So there he was at Fenway Park getting tan and getting bored. Bobby Carpenter decided to count the lights, all the lights. "I counted down and across and multiplied them all," he said. "That's how much I like baseball."

Bobby Carpenter of Peabody, Mass., is the Great American Hope. He is supposed to make America forget about baseball, supposed to make Washington forget there is no baseball.

That was certainly the thought in many minds when the Capitals made him their No. 1 draft choice in 1981 (third overall). He was the first native-born American ever drafted in the top 10; the first high school player ever drafted in the top 60.

He is 18 now. A long, curved cut made by a big league hockey stick extends beyond the crew neck of his velour shirt. A year ago, he knew zilch about the NHL, less about the Capitals. "When I was a senior, I went to maybe 15 Bruins games," he said. "I couldn't tell you the first-place team from the last-place team. One night I went to see Boston play Detroit. I thought, 'Oh, great, it's gonna be a great game,' because they were great 15 years ago.

"Then I said, 'Oh geez, I'm going to be playing in this league.' I started reading all these books. I didn't know who Ryan Walter was, who Mike Gartner was. I didn't know one thing about the organization. I had no idea they (the Capitals) were in Maryland. All I knew was they didn't make the playoffs in seven years."

One might say that would be enough to make him choose college over the pros, as his father preferred. Instead he agonized. "I'd lie in bed for a whole night and say, 'I want to go to school,' " Carpenter said. "I'd have a bad game and I'd say, 'How can I go play in the pros?' Then one morning I'd wake up and say, 'I think I can do it. I'm going to the pros.' I'd tell myself, 'Make up your mind.' "

He made up his mind to do both. The only decision that made headlines was the one that allowed the Capitals to make him the No. 3 pick in the draft. But, he also is going to college, part time, at the University of Maryland, where he is taking a writing course. "I figure I need a little polishing up," he said. "If I say something wrong, it kind of bugs me. Lots of times the guys will say something like 'these ones.' I'll say, 'Those two words don't go together.' They say it sounds all right to them."

Carpenter sounds more than all right. He speaks in paragraphs. In that way, he's a lot like that other boy wonder, Wayne Gretzky. Prodigies on the ice, they have the same genial, boyish candor off it. There is a difference: Gretzky reads everything written about him; Carpenter reads nothing. "I'll have all that stuff to read when I retire," he says. He discounts the possibility that reading about himself might be helpful: "If you need help like that, you call your father."

One way or another, "he's certainly gonna get an education this year," said his father Robert Sr. Undoubtedly, the apprenticeship of Bobby Carpenter could have been easier. "If you're not doing well, it heals quickly in college," said his father. "Here you perform or you are subject to ridicule. It's not a good thing. It's gotta have some effect. If not, he's an iron man."

"It's a learning process," said his son. "It's just as if I was going to school."

Fast food and a fast life. Airplanes. Practice. Running here, there, everywhere. Living alone. Some life. "Yeah," he said, digging his hands deeper into his jeans pockets, "I thought it was going to be easy."

Halfway through his first year as a professional hockey player, Carpenter already has played twice as many games as he played last year at St. John's Prep. His career was 13 games old when his coach and general manager were fired. His roommate, Timo Blomqvist, has been down to the minors three times and back up three times. "That hurt a real lot," Carpenter said. "It's like taking a part of your life, your body, away. We spent 90 percent of our time together."

Welcome to the NHL.

"With Gary Green and Max McNab, they gave me a shot," Carpenter said. "Without them, I probably wouldn't have come here. Though you can't tell. They were great people. I don't know how they were with business. But they were excellent people, friends for life. I was sad to see 'em go. I said, 'Oh geez, I have to start all over and learn to trust these people, see what they're like.' "

Roger Crozier, the acting general manager of the Capitals, said, "We made a point of sitting down and talking to him about that particular thing . . . He understood it well."

Carpenter says he has had no major problems adjusting. He says he isn't lonely or homesick. His father says, "I have some mixed emotions because of the difficulties."

His mother Ann says, "Before, when he was away it was one, two or three weeks. He always had his meals cooked for him."

He has a lot of family visitors, she says, and they speak on the phone often. "When he starts asking for his sister and the dog in that order, I know he's a little homesick . . . It's not the macho thing to admit it."

Carpenter rolls his deep, brown eyes, as if to say, "Why did they have to go and say that?" You know, he says, "it's lot easier playing away from your family. You don't have all that pressure."

His father, he says, is just "protecting me . . . My father grew up as a foster child. He taught me you can't trust anyone, that it's an evil world and everyone's out for themselves . . . You can't go to the extent where you're paranoid, looking over your shoulder. But it's happened to him his whole life. He doesn't want me to go through it."

