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Bryce Harper has monumental visit to Yankee Stadium

Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals looks on

Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals looks on before a game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, June 9, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The hottest young hitter in baseball also may be one of the shrewdest.

Bryce Harper won't be a free agent until 2019, but he's smart enough to know that it's never too early to get people talking. So before playing his first game at Yankee Stadium, Harper headed out to Monument Park to play tourist.

The Nationals' star rightfielder then snapped a picture of himself gazing intently at Mickey Mantle's plaque and posted it on his Twitter account with the words, "The Mick!"

If that wasn't enough, a few hours later, in his second at-bat, Harper lined a fastball from Masahiro Tanaka over the Stanley sign in the outfield, just to the left of Monument Park, for his league-leading 20th home run of the season. Harper finished his first game at Yankee Stadium 2-for-4 as the Nationals lost, 6-1, to the Yankees on Tuesday night.

Not everything in the game went perfect for Harper. He made the bizarre decision to lead off the seventh inning with a two-strike bunt. The ball went foul for an automatic out. The decision was so perplexing that Washington manager Matt Williams wouldn't answer questions about it, saying curtly, "We'll save that one for another day."

Harper said he was just trying to get on base. "I went with my gut, and it didn't work," he said.

For the most part, however, the night was a dream come true for Harper, who grew up in Las Vegas but fell in love with the Yankees. There was no local baseball team in Vegas, and he could get all their games on cable. When he was 16, he told Sports Illustrated that he would one day play for the Yankees. He wears No. 34 because the digits add up to No. 7, Mantle's number.

When asked Tuesday what made him identify with the Yankees, Harper, 22, just started listing things: "Pinstripes and everything about it. I loved Paul O'Neill. I loved Bernie Williams. I loved Mick, of course. Watching '61*' . . . He always hit the ball so far."

Harper is a guy who also likes to hit the ball far. In his fourth season, he is in the midst of a breakout year and might just be the best player in the National League.

Considering how good he is and how much he likes the Yankees, it made some sense that Harper was repeatedly asked by reporters before the game if he could see himself one day playing in the Bronx.

As skillfully as he would later drill Tanaka's pitch over the centerfield wall, Harper deftly dodged questions about one day playing in the Bronx.

"I enjoy playing for the Nationals," Harper said. "We try to win a World Series, just like every other team. If I could bring that back to D.C., bring that back to the city, that's what I want to do. I've said it for a long, long time. That's something I want to do.

"We have such a great team here . . . D.C. is a great place to play. It's a monumental town."

Of course, the Yankees and New York have a few monuments of their own. Identified as the next great player in baseball when the Nationals took him with the No. 1 overall pick at age 17, Harper seems to finally be fulfilling that promise.

During his first several years, he took a bit of heat from fans for not instantly being a superstar. On Tuesday, he said that he understands that is just a part of being a professional athlete in today's world. "I don't think it would have been like this," Harper said when asked if he thought things were different 30 years ago. "I think it was hard to play back then, but we have so much social media now, everything is blown up. There was great talent then. There's a little more attention now, a little more of a target on the players that come up."

Harper has learned to live with that target, and developed into the type of player who a team like the Yankees can be expected to go after.

Stay tuned.

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