- Associated Press - Saturday, February 25, 2012

VIERA, FLA. (AP) - Bryce Harper knew this was coming. When he arrived at the clubhouse for Washington’s first full-squad workout of spring training, his teammates sent him a not-so-subtle message.

Above his locker, the nameplate said, “Joe Namath, No. 12.”

Hmmm, Broadway Bryce?

“That works,” the outfielder said with a sly smile.

Say this about Harper: There’s no lack of confidence.

“I talked to him when he was 15,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He was cocky then _ and he’s cocky now.”

Harper is all of 19 these days, still cruising through life without the least bit of doubt he’s going to be baseball’s next big star. He’s already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He picked No. 34 for his Nationals uniform because those two numbers add up to 7, which not so coincidentally was worn by Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. He banters with fans on the Internet (“Rise and grind!! First real day! Excited to get going! Why not?” he tweeted Saturday), has a tattoo with his name and favorite Bible verse (Luke 1:37, “For with God, nothing shall be impossible”) plastered across his right ribcage, and wears his hair in a pseudo-Mohawk.

A few weeks ago, Harper let it be known he wants to be a cultural icon such as Joe Namath. You know, a guy who wins the big game, speaks his mind, makes commercials, enjoys the nightlife. Naturally, someone doctored the name above his locker, seizing the chance to let this brash rookie know he’d gone a little too far.

Not that Harper took it that way. Heck, someone put an even cruder term on the nameplate during his first year in the minors, where he rubbed plenty of people the wrong way.

Didn’t bother him then. Doesn’t bother him now.

“I don’t really care,” Harper said Saturday, standing at the locker after the first full-squad workout of spring training, his actual name and number back in place above his head. “This is going to be going on for a while. It’s part of the game. It’s part of that initiation kind of thing. It’s all good to me.”

Yep, it’s all good to Harper, who had the audacity to think he could make the team a year ago, who saw nothing ludicrous about making the jump from the Scenic West Athletic Conference to big leagues.

Now, even though his professional experience consists of a mere 109 games, none of it spent above the Double-A level, Harper arrived this spring more determined than ever to be wearing a Nationals uniform when he breaks camp.

“I want to make that decision hard for them,” he said. “I don’t want to be in the minor leagues. That’s always been me. Everybody knows that. I want to be up in the big leagues _ and I want to stay there.”

Harper has always been in a hurry. To become eligible for baseball’s amateur draft at age 17, he took the GED after his sophomore year of high school, not long after he’d been on the cover of SI touted as the “Chosen One.” Passed the test with flying colors, of course.

Then it was on to the College of Southern Nevada, mainly because it was a school that used wooden bats in conference play instead of the aluminum kind that might give a false sense of his power. In 66 games, he smashed 31 homers. The school’s previous record was 12.

Naturally, he was picked No. 1 by the Nationals in 2010, signing a contract for just a shade under $10 million. (He recently used some of the money to purchase a home for his mother.) When Harper reported to camp the next spring, he saw no reason why he couldn’t start right away. Washington decided some time in the minors was the more prudent path, shipping him off to the not-so-primetime Sally League.

“He expected to make the team when he was 18 years old,” Johnson said. “He was kind of shocked when he didn’t break north.”

After batting .318 with 14 homers, 46 RBIs and 19 stolen bases at Class A Hagerstown, Harper was promoted to Harrisburg in the Double-A Eastern League. There, he looked a little more human _ .256 with three homers, 12 RBIs and seven stolen bases _ before a hamstring injury cut short his season. Another year or two in the minors seems logical, especially since it would push back the timeline for Harper to be eligible for the really big money of arbitration and free agency, but he’s never taken the same path as everyone else.

He’s here to make the team, which sets up one of the most intriguing issues in all of spring training.

“I don’t really need to show them anything,” Harper said. “I just need to come out here and play my game, play hard, just try to interact with all the guys, let them get to know me. Davey has seen me play before. They’ve all seen me play. They know what I’m about. They know what I can do.”

The Nationals seem to be of two mindsets. There’s general manager Mike Rizzo, who speaks cautiously of rushing Harper to the majors too quickly. Then there’s Johnson, who may be the oldest manager in the majors at 69 but isn’t against giving Harper a legitimate chance to earn a starting job.

Back in the 1980s, when he was managing the New York Mets, Johnson had a bright young pitching prospect named Dwight Gooden. He was only 19, but the manager felt he was ready to pitch in the big leagues. The front office wanted to give the kid another year in the minors, but Johnson lobbied hard and got his way. Turns out, he was right on the mark. Gooden won 17 games and was named to the All-Star team.

“I’ve got an open mind about everybody in this camp,” Johnson said. “He has the highest ceiling just off what I’ve seen, but whether it plays out that way or not, time will tell. I’m not locked in on anybody.”

Johnson intends to give Harper every chance to make the team, starting with the very first round of live pitching Sunday. He’ll be placed in one of the main hitting groups and could be matched against Washington’s other phenom, Stephen Strasburg. When the Grapefruit League games begin, look for Harper to get most of his playing time in the early innings, so he’ll be going against big league pitchers rather than end-of-the-roster guys who have no chance to make the team.

“I’m going to compare apples to apples,” Johnson said. “The talent and makeup is off the charts. That should lead to quality performances.”

Rizzo is a bit more restrained.

“It’s extremely tough for a 19-year-old to make it,” the GM said. “There’s not that many with the ability level to play in the big leagues. But we’re going to keep an open mind to it. If we feel he’s ready developmentally to handle the rigors of a major league season, we’ll be open-minded about it.

“The talent level is definitely there,” Rizzo added. “But there’s an experience level that needs to be reached, an emotional level, the rigors of the everydayness of the majors leagues, that’s all something we have to think about.”

Harper seems to be working hard to fit in. During batting practice Saturday, he kept to himself but glanced over a few times at Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, grinning a bit as the veterans cut up among themselves.

But there are times when he carries himself as a star. At the end of the two-hour workout, he lingered on the field while the other rookies made the quarter-mile walk from the practice fields to the main stadium. Then, with several dozen fans lurking around in hopes of grabbing an autograph, Harper spotted an equipment cart, hopped aboard and sped back to the clubhouse without doling out any signatures.

“He’s been pretty professional with it,” said Adam LaRoche, the Nationals’ first baseman. “He kind of keeps to himself and does his own thing. That’s kind of the thing with the rookies: to be seen and not heard.”

From LaRoche’s perspective, the key to determining whether Harper makes the team this year is how he deals with failure, not success.

“If he can handle it and recover from it, he’s probably ready,” LaRoche said. “If he can’t do that yet, then he’s probably not. The talent is there. You know it’s there. They know he can hit at any level. But can he handle the first funk he goes in? When you’ve got 20 media standing in front of you, wondering why you’re hitting (.120)? Do you let that go to your head and screw up the rest to the year? Or can you stop it and get after it?”

There’s no doubt how Harper thinks he’ll respond.

“I’ve just got to perform,” he said. “The level of intensity that I play with and level I want to be at is probably higher than anybody else’s expectations. No one has higher expectations than the expectations for myself.”

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