Bryce Harper's journey in its early stage

LAKEWOOD, N.J. -- The fans who gather along the dugout railings, with their Sports Illustrated covers and souvenir baseballs in hand, are hell-bent on getting a signature, some eye contact and maybe a snippet of conversation with Bryce Harper. If he turns out to be the next Larry Walker, the items will be eBay-worthy down the road. And if the Washington Nationals hit the jackpot and Harper turns out to be the second coming of Mickey Mantle, maybe the stuff will be valuable enough to squirrel away in the attic, encase in plastic wrap and help fund the grandkids' college bill in two or three decades.

Hagerstown Suns manager Brian Daubach and coach Marlon Anderson, the men entrusted with mentoring Harper in the first leg of his professional apprenticeship with the Washington Nationals organization, take their responsibility to heart, in the same way they value their relations with the rest of the 25-man roster. If they can impart a piece of wisdom that helps Harper hit the cutoff man more consistently or avoid a slump down the road, they'll have an even bigger stake in his long-term future.

For now, everyone is too busy navigating the workaday sameness of the baseball season to worry about who gets a mention in Harper's Cooperstown induction speech. The fans jostle for prime autograph position, Class A pitching prospects look to make their mark against the hottest prospect this side of Angels outfielder Mike Trout, and every day brings another new and exciting adventure.

If this is Friday, Harper must be the IHOP Strikeout Player of the Game.

During a recent meeting between Hagerstown and Philadelphia's Class A Lakewood farm club, the 8,217 fans in attendance received a voucher for 20 percent off their bill at International House of Pancakes in Bricktown, N.J., if Harper whiffed during the game. Harper obliged by taking a called third strike from BlueClaws left-hander Jesse Biddle in his first plate appearance.

"I hope I get a voucher,'' Harper jokingly told reporters after the game.

Or maybe he was serious. Harper is a growing boy at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, and when he's not hanging out, watching TV or playing Xbox in his spare time, chances are he's looking for some place to chow down with Suns outfielder and roommate Michael Taylor. The Hagerstown teammates don't discriminate when it comes to caloric intake. They have yet to meet a pizza they can't inhale.

"We both like to eat,'' Taylor said. "Just everything -- and a lot of it.''

Even though Harper signed a $9.9 million big league contract after being drafted, calls Scott Boras his agent and is destined to make untold riches down the road, his teammates refuse to let him pick up a check. Harper and the Nationals say they want him to be just one of 25 guys, and nothing spells equality like going Dutch treat.

"He goes about it in a way where he makes himself another teammate,'' Taylor said of Harper. "He doesn't separate himself. He's not the kind of guy who says, 'I'm on the 40-man [roster]. I'm going to be in the big leagues. I'm just here doing my time.' He's really made himself a part of the Hagerstown Suns even if he's only going to be here a while.''

If Harper's work ethic and prodigious skills ultimately set him apart from the crowd … well, that's strictly a function of baseball Darwinism at work.

Fast track potential

Almost a year after commissioner Bud Selig christened the 2010 MLB first-year player draft with the announcement that the Nationals had selected "outfielder Bryce Harper'' from the College of Southern Nevada with the first overall pick, God's Gift to Bat Speed is making a big impression in the low-A South Atlantic League. Harper has 10 homers and a .615 slugging percentage, and he's generating enough excitement that Washington general manager Mike Rizzo felt it necessary last week to announce that he will not be appearing in the big leagues this season.

Doug Harris, Washington's farm director, skillfully avoids being pinned down on the question of when Harper will join Potomac in the high-A Carolina League. And the Nationals steadfastly refrain from discussing timetables.

"Mike and I have a constant dialogue about that,'' Harris said. "We have our arms around it and we're continually assessing where he is in his development. But I'm not going to get into a specific timeline.''

The only certainty is that Harper won't have the luxury of flying beneath the radar, in the Sally League or any other stop in the Nationals' chain. At age 18, he's attracting the type of crowds and attention you might expect from a kid who's the greatest thing since … Stephen Strasburg brought his triple-digit fastball to Washington last summer.

