Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Bryce Harper's presence towered over Nats camp today.
The attention Harper received on his first day in camp was at least on par with what Stephen Strasburg got one year ago, perhaps even greater. Strasburg wasn't mobbed by dozens of autograph seekers last spring the way Harper was today (though perhaps in part because the attention-shy right-hander made more of an effort to avoid the crush, where the limelight-loving Harper was happy to join in).
These first few days of Harper's first spring training may continue to resemble the traveling circus. When he steps into the box tomorrow to face a real Nationals pitcher throwing live BP, the cameras will once again be rolling, and we'll all scribble down notes and post Twitter updates every time he makes (or doesn't make) contact.
And when Jim Riggleman summons Harper off the bench for the first time in a Grapefruit League game, the moment again will take on added significance as everyone in attendance pauses to watch the first at-bat of a potentially spectacular career.
But the hype will probably die down quickly, and the circus should dissipate in fairly short order, for one simple reason: Harper really isn't going to be doing much in this camp.
Sure, he's an 18-year-old playing alongside big-leaguers, some of them more than twice his age. (Matt Stairs, who turns 43 on Sunday, actually made his major-league debut with the Expos 4 1/2 months before Harper was born.) But he's mostly going to be a bystander during this camp.
If the Nationals had their druthers, Harper wouldn't even be in big-league camp before ever playing a game in the minors. But they had no choice but to invite him to compete with the big boys, because Harper signed a major-league contract last summer. That guaranteed him an invitation to big-league camp.
"He's on the 40-man roster," Riggleman said. "That's why he's here."
Team officials do want Harper to get a taste of life alongside major leaguers. They want him to see how true pros like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and others conduct themselves, how they make the most of their workout time, how they act in the clubhouse.
"We want him to be a sponge," GM Mike Rizzo said. "We want him to absorb what it takes to be a big-league player."
But look for Harper to do most of that absorbing from the dugout rail, not the batter's box. His appearance time in Grapefruit League games will be minimal, an occasional at-bat off the bench, a couple of innings in the field with other reserves.
And he almost certainly will be among the first players cut from camp in early-March and re-assigned to the minor-league facility down the road. That's where Harper's real education will begin, playing out of the spotlight alongside low-level prospects closer to his age.
There's a reason Rizzo intends to have Harper open the season at low-Class A Hagerstown. It's not so much because his talent level is on par with players in the South Atlantic League. (It's not, he's probably good enough already to play at Class AA.) It's because the club wants Harper to experience life in professional baseball like almost every other recent draftee does.
They want him riding the bus from Hagerstown to Savannah. They want him carrying his own bags. They want him to feel like he has to earn his way into the major leagues and back into the spotlight.
It's a bit of a different scenario than Strasburg faced one year ago. The right-hander started three Grapefruit League games, then went straight to Class AA Harrisburg to begin his career. Within two months, he was striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates on national TV.
Strasburg, of course, was reluctant with all that instant attention he received. He felt like he hadn't done enough to warrant it yet, even though his electric performances suggested he absolutely deserved it.
Harper, on the other hand, craves the spotlight. He probably would have gone on signing autographs for an hour this afternoon if team officials hadn't whisked him away from the pack. Later, he sat at his locker and surely noticed several reporters standing on the other side of the clubhouse, perhaps hoping we'd come over to interview him. The Nats, though, had made it clear Harper wouldn't be talking to anyone today, not until tomorrow's pre-planned press conference following the team's first official full-squad workout.
The Nationals have said they're going to make a concerted effort to limit Harper's exposure early on, which would align with their overall plan to ease him into pro baseball. That's limited exposure in the media and limited exposure on the field during spring training.
Oh, he'll still have reporters and fans following his every move for the next few weeks while he's in big-league camp.
But if you're hoping to catch a glimpse of The Next Big Thing in Nats Camp, you better come down soon. This circus will be folding up and leaving before many have a chance to witness it.