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Suns, Harper give fans a taste of what's to come

April 05, 2011|By BOB PARASILITI | bobp@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown Suns fans turned out for a preseason meal Tuesday but settled for an appetizer.

The scheduled exhibition game pitting the Single-A Hagerstown Suns against the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, both minor league affiliates of the Washington Nationals, was canceled because of field conditions.

So, instead of getting a feel for the Suns and watching some of Hagerstown’s former players again, the throng of a couple hundred shivering fans got a heavy dose of what they really turned out to see.

Bryce Harper.

Fans stood along the fence on the right-field side of Municipal Stadium like zoo spectators at the gorilla exhibit. They craned their necks and looked for unobstructed views just to catch the top draft pick from the 2010 amateur draft in his habitat.

Harper didn’t disappoint, at least from a baseball standpoint.

The Suns staged a workout, complete with a quick round of batting practice. It was Hagerstown’s version of a movie trailer to give a preview of coming attractions.

The 18-year-old was in his element on the field. He was very comfortable stretching and warming up with his Suns teammates. They got in a couple of laughs while trying to act normal while a couple of television outlets took footage of his actions.

Then came the main course.

Harper jumped into the batting cage for four shifts of hitting. Fans scurried into positions, some trying to get clear camera angles to chronicle their first sightings of the Nationals’ phenom-in-waiting.

The left-handed hitter dug into the batter’s box and lined up for his cuts under the watchful eyes of a number of Nationals minor league officials and coaches around the back of the cage.

Meanwhile, the fans began to make their observations.

“He’s got the coolest spikes of anyone out there,” one said.

“Wow, his swing is so free and easy,” another added.

That was purely understated. The earned run average of Suns pitching coach Chris Michalak, who threw batting practice, would have taken an express elevator ride to the top floor, courtesy of Harper.

With a strong wind blowing from left to right field, Harper loosened up by just making contact with his five swings.

It was just the flame touching the wick of the firecracker.

In the second round, Harper started with a stroke to the center-field wall before hitting two of the next four over the wall in right field.

The big show came in Round 3. Five of the six swings left the park over the right-field fence. The one that didn’t was a lazer shot that bounced off the inside of the fence. Fittingly in the icy conditions, each blast was considered a frozen rope that just left the park on a line.

The players shagging flies in the outfield learned quickly to read Harper’s swing. They faded to the fence on the first few, which changed to turning and watching shortly thereafter.

By the time Harper started his Round 3 spree, the fielders stood like they were posing for a team picture. They never flinched or turned to watch the ball leave.

They were that sure of the final destination. The kids playing basketball behind the right-field wall needed hard hats.

Harper tried to work the ball around the field in the final round, but still took his first swing out of the park.

Nine of Harper’s 20 swings were homers to end a good day’s work. He took his bats and headed to the clubhouse to get ready for the bigger test than grooving his swing.

He returned shortly and mingled with the Suns down along the left-field fence to sign autographs. Harper’s little patch of Municipal heaven was vastly more populated than the areas for the rest of the team.

Harper signed for about 10 minutes in left field, getting as many as possible, before stepping away.

One fan offered Harper his children. Others were squeamish because he didn’t sign for them.

Harper began to leave the field and stopped near the Suns’ dugout to sign more autographs for about 10 minutes. He stayed true to his word, trying to sign for as many youngsters as possible.

He signed balls and hats and even a copy of a Washington Post magazine with that had his photo on the cover.

“Yes ... thanks Bryce,” said that lucky young fan.

“Bryce ... You are awesome,” another yelled.

Harper slowly worked his way along the fence. Fans who were in left field came charging around the concourse for another chance to get their Holy Grail.

Those who were left behind near the dugout rushed farther down the fence, almost like they were trying to get to the finish line of a marathon, to try and get Harper’s sweeping signature.

In the end, Harper hit nearly .500 for the day all around. Nine homers in 20 swings and about half the autograph requests. Those who got the scribbling, reveled. Those that didn’t, grumbled.

In reality, the evening wasn’t the true Bryce Harper experience. There wasn’t a game, just a dress rehearsal.

It wasn’t a sporting event. Weather made it more like waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant.

Tuesday should have served to whet some appetites. The feast will be served in Hagerstown on April 15 at the home opener.

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