- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2013

The alarm blares at an hour many would consider ungodly, and the 20-year-old who rewrote the major league record books as a teen pulls his 6-foot-2-inch frame out of bed. The numbers on the clock stare at him: 4:30 a.m.

Breakfast and at least two hours in the gym await. Often, it’s far longer. Running, lifting, agility drills. Twenty-seven exercises — nine workouts, three sets of each — packed into a fast-paced session with little room for breaks.

This is Bryce Harper’s sanctuary.

“It really just lets me release,” said Harper, taking a break from tearing through spring training in preparation for a 2013 season that starts Monday in the Washington Nationals’ Opening Day matinee against the Miami Marlins.

“It’s fun for me,” he said. “I love it. It gets me away from everything. Throw my headphones on and just go. It’s like I’m away from the world and I’m just me.”

Inside the gym, there are no autograph seekers and no media. No watchdogs waiting for Harper to make a wrong move to broadcast on Twitter or YouTube. No one who wants a piece of him or his time.

It’s just Harper and the weights — and sometimes his father, Ron, a retired ironworker, who does the workouts alongside him.

“It gets me away from being the baseball guy. Being the guy with the fans, to the people,” Harper said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love that. But I need the other side.”

Embracing the stardom

Most of the offseason was a whirlwind for Harper, with only about a month that was empty of obligations.

On those days he played with his dogs, Swag and Harley, enjoyed his mother Sheri’s cooking and spent time hanging out at home in Las Vegas with the friends and family he’s away from most of the year. The entire Harper clan went on a cruise to Hawaii in December.

Otherwise, it was a dizzying schedule.

“I don’t want everybody to just see the baseball side of me,” Harper said, embracing the stardom that brings screaming fans (young, old, male, female) to every ballpark.

“I want everybody to see the other side of me, too — that I can be on a magazine with jeans and a T-shirt on and my hair done and things like that. I don’t want just me in my baseball hat all the time just the boring, old, ‘Look it’s Bryce Harper with eye black on again.’ I like people seeing the other side.”

Between the final pitch of the 2012 season and the first pitch of 2013, Harper was on the cover of two national magazines — Sports Illustrated, in a photo shot on the Mall in Washington on a freezing January morning, and Men’s Health, which he did with Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim phenom Mike Trout and Buster Posey of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

He is in three commercials, headlining Under Armour’s new #IWILL campaign and starring in a regional Toyota ad and a Geico spot.

Named the National League Rookie of the Year in November, Harper appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in January and visited “Rob Dyrdek’s Fun Factory” the same week. He was the Major League Baseball representative at the International Consumer Electronics Show for the announcement that T-Mobile had become the league’s wireless sponsor.

He also was one of seven major league stars selected to be part of a fan vote for the cover of Sony’s “MLB 13: The Show,” though Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates took home the honors.

Got all that?

“He’s young,” said Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche. “You can’t [do all that] forever. I think for a few years he’s fine with it. Slowly, he’ll learn how to say no. Right now, he’s got the energy. But that’s a big part of what we do. We kind of help him sift through some of that: what’s important, and what you just need to learn to say ‘No’ to.”

Harper is upfront about the way he feels when it comes to the attention. He enjoys it and understands why it’s on him. He also has become better at deflecting the hatred spewed his way.

“I don’t know if they hate him because he’s really good, or if they hate him because they want to be where he’s at,” said Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “Not many people celebrate excellence as much as they used to. Nowadays, it’s more [jealousy].

“But Bryce was not given any of this. He worked for everything. That’s the way it is. He knows that. We all know that. I think he’s gotten better at shrugging that stuff off and not letting it get to him.”

On the Nationals’ first off day this spring, Harper made the 67-mile drive west from Viera, Fla., to Disney World. He never goes unrecognized when he is out in the District; people are usually exceedingly nice and often apologetic for bothering him.

So when a boy no more than 14 or 15 approached him at the Magic Kingdom and asked for a photo, Harper obliged and threw his arm around the teen’s shoulder.

“I’m a Braves fan,” the boy said to Harper. “[Expletive] the Nationals.”

“My face in the picture is probably like [so confused],” Harper said, chuckling as he told the story. “I was thinking, ‘What? You just said that to me and you’re taking a picture with me?’ I was dumbfounded. I walked away and I go, ‘I don’t know what just happened right there. Happiest place on Earth.’”

But Harper understands the responsibility that comes with his exposure. Each day this spring, he spent time after batting practice, home or away, signing autographs for the fans who line up three and four rows deep. He does the same during the season, making sure he always signs for children, even if it’s at the expense of waiting adults who often have motives.

A cursory eBay search reveals more than 200 items of Bryce Harper autographed merchandise going for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars.

“It matters to him that he doesn’t leave a little boy standing there who wanted an autograph,” said Harolyn Cardozo, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo’s special assistant.

A difference 2 years make

When Harper reflects now, on the eve of his first Opening Day in the major leagues, he sees the 18-year-old who came into Nationals camp in 2011 and thinks it was unbelievable how hard he pushed at everything.

“I wasn’t controlled,” he said. “Swinging, outfield, aggression, everything.”

It’s easy to see that Harper has matured since then, a natural process for most from 18 to 20. His teammates used to calculate how old he was when one of them got married and laugh. Those jokes have faded.

His look, once wild and untamed, now can be tailored to the situation. His personality, once cause for his teammates to rib him (leading Harper to occasionally internalize their pranks), fits in seamlessly. On an early morning in Jupiter, Fla., this spring, Jayson Werth — sunglasses on and coffee in hand — searched for the batting cage as Harper walked up to him laughing.

“Good morning, Sunshine,” Harper said, placing a hand on the veteran outfielder’s shoulder. Two years ago, before he listed Werth as one of his favorite people to be around, Harper might have just walked past him quietly.

He refuses to say what his goals are for this season because they’re lofty, and he thinks most would scoff. Several analysts named him as their pick for National League Most Valuable Player. He shrugs that off and turns the conversation toward the idea of winning a World Series, and how he can help.

The Nationals’ players genuinely enjoy getting to know him and acknowledge that they need him to get where they want to go. They are comfortable with him, but also happy to have a front-row seat to watch the show.

“I think that’s one of the best things about him: He hasn’t really changed,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “Obviously, everyone grows up and you learn and evolve, but he hasn’t really changed the way he plays. He hasn’t changed his attitude.

“He’s still a cocky little kid. That’s what he has to have. That’s his little advantage over everybody else. He’s out to prove that he’s the best player in the world. I’ve got no problem with that. He does it humbly, in a way. He carries himself well. He’s respectful, but he’s hungry. He was hungry the first day I saw him, and he still is.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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