- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2011

HAGERSTOWN, Md. | The words carried through the press box that shook after each gust of wind. Past the can of Raid Wasp and Hornet spray. Over the frantic cries crackling from walkie-talkies to find the mayor for the first pitch.

In a corner, under the ceiling covered with circular dents and holes from foul balls, Bryan Holland pulled on headphones and cleared his throat.

“And the story here,” the radio voice of the Hagerstown Suns said Friday night, “is Bryce Harper.”

Behind Holland, windows covered with a film of dirt couldn’t hide the line of people that snaked from the stadium into Memorial Boulevard East waiting to buy tickets. Opening night for the Nationals’ affiliate in the Class A South Atlantic League didn’t matter. They wanted to glimpse the future. They wanted Harper.

The idea of Harper, the right fielder with prodigious power, has almost become bigger than the player himself. So much so that Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach warned, “I don’t think the Nationals plan for him to be a savior this year.”

A savior. The kid who turned 18 six short months ago. Who signed a five-year, $9.9 million contract last year after the Nationals selected him with the draft’s first pick. Who wears Converse low-tops, eats at Waffle House with the rest of his teammates and drains 5-hour Energy to perk up after an eight-hour bus ride from Lexington, Ky., the night before.

But a few dozen feet from the press box is Hagerstown’s team store. There wasn’t room to move inside. Two hundred T-shirts with Harper’s No. 34 were printed the night before. Rows of $200 authentic Harper jerseys stood behind them. So did “Harperstown” T-shirts, with smudges of faux eye black. A prototype featured the Kiss-style smears of black Harper formerly wore.

Outside, the hip-hop band Independent Democratic Republic sang: “We’re all searching for something …” The music drifted into the store.

Mike Kuhn and James Wilhie designed the “Harperstown” shirt. Even shipped 18 to Harper’s family in Nevada. In the first 45 minutes Friday, they sold 100 shirts. Rally towels are ready to go, too. Harper is big business.

The Nationals dispatched Bill Gluvna, their coordinator for baseball media relations, to Rome, Ga., for the Suns’ season opener and Hagerstown on Friday to handle the press. Harper was off-limits to media before the game. Out of the stacks of credentials waiting in Hagerstown’s will-call booth, maybe 15 media and four cameras showed up. It was a fraction of the swarm that followed Stephen Strasburg, last year’s Nationals prodigy.

Cold wind whipped across the field at Municipal Stadium and drove away much of the announced crowd of 6,017 in the early innings. (The infatuation with Harper waned quickly in Hagerstown, if attendance is any gauge. The crowd for Sunday’s doubleheader fell to 1,894 and Monday’s day game drew 1,771, less than half the stadium’s capacity.)

Back in 1950, Hall of Famer Willie Mays played his first professional game here with the Trenton Giants. A bat was raffled off Friday with autographs from all of Hagerstown’s players. There could be a future Hall of Famer in there, went the plug and the not-too-subtle allusion to Harper.

As Harper went hitless in three at-bats - he’s 9-for-39 with six walks and 12 strikeouts in 12 games with Hagerstown - staffers hawked Harper jerseys in the bleachers. That finally pushed one fan to shout: “He’s not the only player here.” A few other fans, at least the ones who hadn’t joined the exodus to the beer garden down the left field line, joined in.

Heckling accompanied Harper’s stops in Rome and Lexington. His only home run, a two-strike, two-out shot in Lexington last Wednesday, came in the midst of jeers. Daubach, who played parts of eight seasons in the big leagues, hasn’t seen a ball hit harder.

But Harper, baseball cap pulled almost to his eyebrows, is nonchalant about the adjustment. This was just like any other park, he said. These pitchers were just like any other. The long bus rides, slumps, whatever. He’s done it all before.

Harper sat alone at a conference table atop a plywood stage in a small room. Lights from the stadium shined through windows. With a low voice after the 8-4 loss, he spread a few hundred words over 4 minutes, 57 seconds.

“I’m not working on anything at all,” Harper said. “As long as I keep getting better, that’s all that matters to me. … At the higher levels, the pitchers are right there most of the time. They were all around the [strike] zone every single time. Everybody says the higher you go [in the minors], the easier it is.”

But Daubauch, who wrote Harper’s name on the lineup card in red ink, compared the flashbulb-popping atmosphere to the playoffs. Harper needs to relax and string together a couple of solid games, he said. Then the hits will come.

Harper was long gone from the room. The postgame fireworks that popped and lit up the sky were finished. And the bat-clutching autograph hounds had melted away. One night of the story was coming to a close.

“He wants to win. He just has a ton of talent to go with it,” Daubach said. “He doesn’t need to get five home runs each night.”

• Nathan Fenno can be reached at nfenno@washingtontimes.com.

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