If you were held up in an elevator, he says, by someone with a knife who wanted your last $15, you'd fight to keep it. His father would fight to protect him. Last year, Carpenter says, he'd have fought for the $15. Now, he says, "I'd give it to him 'cause I can afford it."

He has no regrets, no second thoughts, about the decision he made. And it was his decision, though he had a lot of help making up his mind. "Like Bobby Orr said, 'I've been there. I know you can play.' "

Sometimes you question it for a few minutes, he said. "Then something goes right and you say, 'Wow, what was I thinking?' "

Carpenter says he had no expectations for this season other than making the team. "I was really nervous," he said. "I was always expected to make the team. I'd have been really hurt if they sent me down to Hershey. That would take a lot out of me because I didn't do what was expected."

What was expected? "All that can't-miss stuff, in his head that's bull," his father said. But it seemed perfectly reasonable when he set up a goal (for Ryan Walter) 12 seconds into his first NHL game and scored one before it ended.

So far this season in 48 games, he has 15 goals, 20 assists, 35 points. They are hardly Gretzkyesque statistics, but Gretzky--although he became a professional at 17--did not leapfrog from high school to the pros without playing junior hockey. "He's ahead of me my first year," said Orr, who had 13 goals as a rookie. "I think he's doing damn well."

Carpenter may have been overshadowed by Gretzky (as everyone else in the NHL has been this year) but that may have been for the best: Gretzky has kept the pressure off him. "Carpenter may be in the same situation two or three years down the road with everyone wanting a piece of him," Crozier said. But stylistically they are not really comparable.

"Bobby Carpenter may be more comparable to a Bryan Trottier (of the Islanders) than a Wayne Gretzky," said Bryan Murray, the coach of the Capitals. Does he have Trottier's ability? "I think he does."

Everyone from Max McNab, the general manager who signed him, to Scotty Bowman, the general manager of the Buffalo Sabres, who coveted him, agrees: "Carpenter is pretty much on schedule."

Try to imagine "a high school football player going to the NFL," said Orr. "The step he made is a big step. He's never been away from home, never played more than what, 20 games a year."

That is his biggest problem. "The hardest part I've found is the experience I missed not playing 80 games a year (in juniors)," Carpenter said. "All the talent in the world can't replace experience. There's nothing I can do about it except play two years in the pros . . . If I had to go through it again, I'd go to high school again. I'm glad I didn't go to juniors. They have to travel 10 hours on a bus. I had a half-hour ride across town."

Hockey players always talk about grinding it out in the corners; the grind of life on the road is equally tough. "The biggest adjustment is the heavy pace, the practice, the travel," said Walter. "Maybe the biggest part is being mentally tough. In a race for the puck, you gotta really want it. That want is in Bobby. It's gonna come out in Bobby soon."

"Ryan plays to his ability level every night, even if he's tired, he grinds it out," said Murray. "Bobby has got to learn to do that. In high school, you don't have to do that. You have to learn to push yourself."

In the last month, Murray said, "Bob has been bearing down and his play has reflected it." He also has moved back to his natural position, center. Still, Murray says, "he has a lot of work to do on his defensive game," and has to learn what to do when he doesn't have the puck.

In high school that wasn't a problem. He always controlled the puck and usually the game. Jim Devellano, the Islanders' chief scout, says he thinks Carpenter will be a fantastic player. Still, he says, "It would have nice for his development to spend a half-year or a year at the most in Hershey learning to be a two-way player . . . He wouldn't have needed more than that.

"I don't say it as a criticism. It's a problem with a team especially if it is weak. They rush them along."

Jim Anderson, the first coach of the Capitals, scouted Carpenter in high school for the Vancouver Canucks. He thought Carpenter should not go pro, not so much because of his ability, but because of Washington's track record with pushing young players too far too fast. "I figured if Carpenter had to go through it, they'd ruin him. But he's done very well. Washington has handled it much more sophisticated than I thought. They're giving him a chance to play but they're not jumping all over him."

Sometimes, Anderson said, a team gives a player lots of money and wants him to be Bobby Orr right away. He thinks Carpenter will be among the top 10 scorers in the league three years from now. "You gotta give a kid like Carpenter a chance," he said. "If they were putting pressure on him, he wouldn't have 15 goals."

Carpenter remembers a conversation he had with an assistant coach of the Hartford Whalers, the team he originally thought would be drafting him, just before he made his decision to go pro. "I said, 'I want to but I'm not sure I can. I don't want to pass up the opportunity to be the first American (to go from high school to the NHL). I don't want to take the easy way out . . . I don't know if I want to do it, but I want to try it out.' "

And now, six months later?

"I want to do it," he said, quickly, flashing a smile as big as his shot. "The benefits are great."