By Thomas Boswell
Monday, February 21, 2011; 11:22 PM
After security men and Washington Nationals officials had pried Bryce Harper out of the middle of a scrum of autograph hounds who had the 18-year-old backed up against a fence, Manager Jim Riggleman walked back to the clubhouse, shaking his head at the rock-star mosh pit caused by a rookie.
"It's just too much," Riggleman muttered, figuring out ways to protect Harper from being swamped as he leaves the practice field on future days.
Then, a tiny boy whirled up to Riggleman with a pen and paper in hand. "Are you Bryce Harpy?" the tyke asked.
"No, I'm not," the manager replied.
This spring, who is?
After watching Harper's first spring training batting practice, the harpies of fame are virtually the only force that has much chance of snatching a feast of stardom from the teen. It's unlikely many pitchers will blow him away.
In his first spring training day in a Nationals uniform, Harper lined the first pitch back through the box, smashed the second over the right field fence through a cross wind and then practiced hitting liners to the opposite field. Despite his size - 6 feet 3, 225 pounds - the left-handed Harper has a swing that's both short and quick to the ball, yet ferocious with a high finish.
Pat Corrales and Davey Johnson, who have 100 combined seasons in pro baseball, sat in a golf cart beside the cage, sagely evaluating last summer's No. 1 overall pick.
Johnson has known Harper since handing him the trophy in a home run hitting contest for teenagers.
"Bryce hit a ball 500 feet at Al Lang Field in St. Pete. He was 15," Johnson said. "I also wrote out his name on the [Nationals] draft sheet last summer. I was more nervous than he was. I wanted to make sure I spelled it right."
Corrales has followed Harper from Instructional League here, when he had to be disciplined once for not running out a ground ball, through the Arizona Fall League.
"As punishment, Bryce had to run from that field over there to this one and then do 10 sprints to first base," Corrales said. "It never happened again. When I saw him in Arizona, he was tearing down the line, taking big turns at first base and some players were laughing about it. I told him, 'They're wrong. You're playing the game the right way.' "
The old pros here, the kind who go years without being much impressed by anything, can't keep quiet about Harper.
"I like everything about Bryce. I told him to keep having fun and express that talent," said Johnson, who managed Darryl Strawberry in Class AAA briefly in 1983 before the Mets brought him up to the majors, "probably too soon," to sell tickets. Though he had turned 21, Strawberry never had the polish to hit for average (.259 career), and his rush to the majors may have limited him to being a slugger with holes in his swing.
Johnson, though he won't say it, seems to feel Harper is further advanced.
"He's a mature young hitter - aggressive, really stings it, uses the whole field," Johnson said. "Eddie Murray, hitting left-handed, was similarly quick to the ball. Junior [Ken Griffey Jr.] had a sweeping swing. So, sometimes you could pound him inside. It'll be hard to do that to Bryce. His bat speed was clocked at 110 miles per hour. Golfers would like to have that clubhead speed."
What impresses Corrales, who studied hitters for weaknesses his whole life as a catcher, is that Harper can swing so ferociously yet be compact and accurate in delivering the bat's sweet spot to the ball.
"Most can't control a swing that hard," Corrales said.
In close to 40 swings, Harper hit four balls out of the park, but perhaps more informative, only once did he fail to get the ball out of the cage - an indication of consistently square contact.
He's showing ability in his new position in the field as well. "In Arizona I was surprised how good an outfielder he is already," Corrales said. "Everybody knew he had a big arm, but he gets good jumps."
Great hitters - at least those who are major league ready as teenagers, such as Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Griffey and Alex Rodriguez - show their stature almost immediately.
"For me, a hitter has to prove three things to be ready to play in the majors," said Johnson, maybe the Nats' most widely respected baseball mind. "Does he know the strike zone and swing [only] at strikes? Can he hit both the fastball and breaking balls? And can he play his position?
"Then I don't care how old you are. You're ready. Game over."
Perhaps Harper's biggest handicap is simply the glamour and expectation that have been layered on him since he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. Riggleman, 58, could remember just four other hitters in his life who had a buzz comparable to Harper: Strawberry, Griffey, A-Rod and Clint Hurdle, also an SI cover boy, who ended up a better manager than hitter.
Such publicity is a strange, capricious animal. For example, Mike Trout, an Angels outfield prospect, is just 14 months older than Harper and is relatively anonymous among general fans. But he's often ranked No. 1, just ahead of Harper, as the best hitting prospect in the minors this year.
"A [baseball] friend I respect says, 'Trout's the best,' " Riggleman said. "But he probably doesn't have all this around him."
"This" would be a gaggle of reporters, photogs and a group of February fans that was oddly large for a 93-loss team. The crowd stayed in line for autographs until Harper actually came near. Then they broke ranks and swamped him. "No way he can get out of that without security," Riggleman said.
Stephen Strasburg did everything to deflect attention last year, and he still seems uneasy with the idea of being one of baseball's most recognizable stars before he's actually accomplished much. But Harper seems at ease with notoriety. With the subdued remnants of a faux-hawk hairdo, he was the only Nat wearing a neck chain and one of two with eye-catching white shoes.
Last year, Nats veterans felt protective about the shy Strasburg, though he was 21. They seem far less concerned about Harper at only 18.
Of the autograph scrum, Livan Hernandez laughed and said: "Welcome to the big leagues, kid. I've seen him. He's going to be really good. He already has big league strength. He has to learn about being a professional. That took me a year [in the minors].
"But he's got the game."