June 4, 2012 8:42 pm

Cherish a phenom before it burns out

We are quicker to accord superstar status than we used to be

Phenomenons, like comets, can streak across the sky and disappear without much trace. These past few weeks have seen Americans gazing with astonishment at the latest talent to appear seemingly out of nowhere. This time it’s not a politician or a celebrity in the midst of a quarter-hour of stardom, but a cocky high-school dropout.

His hair, once a cross between a mullet and a mohawk, has grown out into a Davy Crockett shag rug. He can run like a gale, throw a ball as if shot from a cannon and hit it even harder. Bryce Harper is both cocky and cool, and just 19 years old.

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Jurek Martin

Three years ago, Harper was being hailed as baseball’s next “great thing”. One month into his career as a professional in the major leagues, he has thrilled and surprised fans of the sport and of his team, the Washington Nationals. With the season not one-third over, the Nats, long used to occupying the basement spots in their league table, sit on top of the National League East, the toughest division in baseball. Harper is a big reason for this ascent.

Hyperbole is more common in sports writing than in life. And the words used to describe the Harper phenomenon conform to type: he is the second coming of New York Yankee hero Mickey Mantle, or even Willie Mays, the most complete player to set foot on the diamond.

When a Philadelphia pitcher known for his control deliberately drilled Harper in the small of his back and said afterwards “welcome to the major leagues”, that was interpreted as the ultimate sign of respect, accorded to very few. He is booed wherever he goes on the road, which is another sign of obeisance – as any veteran celebrity can attest.

Crafty pitchers will find flaws in a batter’s swing (and vice versa if the phenom is a pitcher). The temptations of stardom and wealth can be overwhelming to the unprepared: booze, women and narcotics to name just three. Injury is a constant threat when facing balls delivered at 100 miles per hour.

Being on a good team helps, which the Nats, with their excellent young pitching staff and the best third baseman in the game, Ryan Zimmerman, now are. That Lionel Messi, the ultimate of the sporting genre, has never been the footballer with Argentina that he is with Barcelona is surely explained by the fact that Xavi Hernández and Andreas Iniesta play for the Catalans. Ditto George Best: stuck with poor Northern Ireland teams but blessed to play for Manchester United before the booze got him. It is best, therefore, to enjoy phenoms while they last and hope they mature and endure.

Politics is like that, too. Barack Obama was definitely one four years ago and in November we will learn if he still is. John Kennedy’s comet was hit by a bullet before it had the chance to endure. In her way, and very briefly, Sarah Palin was also a phenom, but the flaws in her swing became apparent very quickly.

History is littered with young phenoms who endured – for example, Genghis Khan, William Pitt the Younger and Fidel Castro. All left their marks, for good and ill. Literature has its share, too: J.D. Salinger hit one out of the park with Catcher in the Rye but his well ran dry afterwards. The movies had James Dean, who did not live long, and Marlon Brando, who did.

The pop world had Amy Winehouse, cut short in her uncertain prime last year. With Adele, who seems well grounded, the only question is whether her voice holds up, which the arm of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the magical pitching phenom of the late 1970s, could not.

We are quicker to accord superstar status these days than we used to be. The internet can give the most obscure their 15 minutes, or seconds, of fame. Politicians, like Roosevelt and Reagan, took their time to come into their own. Today we elevate those with thin résumés and even talents. Who really knows, for example, if Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida on the shortlist as Mitt Romney’s running mate, is ready for primetime?

All the standard caveats aside, Bryce Harper probably is. He fills seats in stadiums, just as Michael Jordan did from his prime to his (relative) dotage and as Tiger Woods could before his golfing world, not to mention his head, fell apart. People want to go and watch Harper, even from their couches, to see if he is as good as he is cracked up to be. He really might be “the natural”. It is too bad Robert Redford is now too old to play him in the inevitable movie adaptation.

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