The first thing I wondered when I saw Bryce Harper’s new Sports Illustrated cover shot was this: How did SI get the NL rookie of the year — one of baseball’s most recognizable figures — in full uniform, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, without anyone noticing?

Here’s the answer: the magazine brought him to the Mall in a limo early on a bitterly cold Saturday morning in January.

“I had the idea to do it early in the morning, because there’d be less people around,” said D.C. based photographer Simon Bruty, who has shot dozens of SI covers and a memorable Alex Ovechkin portrait. “But I didn’t factor in that it was going to snow.”

The shoot was scheduled for around 8 in the morning on January 26, a few hours before NatsFest at the Convention Center. The night before, you’ll recall, schools closed early and after-school activities were canceled because of a winter weather event that brought at least a dusting of snow to much of the area. (You can see some of the snow on the grass next to the reflecting pool, which I didn’t initially notice.) And for a shoot that lasted 45 minutes, with Harper in short-sleeved baseball gear, the weather wasn’t exactly ideal.

“He froze his [you know whats] off,” said Bruty, a U.K. native. “It was bloody cold, to say the least.”

“The only way we could do it and not cause a big scene was to shoot early in the morning,  before most people in D.C. would be awake,” explained SI picture editor Nate Gordon in an e-mail. “We imagined it without snow and ice — but looking at it now, I think the ice makes it unique. I think the area was mostly empty because it was so cold and so early, so in that sense we just got lucky.”

Now, why take him down to the Mall in the first place?

“We knew we wanted to come up with a surprising image of Harper for a likely cover going into spring training,” Gordon further wrote. “We started brainstorming ideas, not knowing when or where we’d get to shoot. We hoped we could do the shoot in D.C., so we could find a way to incorporate the city in the shot in some way. As luck would have it, while we were going back and forth, we learned that Bryce would be in Washington for the Nationals’ fan fest….We fixed on the idea of incorporating the Washington Monument into the background, floated the idea to Bryce — and he loved it.”

Gordon had imagined possibly staging the shoot on a D.C. or Virginia rooftop, with the Monument in the background. But Bruty scouted a variety of locations, including others near the Mall, and decided that the Lincoln location would be best. He got Park Service permits to operate on and around the Memorial, and also decided to photograph Harper with the Memorial itself in the background.

That’s what led to the image which opens the story, a photograph that Bruty actually much prefers to the cover shot.

“That epitomizes Bryce Harper: the strength, the pillars,” he said. “That’s Bryce Harper. He’s obviously a lot younger than the Memorial, but I think that strength comes out. For me, that’s a better picture. I’m not that interested in getting the cover; I’m more interested in getting a good photograph.”

In any case, there were a few tourists around, who figured out what was going on that morning. But news of the shoot didn’t go viral, allowing the cover to come as a surprise to Nats fans (and bloggers). Harper — who was doing his second SI cover shoot — wanted to see the images Bruty was capturing throughout the process. And the photographer said the outfielder didn’t mention a word about the cold.

“I photograph a lot of sports guys; Bryce Harper was perfect,” Bruty told me. “He didn’t moan once about it. He didn’t really have a big fur coat, which he should have done, because it was that bloody cold. He had a hoodie that he took on and off….I’m not just saying this; he really did not moan or whine once about the cold. He did exactly what I was asking him to do. He was really good. I mean, I was wrapped up, and he stripped off to the kit, the uniform without any worry. That’s pretty impressive.”

(Second image via @rocket1124.)