By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 2:47 AM
Together, they followed the owners of the Washington Nationals into the conference room on the third floor inside Nationals Park, relaxed and smiling after tense and successful negotiations that landed them another piece of a promising future. Mike Rizzo, Stan Kasten, Kris Kline and Roy Clark - the four men most responsible for bringing Bryce Harper to Washington - sat at a long table and described to the assembled media how they had done it.
"There is one more thing I do have to do when we celebrate victories here," Kasten interrupted. He summoned a whipped-cream pie stashed in the corner and smashed it in Rizzo's face, splattering whipped cream all over Rizzo and the walls. Someone else pulled out the silver Elvis wig Nationals players used as a totem after their own victories.
"Why not go overboard?" Kasten bellowed.
The celebration doubled as a release following the final-seconds deal-making that landed the Nationals a power hitter they can pair with Stephen Strasburg. Less than one minute before Monday's midnight deadline, the Nationals agreed to a deal with Harper and super-agent Scott Boras for the second year in a row - a major league contract worth $9.9 million over five years, including a $6.25 million signing bonus, the richest draft deal ever signed by a position player.
The Nationals, for the second straight season, had drafted a slam-dunk first overall choice and signed a player with a mountain of hype behind him. In Harper, a 17-year-old outfielder and power-hitting prodigy, the Nationals could have an offensive answer to Strasburg, a generational talent reliant on sheer power who could become one of the forces that lifts the franchise to prominence.
The Nationals hope to never pick first overall again. But they know how lucky they are to have lost 205 games combined in two seasons that allowed them to pick Harper and Strasburg in consecutive drafts.
"It's never happened before," Rizzo said.
The saga of making Harper a National began June 7, when they drafted Harper out of the College of Southern Nevada. Rizzo initially hoped the Nationals could sign Harper soon; Kasten bet him $1 that would never happen. When talks did not progress immediately following the draft, the Rizzo realized the negotiation would linger until close to the deadline.
Monday night, the Nationals and Boras began building the framework of a deal by 11, early enough, they thought, to avoid a last-second showdown. "And yet," Kasten said, "there we found ourselves again."
"With a full minute to go, Mike and I both thought we were not going to have a deal," Kasten said. "Isn't that fair to say?"
"Yes," Rizzo said. "Very fair."
But the Nationals knew how badly they wanted Harper. Kline, in his first year as scouting director, had watched him play since Harper was 15. Harper reminded Clark of Jason Heyward, the uber-prospect he had scouted, drafted and signed as the scouting director for the Atlanta Braves. "Don't ask me which one I would take," Clark said.
The Nationals also had an idea how badly Harper wanted to be a major leaguer. He gained widespread fame when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated - anointed as "Baseball's Chosen One" - at 16. He chose Boras as his "advisor," earned his G.E.D. in order to skip his final two years of high school and dominated older competition in his only junior college season at the College of Southern Nevada.
So, as the seconds ticked down, the Nationals and Boras pushed aside small differences. They had come far enough that both sides knew leaving a deal on the table would be absurd.
"You go down to the last second until somebody blinks and you make your last-ditch effort," Rizzo said. "Once the smoke cleared, we had common ground to get a deal done."
And when, exactly, did the smoke clear?
"We don't know," Kasten said. "It's not an exaggeration. I can't explain it or brag about it. But it was inside the last minute."
When the Nationals drafted Harper, they declared he would turn from a catcher to an outfielder in order to hasten his ascension to the major leagues. Harper could reach the majors by the end of the 2012 season. At that point he would be 19, an age at which Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Justin Upton - three other teen-aged top picks - were playing in the majors.
He will begin his career in the Gulf Coast League within days, perhaps - "as soon as possible," Rizzo said. The competition at first, like the pitching he faced in junior college, may or may not test him. "He'd dominate," said Tyler Hanks, a Nationals draft choice now pitching for their Gulf Coast League affiliate. "He'd absolutely dominate."
Harper will come to Washington to meet with media at some point in the Nationals next homestand. The Nationals are certain he will participate in the instructional league in Florida after the minor league season ends, and he might play in the Arizona Fall League.
During the regular season at CSN, Harper hit .442 with a .986 slugging percentage and a .524 on-base percentage and hit 29 home runs. The old school record, achieved with a metal bat, was 12.
Harper's biggest challenge may be assimilating into his first teams amidst largely anonymous, potentially skeptical teammates. His fame and riches will instantly set him apart. Nationals executives and former teammates have consistently defended Harper's character, but his brash reputation has made some disenchanted.
Players on the Nationals' Gulf Coast team have taken to wearily asking Hanks about Harper. "They're like, 'I hear he's a [jerk],' " Hanks said. But Hanks believes Harper has proven his character in a difficult setting. Opposing players constantly heckled Harper; one team's players intentionally overthrew one another during warmups, trying to hit Harper with long-tosses.
"Nobody could have done a better job," Hanks said.
Seconds from midnight, Harper became the crown jewel to a draft class the Nationals believe to be chocked with potential impact players. Before Harper had finalized anything, the Nationals finished off three signings for well over the price recommended by Major League Baseball that represented a haul even without one of the most highly touted amateur players ever.
-- The Nationals and fourth-rounder A.J. Cole agreed to terms. The Nationals signed Cole for $2 million, according to a team source, the highest bonus ever given to a fourth-round pick, at least before Monday night, by $500,000.
Cole, 18, a 6-foot-5 right-hander from Oviedo High in Florida, had a commitment to the University of Miami. He had the talent to picked in the first round, but fell in the draft over concern of how much it would cost to sign. Baseball America ranked Cole the No. 16 prospect before the draft after he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings this season.
"It's really exciting," Cole said. "I'm just basically starting my life now."
-- Second-round choice Sammy Solis, a left-hander from the University of San Diego, signed for $1 million, according to a team source. Solis is a strike-thrower whose fastball reaches between 88 and 94 miles per hour. He throws two breaking balls, and his best pitch is an over-the-top, 12-to-6 curveball. Solis went 9-2 with a 3.42 ERA during this season, his redshirt sophomore year.
-- Twelfth-rounder Robbie Ray, a high school right-hander who had committed to Arkansas, signed for $799,000, just $1,000 less than any other pick this year after the fourth round. The Nationals hosted Ray at Nationals Park on Saturday in an effort to woo him.
So long as Harper signed Monday night, those three signings mean the Nationals will have signed 25 of their top 26 choices. Virginia Tech shortstop Tim Smalling, Washington's 14th-round choice, did not sign with the Nationals, at least in part because he suffered a shoulder injury in his final collegiate game.
By the end of the night, including Harper's pact, the Nationals pledged $13,699,000 in a single day - still about $1.4 million less than the total contract signed by their first pick in 2009. And now, those four players will join forces with Strasburg, and the Nationals' future looks brighter now, perhaps, than at any point since baseball returned.
As Rizzo wiped the whipped cream away from his eyes and off his shirt and blue jeans, he said, "It stings."
"Champagne stings, too," Kasten said. "Wait until you get that."