- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2015

VIERA, Fla. — Walking by with a floppy and pleased dog cradled in her arms, Kate Upton left swaths of gawkers in her wake outside of Gate 5 at Space Coast Stadium. The supermodel made her way through the heat and breeze to the cover of a large Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Animal Services vehicle the size of a wealthy person’s Winnebago.

Heads turned on the auxiliary field where Washington Nationals minor leaguers and major leaguers who were not playing Wednesday took batting practice. Mike Carp’s lengthy beard pointed in Upton’s direction as she wound behind the backstop with the snaking line of humanity trailing. The dog panted.

Upton grew up on the Space Coast in Melbourne, Florida. She was the draw to the “Grand Slam Adoption Event” the sheriffs were holding at the park for dogs in the animal shelter. One dog did not get along well with others. He was noticeable and often led away. At one point, when Upton was smiling and holding the reclined dog of choice for cameras, the feisty dog burst out of his harness. Sprinting toward another dog, a police officer intercepted him. The harness was put back on and he resumed pacing, young, fiery and at times, misguided.

An hour before, Nationals manager Matt Williams put together a lengthy explanation of Bryce Harper’s short quote — “Where’s my ring?” — in his concrete manager’s office. Earlier in spring training, Harper was asked what he thought about Max Scherzer joining the Nationals, prompting his response, plus further explanation of his admiration for the Washington rotation.

Harper was not on an island when lauding Washington’s five starting pitchers. They are a group renowned by opposition, analysts and soothsayers. They are the crux of any World Series projection for the Nationals. Suggestion they are in line to dominate is commonplace.

But, Harper’s three little words came with the weight of a frenetic young firebrand. Fame cascaded onto Harper when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was branded “Chosen One” in 2009 as a 16-year-old. The magazine used a similarly fantastical headline for LeBron James when “The King” was 17 years old in 2002.

Since then, Harper has been rookie of the year and a two-time all-star. He once succinctly said a reporter’s question was more in line with a query from a clown, bro. When returning from a rehabilitation stint last season, he explained what his ideal lineup would look like, strongly suggesting the benching of Denard Span. The same year, he was benched by Williams for lack of hustle.
Much like the harnessed dog in the crowd, he sometimes shot afoul of kinder, gentler protocols. And, like Upton, every action he takes in a fame-obsessed age becomes nuclear-fueled fodder spread by one-touch technology. Blame can be put on society, but part of it is one’s own participation in various methods of exposure.

Not so with young Chicago Cubs star Anthony Rizzo, 25, who finished 10th in National League MVP voting last season. He was also an all-star. In January, he didn’t go top shelf like Harper, but did make a proclamation.

“We’re going to win the NL Central and you can quote me on that,” Rizzo told reporters.

The response was a ripple as opposed to the Harper tidal wave.

“That’s being in the bubble, isn’t it?” Williams said. “He understands that. But, he’s honest. He’s just honest in his quote that is now famous. He’s just honest. He just tells people, ‘Boy, when we signed Max, this is how I felt.’ There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not bravado. That’s honesty.

“Is it motivation for other folks? OK. Maybe it is. But Bryce is just being honest. He’s not putting anybody down. He’s just excited to have Max Scherzer on his team. That’s OK. For me, that’s all right.”

Annually, Harper’s plate appearances have dwindled by almost 100 per season. His rookie season, he made 597. That was down to 497 in 2013, then just 395 last season. He’s been split between left field, center field and will now start in right field after being drafted as a high school catcher. The only thing that has been consistent is his notoriety.

The torn ligament in his left thumb last season took months to heal. Once it did, Harper joined Anthony Rendon as the two Nationals trying to drag the Washington offense through a first-round playoff series against the San Francisco Giants. His launches into McCovey Cove were insufficient. Though, they were a hint of what the pre-big league promotion touted more so than a solid rookie year. The pressure was higher and finite window for success smaller.

The injuries — from slides and walls and ambition — have Williams hopeful about what 600 plate appearances could bring. The flip side of missing time is idyllic thoughts of what could occur when healthy. Williams is after a more patient Harper, one that has better pitch recognition, is willing to take a walk and mash when graced with a fastball. He also wants a near-impossible feat from Harper, who will be the No. 3 hitter for the heavy World Series favorites a year after he can legally buy a drink.

“At the same time, I don’t want him to feel pressure to do too much,” Williams said.

The path to the projected stardom, authentic from on-field eye-raising events and not office-room marketers, is in front of Harper in a way it has yet to be. The Nationals will be watched throughout the season thanks to the quote-inspiring staff, last year’s success and the gamble to keep so many pending free agents. The cliche is fact: It’s World Series or bust.

“So, I think he is well on his way to where he wants to get to,” Williams said. “There are adjustments that need to be made, certainly, as we go. But he’s a dynamic player. Does a lot of things. It gets quiet every once in a while, then you get a play like the other day, the ball bounces off the wall and he almost throws a guy out at first base. You go, “Whoo.” It’s there.

“As he gets more and more consistent, we’ll see that more and more out him where at times he’ll be able to take over a game and put it on his own shoulders and win that game for you.”

Twice in his first plate appearance Wednesday, Harper’s helmet fell off. Once when he swung and missed, prompting a “whoo” from the crowd that Williams alluded to. Then again when he churned past second base. Both times his long hair was freed and fell out before being stroked back then tucked under its plastic home. His high socks were distinct. He received the biggest cheers and his name was on the most backs in the stands.

Harper exists with the subtlety of a firehouse alarm, which puts eyes on him, sucked in by his play and magazine covers, waiting to see how an unleashed version of him functions for a full season. Add Williams to the curious and expectant, sitting with a harness in hand just in case.

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