Harper’s first minor league game — let the record show he went 2 for 4 with a pair of a singles, one RBI and one strikeout — may have been a highly anticipated affair in Washington, where the Nationals spent the first overall pick of the 2010 draft to select him and $9.9 million to sign him, and in Hagerstown, Md., where the Nationals sent him to open his minor league career with the Class A Suns of the South Atlantic (or “Sally”) League.
But in Rome, where entire rows of stands sat empty on opening night, none of Harper’s four at-bats was greeted as enthusiastically as the mid-sixth-inning appearance of the costumed Henry the Hot Dog, accompanied by Ketchup and Mustard, who arrived in the back of a pickup truck and threw foil-wrapped frankfurters into the stands.
“Just another day in paradise,” Harper joked after the game. “It’s a blast. It’s everything I’ve wanted to do.”
Harper, the youngest player on his team by a full year and a half, seemed unmoved by the nonchalance the same way he is unmoved by hype and hyperbole. Starting in right field and batting third, he strode to the plate expressionlessly and rubbed his bare hands in the dirt. When he singled to center in his first at-bat, he took a wide turn toward second, but showed almost no emotion, as the ball made its way into the Suns’ dugout and into the hands of an authenticator from Major League Baseball.
Perhaps because he is thought to be further from the big leagues, Harper’s debut lacked the sort of buzz and anticipation that accompanied that of Stephen Strasburg a year ago, when the Nationals’ phenom right-hander, 21 at the time, made his first minor league start for Class AA Harrisburg in Altoona, Pa.
There, a sellout crowd pressed in around the bullpen to watch Strasburg warm up, and oohed and aahed over his radar readings. Here, the announced attendance of 4,133 was nearly 1,000 fans shy of a sellout — despite ticket prices that topped out at $10 — and the mention of Harper’s name during the pregame introductions drew only a small smattering of recognition from the stands.
Of course, Harper’s “debut” was a debut only in the strictest sense. By the time he took the field Thursday night, his professional career already encompassed 35 at-bats in the developmental Arizona Fall League and another 18 for the Nationals during spring training — amassing a combined .358 batting average and 1.009 OPS.