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Hagerstown could be Harpertown next spring

December 11, 2010|By BOB PARASILITI | bobp@herald-mail.com
  • Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper

Next spring, look for Hagerstown to become Harpertown.

The Washington Nationals have confirmed plans to send Bryce Harper — the No. 1 selection of baseball’s 2010 amateur draft — to Hagerstown to start his professional baseball career as a member of the Single-A Suns and the South Atlantic League in 2011.

Suns owner Bruce Quinn has confirmed the Nationals intend to send Harper here after conversations with Washington general manager Mike Rizzo at the winter meetings.

“We are very excited,” Quinn said. “Hagerstown is a greatsports town and has a great history, but this could be considered one of the biggest sports stories in this town’s history.”

The Suns open their home season on April 15, 2011, against Lakewood.

Harper was drafted by Washington last June and automatically ignited another wave of excitement for Washington baseball. At 18, he possesses all the raw tools to be a star in the majors and is earmarked to become one of the cornerstones of the Nationals as they attempt to build a championship-contending franchise.

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Harper’s selection came on the heels of the Nationals’ 2009 top pick, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who took the baseball world by storm following his major league debut last June. But Strasburg, who injured his elbow and is out for the 2011 season, was 23 and coming out of college, while Harper is five years younger and leaving junior college — all of which makes Hagerstown a prime location to start his career.

“Our intent is to start Bryce out on this level,” said Doug Harris, the Nationals’ director of player development. “We would like to have him cut his teeth at Hagerstown and in the South Atlantic League, which is a great league.”

Still, there is an X-factor because baseball and player development is known as an inexact science where things like injuries and other issues can become hurdles.

“We have a plan in place, but plans change,” Harris said. “It’s tough to say this is definite in December because you never know what will happen. These are our intentions today. We would like to have him enter a championship season with his peer group and learn the things he needs.”

Harper has made huge strides in his transition from catcher to right field while attending the Nationals’ fall instructional league. He was sent to the Arizona Fall League to become a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions taxi squad, which allowed him to play two games a week while he continued to work on his game. The Scorpions won the AFL league championship last month.

Those experiences are just the beginning for Harper. His youth and experience level just add to the attractiveness of Hagerstown as his starting point.

“He has been impressive,” Harris said. “He has excelled in semi-controlled settings and sterile situations. Playing in fall and instructional leagues is not like playing in a championship season. There is a lot to the process because he has to learn about the travel, being in a clubhouse and playing every day while becoming a young man out in the world and away from home.”

Hagerstown has a history of being the starting blocks for a number of professional baseball careers.

On reputation alone, Harper would become one of the biggest names to play in and for Hagerstown for an extended period of time.

Hagerstown and Municipal Stadium has been known for where Willie Mays made his professional debut in the early 1950s. Jim Palmer’s rehabilitation start for the Suns has also become legendary. Players like Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Nate Schierholtz, Travis Ishikawa and Mike Young left here and went on to play in the 2010 World Series.

But none have carried the pre-appearance billing of Harper.

“He is still young and has to follow his natural progression,” Quinn said. “But his swing is fascinating to watch because of his power and speed.”

Hagerstown became a viable destination for Harper because of recent renovations to Municipal Stadium. Quinn and his local partners — Tony Dahbura and Dr. Mitesh Kothari, both of Hagerstown — have completed a major overhaul of Municipal Stadium’s playing surface, while the city has spearheaded the reconstruction of locker room facilities.

“This has a lot to say with what Bruce has been able to do with the team,” Harris said. “He is dynamic. We are excited about what Bruce, Tony and Dr. Mitesh have done a lot here with the facilities.”

“We made significant improvements on the field and in the clubhouses,” Quinn said. “From a development standpoint, the Nationals are looking to win and (Washington owners) the Lerner family and Rizzo have things going in the right direction. The Nationals are looking at Hagerstown for player development because of its close proximity to Washington.”

The hope is for Hagerstown to be home for more prospects and rehabilitative assignments in the future. Harper is the first, and possibly the most memorable.

“Harper is poised to help the Nationals for many years,” Quinn said. “He’s going to be here first and we are excited about putting Hagerstown in the sports limelight again. He’s already being talked about the possibilities of becoming one of the best in the game.”

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