By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 10:06 PM
IN VIERA, FLA. There were plenty of enticing targets beyond the outfield fences. Rows of school buses sat just beyond one. A giant lake encroached on an adjoining field. A row of parked cars rimmed a third. A pair of regal bald eagles even soared overhead at the Washington Nationals' expansive minor league complex, the place Bryce Harper showed up for his first day on the job.
When Harper, the teen phenom who was the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, got the chance to take his cuts on the complex's fields, a local man and his young son dutifully followed along behind the chain-link barrier, hoping to collect balls that cleared the outfield fences.
Though Harper, 17, connected dozens of times, the boy landed just one souvenir. Meantime, the buses, eagles and lake remained undisturbed.
"I'm still getting into the tune of things," said Harper, who hit a ball into the third deck at Nationals Park during batting practice there a few weeks ago. "I need to take my time. That's baseball. Take your time through the system, do the things you need to do. I think I can get better out here, get better every day."
That attitude will surely elicit satisfied nods throughout the Nationals' front office. A month after signing a five-year, $9.9 million deal, Harper got down to business but offered no jaw-dropping smashes. Instead, it was a day defined by simplicity, repetition and fundamentals. The Nationals welcomed Harper to the world of professional baseball by breaking down everything he's surely done since Little League, then letting him know he would have to do it all again over again for the next few weeks.
The day's overriding message? Before Harper achieves major league greatness, he will first have to learn to run the bases properly. Among other necessities.
"We're going to set the foundation," said former major league outfielder Tony Tarasco, an outfield and base-running instructor. "First, we're going to spoon-feed him. Then, we're going to give him reps. Then, we're going to adjust."
On a largely quiet morning interrupted only by enthusiastic, lung-busting admonishment from the highly caffeinated Bobby Henley, the team's minor league field coordinator, Harper joined a few dozen other rookies and minor league players on the first day of the team's instructional league. He will play in his first game next Thursday.
A natural catcher, Harper spent much of Friday's three-hour practice session in the outfield, where the Nationals want him to play. Harper, who split time last year at the College of Southern Nevada between catcher and outfielder, seemed comfortable. He chatted and joked with his fellow teammates, most several years older, between drills.
"I've always been the rookie," Harper said. "Everybody has called me rook, rookie, the kid. I went to college and was the youngest guy. I went to high school and was the youngest guy. It's not a huge change out here."
After he signed autographs for perhaps a dozen fans who showed up for the session, Harper found a spot in the shade and chatted easily with a couple of reporters. He said he was glad to be on the field again and hopes the Nationals decide to send him from here to the Arizona Fall League, a proving ground for some of baseball's top prospects from all levels of the minor leagues.
Bob Boone, the Nationals' vice president of player development, said the organization will evaluate Harper in the coming weeks to determine whether he is ready.
"If I go out there, it's going to be a great thing to see pitching from other teams," Harper said. "If I get a chance to go to the Arizona Fall League, that'd be awesome. I'd love to go out there and play."
Said Boone: "With the bat, he's probably more talented than anyone over the last seven years coming out of the draft. We'll just have to see how it translates when you turn up the speed. . . . He can obviously hit with power. He can't obviously hit against pro pitching. We expect that, but we don't know that."
Harper began the morning in the outfield with Tarasco, listening on one knee with a handful of teammates as Tarasco lectured. On his first official drill, Harper actually dived head first in an attempt to catch a ball tossed softly by Tarasco, who was standing just feet in front of him.
"He has a great attitude coming in," Tarasco said. "You could see the relief in him finally getting out here now. It's time to play ball."
Harper said he hasn't spent a penny of his $6.25 million signing bonus since the check hasn't actually arrived yet. He said he spent the past few weeks working out with his old junior college teammates, doing outfield drills with former major league outfielder Chris Latham, hitting the weights and relaxing at the beach with his family.
His father accompanied him here and will remain until the end of the month, but Harper is staying at the Nationals' team hotel, bunking with pitcher Robbie Ray.
The Nationals want to provide a comfortable, stress-free environment for Harper while also allowing him to gain some independence, according to Doug Harris, the team's director of player development.
Team officials orchestrated the rooming situations and will enforce a curfew. Harper said his biggest struggle in the coming weeks will be functioning without his mother's home-cooked meals, the fettucini chicken alfredo and steak and potatoes that he loves.
The way Boone sees it, Harper will have other challenges, too.
"He needs a lot of tweaks," Boone said. "He's 17 years old. We're going to teach him the game, like everybody else."