KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In the annals of great battles, Harper vs. Trout may not stand the test of time like Lincoln vs. Douglas or be as sadly one-sided as Robinson Cano vs. Royals fans. Yet it's the most simplistically complex question in sports, the choice between a power-hitting, pressure-swatting man-child and a kid who's a double-barreled Leatherman: the pocket-sized implement overflowing with tools and the guy in center field using a hide glove to rob batters simultaneously of their hits and self-worth.
They ask it everywhere, too. At bars. On message boards. Throughout the stands. And in clubhouses. Especially in clubhouses. All 30 have, at one point or another, housed the debate: Who would you take first, Bryce Harper or Mike Trout?
Sometimes it evolves into a question of why as well, though brevity often suffices within the clubhouse walls. An answer is an answer, and it's good enough, even if it might pique the world's curiosity on what the minds inside locker rooms think about one of their own.
Perhaps the greatest testament to their instantaneous stardom is that in this All-Star game in which neither Harper nor Trout will start – because not only were they not on the All-Star ballot, they weren't even on their teams' opening-day rosters – they are the chief attraction. It's about the Washington Nationals' 19-year-old wunderkind and the Los Angeles Angels' 20-year-old MVP candidate. It's about a new generation of baseball stars whose similarities may end at the respect they've engendered among their peers, Trout through his quiet brilliance and Harper through sheer force of persona.
So, who you got?
"That question right there is the one every clubhouse argues," San Diego closer Huston Street says. "You've got American League, National League. West Coast and East Coast. Speed and power."
It is different than the Mantle vs. Mays debate that persisted throughout the 1950s and well into the '60s. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were similar players. Harper vs. Trout is more Tupac vs. Biggie, a contrast of size, of strength, of style, similar only in an unmistakable brilliance.
"I can't answer it," Chipper Jones says, and he's not the only one. Of the 15 players to whom Yahoo! Sports posed the Harper-vs.-Trout question, nearly half copped out without a choice.
Jones, however, mulled the idea for a few seconds. If he was going to waffle, he wanted to at least add some chocolate chips.
"I love Mike Trout," Jones says. "But I have a man-crush on Bryce Harper."
Nobody else to this point has encapsulated the Harper-Trout debate in such perfect fashion. Chipper Jones is right: It's easy to admire Mike Trout, and it's just as easy to swoon over Bryce Harper. Every baseball fan appreciates both. The level of adoration depends more on the body part with which you do your thinking: the head or the heart.
You love Mike Trout with your head. You love his athleticism, 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds of muscle wound with the precision of a Swiss timepiece. You love how he makes the best catch of the first half look so ordinary. You love his speed, you love his bat, you love his power. You don't love his arm, but that's OK, because if you love with your head, you see the flaws in a man and accept him for what he is.
You love Bryce Harper with your heart. Your heart sees through prescription glasses. Blemishes don't exist. Harper's arrogance is endearing, his long swing fixable, his over-aggression something out of which he'll grow. He hustles like Larry Flynt, hits balls a mile, parlays his different sort of athleticism – a longer, lither kind – into playing outfield like a natural despite having spent all of a season and a half there. He'll hit for average. He'll play Gold Glove defense. The heart wants.
Harper is the id, Trout the ego and their peers tried to play the super-ego, balancing the two, arduous though the task was. We are, after all, talking about two players who still can't even drink legally.
Bryce Harper's story makes him more acceptable. Sports Illustrated introduced him to the country as a Sweet 16 present, boasting of his 500-foot home run power, and then he dropped out of his school to play junior college ball, where he broke all kinds of records, which preceded Washington taking him with the top selection and guaranteeing him nearly $10 million, followed by a rapid ascent that will see him spend his entire age-19 season in the major leagues.
And he's normal. Excuse the occasional fit of immaturity – slamming a bat against the wall in frustration and getting bloodied by the richochet, say – and recognize the list of athletes on whom the world was thrust as a teenager. Tiger Woods. LeBron James. Bryce Harper.
"You give me all that talent and put me on the cover at 16, I'm gonna be one of the biggest pricks ever," Atlanta second baseman Dan Uggla says. "Knowing I'm gonna be the first pick in a year and in the big leagues at 19. I think he has handled it unbelievably. I don't know how anybody can say they'd act if they got that much attention and was that talented."
Among the most amazing things about Harper is just how quickly he has sold his peers on his game. His hustle isn't false. His retorts are tinged with just the sort of obnoxiousness that goes over well in a baseball clubhouse; the commingling of "clown question" and "bro" was met with smirking approval. When Philadelphia starter Cole Hamels hit Harper with a pitch on purpose in early May, Harper embarrassed him by stealing home that same inning.
