Can the most joyous man in sports do what Bryce Harper never could?
There are some people who have it. You can't really describe it, and it's hard to know whether they're stars because they've got it or it's the other way around. But they walk into a room and all eyes seem to fall on to them. They speak, and you can't help but listen. They step to the plate and the entire crowd leans forward a little on their seats, ready for magic to happen.
That's Juan Soto.
Not yet 21 years old, and he's a superstar. Not just because he smashes home runs, or because he plays amazing defense, or because he does things on the field that make you drop your jaw in awe. That's all pretext; if it weren't baseball, it'd be guitar, or motivational speaking, or a career as an artist. Soto has a kind of preternatural self-confidence that seems to physically radiate off him. His aura is so strong, you can practically see it -- and you can't help but feel like you'd follow him to the ends of the Earth.
That's apparent from the very way he enters the box, staring down pitchers like he's about to eat them for lunch. (He usually does.)
When he reached Double-A, he was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor. He was told by teammates that players who slept on air mattresses suffered statistically, and he should really buy a bed.
His response: "I say, ‘I not gonna be here for a long time, so don’t worry about it.’ A week later, they call me up.”
Out of someone else's mouth, that might register as cockiness. From Soto, it's something deeper: It's a kind of joyfulness he keeps in his heart; it's a swagger so big he can't contain it, no matter how bright the lights or how big the stage.
He'll dance in the dugout:
He'll show off his sweet 'ceps:
And when the Nationals recently swept the Cubs, well, he got the brooms out:
Siri, where can we buy brooms near Wrigley Field?#STAYINTHEFIGHT // #OnePursuit pic.twitter.com/sEuSdsHVj3— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) August 25, 2019
This is a guy ready to have fun in every single way, because if you were Juan Soto, wouldn't you?
It's enough to make you forget that Soto's already carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders at 21 years old. He'll always be viewed in relation to Bryce Harper: the last teenage superstar to patrol Washington's outfield, and the man Soto replaced when the former signed a 13-year deal with the Phillies over the winter.
Harper has swag too, of course, but it feels different. His flourishes seem more like a professional wrestler's and he's more than happy to play the heel when it's called for. He is the action hero with a set jaw and a permanent scowl, about to throw in a one-liner.
Over time, the Nationals started to feel made in their foundational superstar's image. Despite perennial contention for most of the last decade, Washington has never won even a single postseason series -- no matter how loaded its roster, it seemed to always find a way to fall gut-wrenchingly short. The more desperately the team wanted to break through, the more Harper scowled and swung for the moon, the farther away the promised land seemed to get.
Things seemed inescapably bleak entering the season, when Harper fled to the rival Phillies. The success that seemed destined to fall to the Nationals looked like it would forever elude them, as their stars aged and the rest of the teams in the league -- including Harper's -- would pass them by.
Then came Soto. He has the chops, but he's the comedic lead, too.
The post-Bryce era in D.C. wasn't supposed to be much fun, at least not in the early going. But now, the unthinkable has started to happen, something that could erase Harper from every I'm-not-mad-but-really-still-fuming Nats fan. Washington started the year slowly, but now seem set to take one of the NL's Wild Card spots.
They've got a rotation of aces with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, one that makes them uniquely set to both win a potential one-game playoff and maybe, finally, break through in the Division Series.
But most importantly, they've got Soto, who was just 7 years old when the team moved to Washington. Suddenly, that history doesn't seem to matter so much. Soto has a funny way of doing that: He cracks a smile, or does something you didn't think human beings could do, and everything else seems to melt away.