VIERA, Fla. - Bryce Harper's first day in Nationals camp, at times, had the feeling of a rock concert. He was just taking batting practice on Monday and shagging some fly balls, but everything from his hair (the faux-hawk that spiked out the back of his helmet) to the way he left the field (autograph seekers cornered him against a fence and tailed him back to the Nationals' clubhouse) had the tones of a spectacle.
The Nationals want to make sure that doesn't happen again.
Manager Jim Riggleman said this morning that while he wants Harper to sign autographs for fans, he is concerned with the crush on the 18-year-old's time, and said his main goal for Harper in Nationals camp is to prepare him for the rigors of a professional season.
"It's my expectation that he gets instruction, takes instruction, gets work against good competition here in the major league camp," Riggleman said. "Everybody has played games, but the grind of a minor league schedule is really challenging. The major league schedule is tough, but there's more off-days, there's softer travel. Those bus rides and very few off-days in the minor leagues is a real test for players. So we just want to prepare him for the grind that's ahead of him, and let him understand that if there is a bump in the road somewhere, to be prepared for it."
The team has not developed a plan to keep autograph seekers from recreating incidents like yesterday's, though officials have crafted a policy to limit Harper's exposure to the media. Riggleman said the Nationals will watch how Harper's time with fans goes before developing a way to control the process.
"There's so many people right there, and the fence is right there, so he can't escape that way. There's no way to get out of there," Riggleman said. "We want him to sign a few autographs, and let security get him out of there."
He also said that he doesn't have a policy about Harper's famous eyeblack-as-camoflauge look, though general manager Mike Rizzo has said Harper will not be allowed to wear it, and Riggleman added he expects veteran players will "peer pressure" Harper out of it.
Speaking before the largest group of reporters he's seen all spring, Riggleman was less certain than he has been at other times about Harper staying in the minors all season, admitting he didn't want to eat his words if things changed. Privately, Nationals officials have said there's no chance Harper will play in the majors this year, and the likelihood of him climbing through four levels of the minors in a year is slim.
"This could be a special time for him to reflect back on," Riggleman said. "These days, weeks and months fly off the calendar. Ten years from now, he might be talking about some of these days - the veteran players that he was around, the give-and-take that was going on with them. Those will be some of the most enjoyable things he will experience in the game. Sometimes when you're going through them, you don't really realize it or appreciate it as much. But I think someday, he'll reflect back on it, like a lot of guys, and be really glad he went through the whole process."