In Arizona, the main attraction is hard to see

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; D4

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. - The moment Bryce Harper stops tapping his black bat on his toes and begins his stride into the batting cage, the stadium changes.

Behind the batting cage, his new teammates stop their chatter. The scouts sitting in metal bleachers lean a little closer. The fans dotting the stands pull their cameras to their faces. The coaches hitting fungoes peak over their shoulders.

This is what Harper wanted. Younger and armed with less professional experience than every other player in the Arizona Fall League, Harper is clearly the main attraction in a league that boasts most of the best prospects in baseball. He has not yet played his first game - that comes Wednesday night - and already he is the player who has driven the most curiosity, launched the most conversation between grizzled men with stopwatches and radar guns.

Harper wanted to be here badly, not for the attention, just the baseball. Last month, shortly after he began his professional career in the Florida Instructional League, Harper imagined his next step. Mostly, he did not want to repeat those tortuous months between the moment the Washington Nationals drafted him and when he reported to Viera, Fla.

"I was thinking about the Arizona Fall League the whole time," Harper said Tuesday afternoon. "I was thinking what it would be like to go out there and play. Just to be up with the top guys."

Harper came to Arizona a different player than he was when he reported to Florida. In his time there, Harper, with the tutelage and encouragement of Nationals instructor Tony Tarasco, turned from a catcher into an outfielder. His fielding went from too quick to smooth. Harper also learned lessons about being a professional. Twice, the Nationals removed him from a game for not sprinting hard on a groundout. He understood.

The Nationals did not alter his swing, even as Harper got off to a slow start. He felt he needed at-bats to knock the rust off his swing, and by the end, he had.

"I didn't see pitching for about four months," Harper said. "I ended up hitting .320 down there, and I didn't have a good approach at the plate, I don't think. Being able to hit .320 without a good approach, I must be pretty good."

The Nationals wanted to give Harper a brief break - "He needs to go home," Doug Harris, the Nationals' director of player development, said at the time. In the week Harper spent at home, he ate home-cooked meals, spent time with family, hung out with friends and managed to turn a high school crush, Kayla, into his new girlfriend. "We had been talking for a little bit," Harper said sheepishly. "It just happened like three days ago."

He turned 18 on Saturday and celebrated at home with his family; his mother cooked him steak. Harper drove here from his home in Las Vegas on Sunday night. His father, Ron, followed behind Harper's Toyota Tacoma, the one he refuses to replace despite the odometer nudging close to 150,000. His father will stay with him and watch all his games. "That's a big deal," Harper said.

Harper's age hovers over whatever he does. In his first session of batting practice, Harper blasted a home run about 430 feet to left field. While hitting groundballs to infielders, Manager Randy Knorr glanced over his shoulder to watch the ball plummet to earth on a grassy berm beyond the fence and over the bullpen. "Wow," Knorr thought. "Pretty good for an 18-year-old."

"He's going to act like a kid at times, which we want him to," said Knorr, who also manages Class AA Harrisburg. "We want him to enjoy the game. But there are sometimes we need him to be serious, to be working to get better."

Harper's toughest adjustment will be not playing every day. As part of the Scottsdale Scorpions "taxi squad," he can play only twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In the top of the ninth inning Monday, his first game, Harper watched the game standing on the second step of the dugout, a bat in his hand.

"I'm a freak in the dugout," Harper said. "I'm all over the place. I'll be jumping around, hanging out."

During games, Harper will spend some of his time next to Knorr in the dugout, picking his brain. Late in the game, one of the players on Harper's team stole a base. Knorr asked Harper what he would have done if he were the batter.

"I would have knocked the ball into left field," Harper replied.

"Okay, Bryce," Knorr said, laughing.

Harper has already earned a well-deserved reputation for his brashness. But in Florida, he got along well with his new teammates. "He seems like a good guy," catcher Derek Norris said. There is something naive about his confidence that makes it seem less arrogant than endearing.

"At first, it might be" off-putting, Knorr said. "Once you get to know him, he's just a kid that likes to have fun. It didn't take him long to get comfortable with the guys."

Even among some of the brightest prospects in baseball, Harper stands apart. He is two years younger than all his teammates, none of whom have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Already, though, he is blending in.

On Monday afternoon during batting practice, Harper stood in front of a group of teammates in right-center field and shagged balls. On Tuesday evening, he stood next to them, exactly where he wanted to be.

"I just wanted to play," Harper said. "I just wanted to be in this atmosphere."

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