During an appearance with the big league club in spring training, Harper impressed everyone with his ability to get on top of the high fastball and drive it with authority. He also endured the inevitable ribbing one would expect for a kid dubbed "baseball's LeBron James.'' That was readily apparent after one Grapefruit League game when the van back to the Nationals' complex sat and idled while Harper finished signing autographs.

"The veteran guys gave it to him pretty good,'' said a person who works for the Nationals. And Harper, no wallflower, wasn't averse to giving it right back.

The Nationals moved Harper from catcher to the outfield to keep him healthy and enhance his long-term offensive potential, and Harper is working diligently to acclimate to his new position in right field. He worked with Washington coach Bo Porter and roving instructor Tony Tarasco in spring training, and his education continues in Hagerstown with guidance from Daubach, who played first base for most of his big league career while mixing in 91 games in right and left field with the Red Sox and White Sox.

He's got some throwback in him. You look at some of the old power hitters, and they used to get that back leg off the ground when they had their extreme hip rotation. When Bryce gets into a ball, there are times when he gets that. And it's fun to watch.

-- Nationals farm director Doug Harris

Teacher and student focus on the basics, from going back on balls to making sure that Harper's feet and follow-through are in proper working order when he charges base hits. Harper has a cannon for an arm, and it's hard for him to resist the temptation to try to nail baserunners from the warning track. Every now and then he succeeds, but the Suns don't want the practice to become habit-forming.

"I've talked to him about that,'' Daubach said. "I tell him, 'Just make a good throw, especially if there's not going to be a play. You're 18 now, but you need to save some bullets for down the road.'''

Harper's high-energy approach can lead to rookie mistakes in the outfield and on the basepaths, but hustle is never an issue. In Lakewood, Harper sprinted all the way from right field to retrieve an inside-the-park home run in dead center. Although he misses being in the middle of the action now, the transition from catcher to the outfield pasture is still new and exciting enough to keep him fully engaged. And it certainly is easier on the knees.

"You have to take it like you're a catcher out there,'' Harper said. "You have to be in on every pitch. If you can lay out and make a great play for your pitcher or make a good throw to home plate or third base to get a guy, it's a lot of fun. It's the same adrenaline rush you had behind the plate.''

No matter where Harper plays in the field, the bat sure works. He's eliminated some of the violence in his old junior college swing and has a "calmer'' lower half, according to Harris, but the ball still jumps off of his bat. His teammates' eyes widened during a recent game against Delmarva when Harper stroked a memorable grand slam in an 11-5 Hagerstown victory. The fence at Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md., measures 370 feet to right-center field, and beyond that there's a bullpen and a parking lot, backed by some trees. Eyewitnesses report that the ball hit the trees on the fly.

"He's got some throwback in him,'' Harris said. "You look at some of the old power hitters, and they used to get that back leg off the ground when they had their extreme hip rotation. When Bryce gets into a ball, there are times when he gets that. And it's fun to watch.''

The people overseeing Harper's development try to keep the comparisons modest. Harper's competitive zeal reminds Daubach of his old Boston teammate, Trot Nixon, a former football player who punished middle infielders on the double play takeout slide. And Harris compares Harper to former Reds and Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill for his intensity and focus. When the farm director calls Harper a "dirtbag,'' you just know the kid takes it as a badge of honor.

Magnet for attention

Harper has a sponsorship deal with Under Armour, and his at-bats in Hagerstown are sponsored by Miss Utility, a non-profit company that provides information for construction workers before they dig into underground mains. "Harperstown'' T-shirts are a hit in the Hagerstown gift shop, and Harper has been a one-man boon to attendance in Sally League stops from Lexington, Ky., to Greensboro, N.C., to Rome, Ga.

His every home run trot and optometrist's appointment are duly filed away for posterity. When Harper got off to a slow start this spring the Nationals sent him for an eye exam, and they were stunned to discover how bad Harper's vision was. Harper was fitted for contact lenses and immediately went on a tear at the plate. It's frightening to think what might happen now that he can actually see.

