- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2012

The president of the United States sat at a table across the room. George Clooney examined a bottle of wine a few tables away. Elle MacPherson and Ivanka Trump exchanged pleasantries and compliments. Barbara Walters chatted with Diane Sawyer.

Celebrities, politicians and media filled the Washington Hilton on Saturday night. They dined on petit filet and raised their glasses of Estancia wine in a toast to President Obama and the first lady.

And in the corner of the ballroom, his glass raised along with the rest of the star-studded room, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo fidgeted with his iPhone.

“What do you think?” he asked, looking down at the video playing on the phone, one of the biggest moments in his organization’s history about to happen 2,671 miles away.

“Think he’ll see a fastball in this at-bat?”

Across the country at Dodger Stadium, the public address announcer’s voice boomed. Nineteen-year-old Bryce Harper was striding to the plate, “making his major league debut.” Rizzo’s eyes were squarely on the phone.

Three straight games Rizzo had watched Harper earlier in the week, playing in Rochester with Triple-A Syracuse, to make sure he was ready for the majors. Not one at-bat Rizzo saw began with a fastball. No opposing pitcher, it seemed, was interested in being the one to serve up a home run to Harper.

It took Chad Billingsley one pitch to prove that he was no minor leaguer. He dropped a 91 mph fastball into the glove of Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis on the outside part of the plate. Ellis rolled it out of play for posterity.

Harper adjusted his batting gloves and exhaled. Rizzo adjusted the phone, leaning it up against the stem of a glass for better viewing.

Tuesday evening, Harper will make his D.C. debut. The game is not yet sold out, though sales rose sharply over the weekend. The Nationals have stocked the stores with more Harper merchandise than the previous homestand, Nationals chief operating officer Andy Feffer said.

And as the No. 1 overall pick from the 2010 draft steps onto the field at Nationals Park, Rizzo will be there.

Maybe, Rizzo acknowledged Saturday as he glad-handed a long line of well-wishers from the D.C. elite, it was best that he already was committed to being here when he sent Harper to Los Angeles for the Dodgers series. Better for his nerves that his mind be distracted. This, after all, was the same man who didn’t watch Stephen Strasburg’s debut until the fourth inning, manning the draft room instead that June evening as his first phenom electrified the baseball world.

Rizzo has directly overseen every step of Harper’s development, carefully plotted each stop along his path to the major leagues. Even he didn’t anticipate the biggest jump to come this quickly. But, after he made it, his doubts about the move were few.

As Harper holds off on two fastballs inside, a few others glance at Rizzo’s phone. Harper swings at the next pitch, grounds it back to the pitcher and speeds down the first base line.

“Well, 0-for-1,” a guest at the table said to Rizzo. The general manager nodded and leaned back in his chair, a little nervous energy out of his system.

President Obama and comedian Jimmy Kimmel entertain the room before Rizzo makes his exit. No sooner has he left the ballroom does first baseman Adam LaRoche lead off the seventh inning with a home run, breaking a scoreless tie. Two batters later, Harper rockets a double off the base of the center-field wall for his first major league hit.

The team he takes the field with Tuesday night will be in a situation it’s not faced this season. The Nationals (14-8) have lost four straight, are coming off their first series loss and need to win to keep pace with Atlanta atop the NL East. There’s a good chance, though, none of that will affect the atmosphere. Washington has been waiting almost two years begin its love affair with Bryce Harper, and their first date is finally on the calendar.

“It’s going to be fun to go into D.C. and play,” Harper told reporters Sunday. “I’m really excited. Very, very excited. It’s going to be a fun time.”

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