On the player ballot for the All-Star team, Hamels voted for Harper.
"You look into his eyes and see something there," Street says. "The It Factor that so few big leaguers carry. He has that ability. And that's why I'd pick Bryce: because he came up with so much of the fanfare, came up with so much of the expectations, because he's done it in the nation's capital. He has succeeded with all that, and with a relative amount of humility. He's got his flair. But good for him."
While Harper's admirers lauded his success vis-à-vis his history, the lovefest for Trout had everything to do with his first half, in which, despite missing nearly the first month, he made a compelling case for the AL MVP. He leads the league with a .341 batting average and 26 steals. His .959 OPS ranks behind only Josh Hamilton, David Ortiz and teammate Mark Trumbo, none of whom can match his value patrolling center field.
The greatest thing anyone can say about Mike Trout is that they have nothing bad to say about him. If Harper has swag, Trout has presence, a buttoned-down version, not bereft of charisma but with it on mute. His love emanates as much from feat as aura.
"It's like LeBron vs. Kobe," New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia says. "I've seen Mike Trout hit a triple down the third-base line. That's impressive. I might go with him because of the speed."
Yes, there is the speed, pure and natural, not Billy Hamilton fast but close. Trout disrupts. He annoys. The mere knowledge that he's standing on first base disassociates a pitcher from his standard mindset. Keeping him close and sacrificing stuff with a slide step and … dammit, he's just 20 years old, so it's not like he's slowing down anytime soon.
"Trout," says St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday, the only of the 15 players to answer without a hedge or at least a pause. He seemed such a likely candidate to go in the other direction, too, because Holliday hits for power and surely appreciates how, in a depressed run-scoring environment, power remains the game's greatest premium. There are but a handful of hitters with Harper's raw power. Seven of his eight home runs have traveled at least 406 feet. Scouts and executives are almost universal in their belief he'll soon hit 40 a year.
"It's easy to say he's going to hit 40 home runs," Holliday says. "Hitting 40 home runs in the big leagues is not easy."
Very easy was the tack taken by seven players when given the Harper-or-Trout ultimatum. "Both," conceded the indecisive and inoffensive. One pitcher didn't want to aggrieve the hitter in his league he'd have to face. Another was truly torn, almost painfully so, to the point he was offered "both" as an answer just to put him out of his misery.
Turns out there was a time when they were together. During the 2010 Arizona Fall League, for the game's most advanced prospects, Trout and Harper patrolled the Scottsdale Scorpions outfield together. The team finished 14-22. That mattered not. Mike Trout led off. Bryce Harper batted second or third. The prospect world salivated at the very sight of these two teenagers, knowing they were going to be so very much more.
Turns out there were two more players we asked to answer the Harper-vs.-Trout question: Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.
Trout, as he is wont to do, was short with his answer: "Obviously, I'm gonna pick myself." Maybe it was obvious. Athletes do adore themselves.
It took some prodding for Harper to make his selection. He didn't want to answer the question, perhaps for fear of sounding too arrogant, perhaps because to his ears it had a tinge of Bozo. When informed Trout had chosen himself, Harper didn't hesitate.
"I'm taking myself, too," Harper says. "I come into this game and I play it hard. I play it the right way."
The peers were close to an even split. They leaned 5-3 Trout, mostly along league lines. The vote was unscientific, of course, the sample size too small to determine anything but the sort of feel people in baseball have for two stars whose fates are tied together by more than the cosmos.
It was a coincidence that on the day Trout rejoined the Angels, April 27, the Nationals announced Harper was being called up. It's not coincidence that they're thriving. While there is no certainty with prospects, transcendent talent rarely fails to disappoint.
The only harm here is anointing them so soon, and it's not a judgment as much as an assessment. Health permitting, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will play long and vibrant careers. They'll be linked because of who they are and what they are and how they did, even if Harper is technically a year younger and a better comparison to him production-wise will be 2013 to Trout's 2012. It doesn't quite work that way.
"It's gonna be Mike Trout this, Bryce that," Trout says, and he is learning quickly the circus into which his life is turning. Mike Trout, son of schoolteachers, humble Jersey boy drafted 26th overall in the scouting whiff of the century, is one of baseball's best players. And Bryce Harper, son of an iron worker, brash Vegas kid paid more than any high schooler ever, is just the same.
Turns out there is a clear winner in Harper vs. Trout.
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