PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. | Two hours south of Disney World, the Washington Nationals paid a visit to Tomorrowland on Monday.
In their opening exhibition game against the New York Mets, the Nationals got their first look under major-league conditions at 18-year-old wunderkind Bryce Harper, whom they are counting on to be one of their cornerstones in the not-too-distant future.
If Harper were just an average hotshot prospect, he'd be in his native Nevada playing for the Las Vegas High School Wildcats. But when you hit a baseball 502 feet at age 16 and test out of high school two years early to play against junior college competition, you cease to be average even by phenom standards.
You enter a much more rarefied place — a place of dreams, myths and Roy Hobbs.
It's hard not to wax poetic about Harper, this teenager with major league pop in his bat. It's hard not to think of Hobbs, "The Natural" — or of another sweet-swinging lefty, Ted Williams. But then you remind yourself: Hobbs was a fiction, a figment of Bernard Malumud's imagination. Harper is very much real. Indeed, many of his feats, from the otherworldly to the merely amazing, can be viewed on YouTube.
While he might be blessed with a 6-foot-3, 225-pound body, "you've gotta remember, he's 18," Mike Morse, the Nats' right fielder, reminded everybody. That was painfully obvious in Harper's two at-bats Monday against the Mets.
In the seventh inning, after replacing designated hitter Matt Stairs, he struck out on three pitches against southpaw Taylor Tankersley (foul ball down the third base line, swing and miss, swing and miss on a breaking ball).
His next time up, in the ninth with right-hander Ryota Igarashi on the mound, produced the same result. He took the first three offerings, fell behind in the count 1-2 and swung through an 86 mph splitter. Not exactly a storybook beginning. (Tankersley and Igarashi, after all, are non-roster invitees to the Mets' camp and have had modest big-league careers.)
But a player has to start somewhere.
"I felt really good up there, actually," Harper said after the Nationals closed out their 9-3 victory at Digital Domain Park. "I knew what was coming; I could see what was coming. I just pulled out a little on both at-bats. I felt my hands were quick, and my front side opened up a bit."
His bosses didn't seem the least bit bothered by the day's developments. Facing Tankersley right out of the chute was a difficult assignment, manager Jim Riggleman said, because he's "really tough on a left-handed hitter. I would have preferred his first at-bat was against a righty, but you never know what order they're going to pitch in."
Worry not, though, he added; Harper "is going to meet the challenge."
Hitting coach Rick Eckstein liked what he heard from Harper after he came back to the bench. Eckstein asked him how he would approach one of the pitchers if he saw him again in a week, and the rookie's answer "was very good," he said. "The things he was talking about were very advanced, showed a very good mindset."
Harper showed the same kind of maturity before the game, standing in front of his locker and deftly fielding questions from the media. His answers betrayed no nervousness or uncertainty. He talked about his old-school approach to baseball and his admiration for such past superstars as Pete Rose and George Brett.
"They played the game like animals," he said, "and I play the same way — scratching and clawing, trying to win any way I can."
Mickey Mantle is another of his heroes. In fact, the uniform number he chose — 34 — is a tribute to the late Mantle, who's synonymous with the No. 7 (three plus four). You don't have to tell Harper that Mantle made the Yankees when he was just 19 and helped them win the World Series that year. He already knows.
Give his father Ron, an iron worker, credit for that. "I wanted him to respect the history of the game," he said while watching his son take batting practice. "I wanted him to have a feel for what those guys [from yesteryear] did to improve things for the younger guys today"
When he stepped into the cage, Bryce, the adrenaline flowing, put on a show. He crushed balls over the fence in right and center field, knocking one into a picnic area well over 400 feet away. After the fireworks were over, his dad turned to Kurt Stillwell, the former ballplayer who works for Bryce's agent, Scott Boras, and said, "Pretty good BP. He's staying back nice. Hands are working pretty good, huh, Still?"
It's OK if Harper isn't the next Ted Williams, but it would be nice for the Nationals if he were. The team hasn't finished north of .500 in its six seasons in Washington, and in both 2008 and 2009 it lost more than 100 games. Had the Nats not been so horrible, though, they wouldn't have been in position to draft Harper last year with the first overall pick (and smoke-throwing Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 selection the year before). In baseball, there are spoils even in defeat.
The Nationals' veterans have taken a big-brotherly interest in Harper. Knowing how exposed he must feel because of endless hype surrounding him, they're always giving him words of wisdom. His favorite bit of advice? "Just go out there and play like you're playing in your backyard."
Bryce Harper took his cuts against the Mets on Monday, but it wasn't at all like playing in his backyard. No, it was like playing in the major leagues, where there's no mercy even for 18-year-olds.
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