Bryce Harper aims to make the Washington Nationals out of spring training

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 9:20 PM

VIERA, FLA. - On Monday night, after his brief introduction to the major leagues, Bryce Harper went home and spoke to his father. That afternoon, he had been mobbed by a horde of autograph seekers, a matter that never came up in their conversation. The signature hounds barely register with Harper anymore. After one day seeing his new teammates, something else did.

"These guys," Harper told his father, "are monsters."

"You're 18, Bryce," Ron Harper replied. "It takes a while to get that man look."

Harper has spent his young life playing with the older kids, and so the initial aura of big-league Washington Nationals teammates wore out quickly. On Tuesday, Harper blended in during the team's first full-squad workout, until it ended. At that point, he was the only player who hopped on the back of a golf cart, which whisked him to a white van, which escorted him back to Space Coast Stadium, which served as sanctuary from another pack of pen-wielders.

For any other player, the burdens Harper bears would be unthinkable. For Harper, it's just another season. He played against 18-year-olds before he could drive and played college ball before his junior prom. Failure last year, when he skipped two years of high school to enroll at the College of Southern Nevada, could have stymied his future. Failure this year is a rite of passage.

"I really don't have that much pressure on me right now," Harper said Tuesday afternoon in the Space Coast Stadium dugout, a Nationals cap turned backward on his head. "I really don't feel that way. Last year, I had butterflies, things like that. Out here, I'm around guys that are of the caliber I want to be at."

Harper's teammates treated him as a peer. "I mean, he's got a uniform," right fielder Jayson Werth said. Harper looked the part in other ways, too. He upped his weight to 222 pounds after packing muscle on over the winter. He wore white cleats from Under Armour, which signed him to an endorsement contract this winter. A shiny medallion dangled from a necklace.

During one drill, Werth sidled next to Harper and asked a question on the minds of many Nationals fans: "You gonna make the team or what?"

The answer, flatly, is no. Nationals officials have decided Harper will start 2011 in low-Class A Hagerstown, and the affiliate has already started making plans for Harper's arrival. He'll probably be sent to minor-league camp within the next two or three weeks.

To Harper, the evidence doesn't matter - he came to Viera to make the Nationals. Harper's rapid ascension - 500-foot home runs at 15, cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, first overall pick at 17 - has conditioned him to believe he belongs on any baseball field.

"I'm trying to make this club," Harper said. "I'm going to come out here every day and make their choice hard. Why can't it be realistic? Why can't I come in here and think that I can make this team? I've exceeded expectations my whole life. Everybody said I couldn't do it last year at CSN. I know this is a totally different level. Totally different people. But I'm going to make their decision hard. I'm going to come out here every day and play like I can. Until they send me to minor league camp, I'm going to try to make it hard."

During the spring, Harper, a catcher most of his youth, will play mostly right field. Once the season starts, he'll see time in center field, perhaps as many as 40 percent of his games. Nationals brass espouses the theory that young outfielders should play center until they prove they can't or until they outgrow the position. Harper may well outgrow it - he wears size 15 spikes, an indication the rest of him hasn't stopped growing.

"His ability level and his development timetable is going to dictate where he goes," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "We're not going to hold him back, no. That's for sure."

During big league camp, Harper will do something he's done all his life: fit in with older teammates. He played on more than 20 youth travel teams, on fields in almost every state. Some games, he dressed in the car on the way to a field, where he would meet teammates for the first time. He was always younger, usually the best player. There were vindictive teenagers and, worse, jealous parents. And still, he found a way to fit in.

"At that age," Ron Harper said, "it might be harder than this age."

During his first full workout, Harper drilled two home runs to the opposite field in standard batting practices. Harper batted against two pitchers in live batting practice, Shairon Martis and Brian Broderick, whom Harper had faced in the Arizona Fall League when Broderick pitched in the Cardinals organization. Harper swung and missed at two pitches, fouled off several balls, and poked a few line drives into the outfield. Nothing about his performance stood out.

When Harper finished hitting, he walked out of the batting cage and high-fived Ivan Rodriguez, who made his major league debut June 20, 1991, 484 days before Harper was born. Harper knelt beside him.

"Pudge and I, we were talking," Harper said. "He said: 'Just do what you've been doing your whole life. It's a simple game. Go out there and play the way you can.' I grew up loving Pudge. I don't really get star-struck as much as some other kids would. But sitting there with Pudge, it was really cool. I go: 'I met you, so I'm done. I can go home now.' "

Harper's workout ended with the intricate escape, which he needed in order to make a team meeting in time. ("I've got hauled away in a golf cart before," Harper said before adding, "So it's not that tough.") He still had to meet with reporters and film a commercial for the team. But when his first full day ended, he couldn't wait for the next.

"He's ready to go," Ron Harper said. "This is what he's always wanted. He's not where he wants to be. But he's on his way."

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