Friday, April 15, 2011, 11:20 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- They've been playing baseball here at Municipal Stadium for 81 years, and they've seen their fair share of phenoms storm through town. Shoot, Willie Mays played his first professional game right here in 1950, and his retired No. 24 hangs on the right-field wall.
The debut Friday night of Bryce Harper, though, was something of a major event for this sleepy town. Stadium workers wore white T-shirts proclaiming this as "Harperstown." An announced crowd of 6,107 cheered their new right fielder when he was introduced for the first time on Opening Night. And when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first, flashbulbs popped from every section, to the astonishment of the Suns' first-year manager.
"It kind of reminded me of being in the playoffs," said Brian Daubach, who spent eight years in the majors, including five with the Red Sox. "You don't really see that at a normal big-league game. There is a lot of excitement. I'm sure it's hard to relax. I've probably never witnessed that many flashbulbs when I was playing, and I played in an ALCS, Red Sox-Yankees (in 2004). There's a lot of people following him, and I can imagine it would be tough."
Based on Harper's early season performance, it appears it is indeed tough to play under this spotlight. After an 0-for-3 showing Friday night, the top prospect in the Nationals' system (and perhaps in baseball) is sporting a .226 average. He has one homer and five RBI in nine games, but he also has nine strikeouts.
If anyone thought it was going to be a cakewalk, they were sorely mistaken. But if anyone thought Harper would be fazed by a sluggish start to his pro career, they were also sorely mistaken.
"I feel good up there," he said. "I feel strong up there. It's just going to take me a minute to get going."
No one in the Nationals' organization is worried in the least. They still see an 18-year-old phenom whose natural talents far surpass just about everyone else in the low-Class A South Atlantic League. But they also know sheer talent isn't enough to thrive at any level of the minors.
"He's pressing a little bit," Daubach said. "It's human. People can't expect him to go out there and hit .400 or .500 like maybe some people think he was going to, or maybe even he did. It's nothing unnatural. It's part of the daily grind."
The daily grind is perhaps the toughest challenge for Harper right now. After a mostly successful, four-week stint in big-league camp this spring, Harper is experiencing life in the low minors. That means poor playing conditions, poor facilities, poor umpires and long nights aboard the team's charter bus.
The season's barely a week old, and already the Suns have logged about 2,400 miles on that bus, traveling from Viera, Fla., to Hagerstown for an exhibition game that was rained out, to Rome, Ga., to Lexington, Ky., and back to Hagerstown.
They played Thursday night in Lexington, grabbed a late meal at the local Waffle House and then drove all night back to Hagerstown, arriving in town at 8 a.m. By 2:30 p.m., they were required to report back to the ballpark for their home opener.
Harper insists it's no big deal.
"Not at all," he said. "I was used to 12- to 13-hour bus rides and playing the next morning in college. It's a good thing we have a sleeper bus. That's awesome. And 5-Hour Energy works really well, too."
This, though, is what the Nationals wanted Harper to experience. This is why he's starting out at the lowest possible level of their farm system, even if his talent suggests he could play up against better competition.
"Being able to battle through that is the hardest part about baseball," Daubach said. "I've said all along, playing a baseball game isn't hard. It's playing six in a row in a week. Playing one football game is much tougher than playing a baseball game. But it's the mental battle of playing six or seven days a week that makes it so tough, and the guys who do it in the big leagues so special."
Harper didn't look particularly overmatched Friday night, though he did have his bat broken by Lakewood BlueClaws right-hander David Buchanan, and he did swing way late on a pair of 94 mph fastballs from reliever Tyler Knigge.
Afterward, he refused to call his early-season struggles a "slump," pointing out he started out 2-for-18 at the College of Southern Nevada last year.
Besides, it's not like he hasn't produced a few impressive moments already. Earlier this week in Lexington, the home team announced a promotion as Harper came up to bat. He had been designated the "Chicken of the Night," which meant everyone in attendance was entitled to a free chicken sandwich if he struck out.
When the opposing pitcher got two strikes on Harper, the crowd began to heckle him, only to watch with mouths agape as he crushed the next pitch over the fence in left-center for his first minor-league home run.
"As hard as I've seen anybody in the big leagues hit a ball," Daubach said. "It just kept going."
Moments like that remind everyone that Harper's stint in the minors likely won't last long. Surely, his time in Hagerstown will be limited, with high-Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg probably beckoning at some point this season.
It would be easy for the most-hyped power prospect in decades to look past his current situation and ahead to bigger and better things.
Harper, though, insists that's not the case. He's a Hagerstown Sun right now, and that's the only thing that matters to him, not everyone else in the Nationals' organization.
"They're in D.C. They're in Harrisburg. They're in Potomac," he said. "I'm here. I'm just going to try to get better here every single day."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.