Nationals No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper introduces himself to Washington

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 12:30 AM

On Thursday morning, before he scalded a ball into the third deck at Nationals Park and before his grand introduction to Washington, Bryce Harper introduced himself to the city where the Washington Nationals believe he will become a star, their "cornerstone."

Harper went for a jog, but in the style one might expect only of a carefree 17-year-old who smears eye black on his face like war paint and wears a jet-black suit with a hot-pink tie to his first professional news conference.

As part of his morning run, Harper climbed shirtless up the steps of the U.S. Capitol, a headband wrapped around his forehead, just below the spiky faux-hawk. He pumped his arms like Rocky. When he returned to his hotel room, he gave his father a report.

"He said, 'Everybody was looking at me like I was crazy,' " Ron Harper said later. "I said, 'Well, Bryce . . .' "

In his first trip to Washington and first day spent with the Nationals, Harper made clear both why the Nationals selected him first overall and his nonchalant comfort with the attention heaped upon him for it. In the afternoon, he clobbered 12 home runs during batting practice, one in the top deck, where only bombs by Adam Dunn have ventured, and several into the bullpen in left center field. The first word Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said when asked about the display: "Wow."

"It felt like home," Harper said. "I'm like a little kid in a candy store."

In the evening, Harper sat at a dais between General Manager Mike Rizzo - the man who called him "a cornerstone of the organization on and off the field" - and agent Scott Boras, his representative. MASN made it the centerpiece of its pregame show, replete with an emcee.

Ryan Zimmerman - "the face of the franchise," Rizzo said - entered the room for a moment to cover Harper's shoulders with a No. 34 Nationals uniform. "He hands out the jerseys," Rizzo said.

"It's going in my next contract," Zimmerman said.

Harper slapped on a red hat with a white curly "W" and sat before a room full of reporters, his family and members of the Nationals ownership group. Quickly, Harper introduced a new phrase to the franchise's lexicon. He explained that during batting practice earlier he had hit several "oppo boppos" - opposite field home runs.

In the three months since Harper played his last junior college game (from which he was ejected), he took batting practice on his own and lifted weights with the Las Vegas High School football team. Harper, a self-described "baseball rat" who constantly traveled to tournaments as a kid, had never gone so long without playing a baseball game. "It was a horrible break," he said.

In roughly two weeks, Harper will report to the Florida Instructional League with several other high draft choices for the Nationals, Rizzo said. The Nationals may send Harper to the Arizona Fall League afterward, but they have yet to set a definite plan.

The real question remains: When will Harper don a Nationals jersey for real?

"I have no idea right now," Harper said. "I'm just trying to get out there and show what I can do. I'll let the higher power take care of that.

"But I set high standards for myself. I think I should be perfect in every aspect of the game. I love playing. I live for baseball."

During the day, Harper chatted with St. Louis Cardinals all-star first baseman Albert Pujols, which apparently was no big thing.

"I've known Albert for a while," Harper said. He met Dunn, which was awesome. "He's hilarious," Harper said. "He might be one of the funniest guys I've ever met." He still has never spoken with Stephen Strasburg.

All Nationals employees wore suits to the park. ("Nothing better than dressing up for a 17-year-old," one of them said.) Harper made his first appearance during batting practice, when he jolted balls like any big leaguer, only farther.

"He showed the ability to hit powerful line drives to the opposite field and to the pull side," Eckstein said. "He really showed a very short path to the ball, a very quick bat through the zone. An advanced approach for his age, definitely. Some of the things he was talking about hitting-wise, his feel for what he was trying to do, he was really advanced for his age."

Harper appeared just as comfortable at the podium as in the batter's box.

About his haircut, he explained, "I actually just got that. My sister is a beautician, so she tries different things on me. The ladies like it, so . . ."

Harper said his first big purchase would be to fix the dent in his 2000 Toyota Tacoma, which has 120,000 miles on it. A reporter asked if he would buy a new truck. "Why?" Harper said. "It's awesome."

"I've had a lot of people around me my whole life," Harper said. "I'm really used to it now. I've had a lot of media, a lot of little kids looking up to me. That's the biggest, trying to teach the little guys how to go out there and have fun. Just go out there and play ball."

That will come. For now, the Nationals will wait for him to grow, his first impression enough for them to believe it will be worth it.

"He was pretty impressive," Eckstein said. "Wasn't he?"

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