HAGERSTOWN, Md. — They came to see a phenom, but what they got was an 18-year-old rookie ballplayer in an early-season slump.
It was opening night for the Hagerstown Suns, after eight games on the road, and when Bryce Harper strode to the plate in the bottom of the first inning, the voice of the public-address announcer got a little higher and louder as he introduced the batter, and the sellout crowd of 6,017 at Municipal Stadium, bundled up against the chill, came to life.
Harper, perhaps the most highly touted hitting prospect in a generation — and perhaps the most talented youngster to come through Hagerstown since Willie Mays — tapped his black bat on his spikes and bore down on the Lakewood BlueClaws’ pitcher. But three pitches later, the bat was lying in three pieces on the grass and Harper was trading in his batting helmet for his cap, a groundout to the shortstop in the books.
It was the start of an 0-for-3 night, with two groundouts, a strikeout and a walk, for Harper in the Suns’ 8-4 loss to the BlueClaws, a Philadelphia Phillies affiliate. A player used to putting up gaudy batting averages wherever he has played — a .443 mark in college, .389 during big league spring training with the Washington Nationals — is now hitting a pedestrian .226 (7 for 31), with a double, a homer, five walks and nine strikeouts.
“I don’t think it’s a slump at all,” said Harper, the top overall pick of the 2010 draft. “I’m not stressed out about it at all. I feel good up there. It just takes time. . . . I feel like it was easier [to hit] at the higher level, because the pitchers were right around the [strike] zone every single time.”
At least here, at home, no one was jeering him or chanting “Over-rated! Over-rated!” at him, as they did in Rome, Ga., and Lexington, Ky. in recent days (and as they have for seemingly half of Harper’s life) — proof either of a vast conspiracy of a Harper-haters, or an utter lack of originality on the part of hecklers nationwide.
“He could have gotten frustrated,” Suns Manager Brian Daubach said. “We’re playing in small towns, and everyone’s coming to see him, and they’re heckling him. And he never flinched one bit.”
Harper has been through slumps before. Well, one anyway. A year ago, as a freshman at the College Southern Nevada — after he had taken and passed the GED in order to leave high school two years early and hasten his eligibility for the major league draft — he started out so poorly, he briefly considered packing it in and going back to Las Vegas High. Instead, he stuck it out, went on to set school records in most offensive categories and won the Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur player in the country.
“He’s been through it,” his father, Ron Harper, said. “Going through that last year has helped him this time. He knows it can take a few games to get going. He’s going to be fine. I hope everyone’s not in panic mode — because we’re not.”
If the Nationals, in sending him to the low-Class A South Atlantic League, wanted Harper to get a taste of the minor league life, he has gotten a feast already. He came to know intimately the Waffle House near the team’s Lexington hotel. He and his teammates logged about 2,400 bus-miles, starting with their departure from spring training, before they played their first home game. He has survived, he said, largely on five-hour energy drinks.
The Suns’ bus — a “sleeper,” with enough beds for all the starting position players and the next day’s starting pitcher — arrived in Hagerstown around 8 a.m. Friday after an overnight drive from Lexington. Players repaired to their homes (most stay with host families) for a few hours’ sleep, then reported to the stadium around 2 p.m. to begin preparing for this game.
For Harper, who is staying in a rented basement apartment in town, there wasn’t even time to thaw out one of the zip-lock bags full of spaghetti that his mother, Sheri, cooked and jammed in his freezer during an earlier reconnaissance mission to Hagerstown.
The good news is his parents flew in again on Friday afternoon. After a week and a half on the road, there was to be a home-cooked meal, involving chicken and a crockpot, in Harper’s immediate future.