Bryce Harper works out for the first time at Washington Nationals spring training
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
VIERA, FLA. - A dozen onlookers sat on the aluminum bleachers behind the backstop of Field 2, a dozen more lined the fence and a small mob waited between the practice fields and the exit. They had come to watch batting practice, a minor workout that, because of the faux-hawked 18-year-old inside the batting cage, doubled as a major event.
Bryce Harper appeared on the field at Washington Nationals spring training for the first time Monday afternoon, and with him came the crowd, the same kind of autograph-seeker circus Stephen Strasburg endured last year. One day before the Nationals begin full-squad workouts, Harper took batting practice and shagged fly balls with a smattering of veteran teammates, not even a full practice that somehow represented a significant moment.
Shortly after it ended, Harper faced the full intensity of what his notoriety as the 2010 first overall draft pick and an all-time prospect entails. Trying to walk off the field, a horde of perhaps 75 to 100 people surrounded him, thrusting pens, paper and magazine covers in his face. He signed for several minutes, at which point security and a Nationals public relations official led him away.
The Nationals, after Strasburg's time in spring last year, are accustomed to the scene. And Harper, having appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, understands the trappings of fame better than a typical kid the age of a high school senior. But some, including Manager Jim Riggleman, see reason for caution.
"You've got to be able to have a little freedom to keep moving," Riggleman said. "He was just smothered, you know? It kind of almost needs to be an atmosphere - and same thing with Strasburg - where it's a little more controlled. You can't just have a mass of people sticking pens at him."
Once Harper reached the safety of the Nationals' clubhouse, he walked down the hallway and for the first time, he met Strasburg. Side by side, the future of the franchise walked down the corridor together and chatted for a few moments.
The Nationals took physicals Monday in preparation for full workouts, and so players had the option of practicing or not. Harper first arrived in Viera to drop off his things at Space Coast Stadium late last week. He spent the weekend in Columbia, S.C., where his older brother, Bryan, pitches for the South Carolina baseball team. He watched his brother's team, and he also took batting practice with the Gamecocks before the game.
On Monday, back in Viera, Harper walked to Field 4, a swarm of people inching toward him, watching. Harper warmed up, stretching with the rest of the Nationals' early-arriving position players and playing toss with outfielder Roger Bernadina. Then he trotted to Field 2 for batting practice.
Between rounds, Nationals hitting coordinator Rick Schu turned to Harper behind the batting cage. "You been hitting outside on the field, Harp?" he asked.
"Everyday," Harper replied.
Soon, Harper will rejoin the minor leaguers he met last fall. By virtue of the record-breaking major league contract he signed last summer, Harper is on the 40-man roster and therefore will participate in major league camp.
Riggleman indicated Harper would spend between seven and 10 days with the Nationals' major league camp following the start of games Feb. 28 before joining the minor league side. Riggleman doubted Harper would start any games, saying he wanted to watch the veterans competing for spots in the outfield.
When his first workout ended, Harper's real challenge began. After he signed as many autographs as he could, Harper briskly navigated the crowd and walked the half-mile back to the main facility.
Three security guards, wearing yellow polo shirts, walked with him. One of them strained to keep up and fell behind.
"Wears an old man out," he said, wheezing between words. "They won't quit. And he's not signing any more today."