texas c Rafael Furcal St. Louis ss Curtis Granderson N.Y. Yankees cf Matt Cain San Francisco p Justin Verlander Detroit p
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