Although fans are generally respectful, Harper's teammates say the taunts and insults went beyond garden-variety heckling during a recent game in West Virginia. When the lunkhead factor comes into play, it's a firsthand lesson that life as Bryce Harper isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

"It's unfair for an 18-year-old kid to have to deal with some of the things that are said, but people come out and pay their money and they expect to be able to say what they want,'' said Anderson, who played 12 years in the majors. "You don't mind people yelling and giving him a hard time and wanting to mess with him. Fans have done that for as long as baseball has been around. But when people start saying things about his family or his mom, that stuff is over the line.''

The Nationals are trying to strike a balance between accommodating the media and allowing Harper to focus on baseball by blending in with the crowd. One-on-one interviews are forbidden. Reporters are told that he's only available after games, when he's been a factor in the game, and he'll only answer questions specifically related to his involvement in that day's action.

But the rules are stretched here and there, and if the Nats are afraid that Harper will say something overly provocative, it appears to be a needless concern. The kid has a sense of humor, he's comfortable in front of the cameras and notebooks, and he's less of a risk than, say, Fred Wilpon to say something outrageous and get himself in trouble.

Back when everybody made a fuss over Harper in junior college, his father, Ron, assured the world that he would not be coddled or treated like a budding superstar at home. The elder Harper made a living as a steelworker on the Las Vegas strip, and he decreed that as long as Bryce was living under his roof, he would be treated like any other teenager. So Bryce got used to mowing the lawn and taking out the trash between tape-measure home runs. And now, according to Taylor, he's a model roommate who does his share to keep the premises neat and tidy.

Harper also has an appreciation for the history of the game and the baseball greats who preceded him. He wears the No. 34 because it adds up to 7, the number worn by his baseball idol, Mickey Mantle. During his recent stop in Lakewood, Harper recalled some helpful advice he received from Steve Garvey while in junior college, and spoke excitedly about the time he spent around Jayson Werth, Rick Ankiel and the veteran outfielders in spring training.

"It was a blast,'' Harper said. "I didn't want to leave.''

During each stop on Harper's minor league tour, fans arrive early, stay late and pursue his signature with a zeal that suggests he's the proven commodity. In Lakewood, a 28-year-old fan named Don Mottola waited 90 minutes along the rail in search of a signature. Mottola is not a Nationals supporter, but he bought a red Washington T-shirt and cap for the occasion in hopes that he might catch Harper's eye.

"He's been getting hit up for autographs in every city he goes to, so I can understand him getting burnt out,'' Mottola said. "Hey, you take a shot.''

Harper rewarded Mottola for his patience by signing a blowup of the famous 2009 SI cover proclaiming him "Baseball's Chosen One.'' Right before that, Harper spent 10 minutes at the other end of the dugout obliging as many young fans as his pregame routine would allow.

"If he signs 75 autographs, the 76th person is going to be pretty upset,'' Harris said. "But he really goes out of way for the kids. He's got a calmness about him for an 18-year-old that's pretty impressive.''

Harper's biggest shortcoming has nothing to do with his dedication or demeanor. During a recent hitting streak, he grew a mustache that could charitably be described as "sparse.'' Daubach jokingly compared it to the facial hair sported by Matt Dillon's character in the movie, "There's Something About Mary,'' and Harris, the Nationals' farm director, kidded Harper about it during a recent trip to Hagerstown.

"I said, 'It looks like a football game on your lip -- 11-on-11,''' Harris said, laughing.

When Harper's 18-game hitting streak ended, he mercifully bid adieu to the mustache. Soon enough, he'll say goodbye to Hagerstown, the town where a young Trenton Giants outfielder named Willie Mays began his minor league career in the summer of 1950.

If all goes according to plan, Bryce Harper's baseball odyssey will be filled with autograph sessions, YouTube clips and lots of close encounters of the 500-foot kind. He's a gem in need of polishing. And this is just the first step in a very long journey.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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