Harper's aim at Nationals camp: Improve game, don't step on toes

VIERA, Fla. — To know if Bryce Harper(notes) truly belongs in big league camp for the Washington Nationals and not on a minor league field with the other 18-year-olds, you don't even have to watch him swing, run or field.

Just look down at his feet, and if Harper happens to be wearing sandals, take a quick glance at his bare toes.

Remember one of the ways Crash Davis educated hot-shot pitcher Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh on proper foot hygeine in "Bull Durham"?

"Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press'll think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob."

Bryce Harper takes care of his toes, specifically his toenails. They appear immaculate, as if he had gotten a pedicure between the time he hopped out of the shower and got dressed in front of his locker.

It's a little and weird thing, and of course we're having fun with it, but the point is clear: Not doing little things can delay your arrival to the major leagues. Even when you're a No. 1 overall pick and a budding star, it helps if you look like you belong.

Harper hasn't started any games yet, and isn't expected to get more than 20 or so at-bats before being reassigned to minor league camp. And the sitting makes him restless. Or is it too restful?

"I'm still trying to go out there every day and get things going," Harper said recently. "Not starting every game, sitting inside the dugout, I'm falling asleep ... well, not falling asleep but it feels like I want to."

One part of hitting that's particularly tough about your first spring training experience: Facing older players with more experience that you've never even seen pitch before.

"It's always going to be hard," said Harper, who is 5-for-14 with two doubles and four RBIs so far. "I think it was Ted Williams who said, ‘I hate hitting in All-Star games and against rookies,' for the fact that he's never seen them before. Going up there and seeing guys you haven't seen, they're going to come at you with sliders, knuckleballs, split-fingers, everything they have in their kitchen sink.

"I'm just trying to learn everything I can in such a little amount of time in big league camp."

Other players on the Nationals can sense Harper's eagerness, but they also know that waiting for your chance by going through the minors is part of how a player can grow. Harper has been so advanced, he skipped his senior year of high school, got a GED and spent a year at junior college.

"Bryce is very talented," Ryan Zimmerman(notes) said. "I don't think it'll take him too long to get here, but I think he'll be the first one to tell you he's got some things to learn. You've got to learn how to fail a little bit. He's never really failed. I'm not going to say he's going to fail miserably, or anything like that, but you have to learn how to deal with a bad week or two at a time. Everyone goes through it. [Albert] Pujols goes through it."

Harper has received some advice from Matt Stairs(notes) on that subject. Stairs has been around for 18 seasons and, he hopes, a record 13 major league uniforms. As a pinch hitter, he's especially vulnerable to failure.

"If he goes 0 for 4, I just tell him to take something positive out of the game," Stairs said. "You made a good play — you hit a cutoff man — you backed up a play on defense. Always have something positive to think about. There's nothing worse than going home on a negative thought."

On Tuesday, Harper got two doubles in his first two at-bats against the Houston Astros. The first one was a bit lucky; a chopper that bounced on hard infield dirt and over the first baseman's head.

When he came up a second time, two hecklers could be heard over the relative quiet of Space Coast Stadium.

"O-ver ra-ted!" the goofballs shouted. They had barely finished expelling their breath when Harper lined a hard double into the right-field corner for his second hit of the inning.

See what happens when you make him mad?

"Yeah, I heard it," Harper acknowledged. "You can hear everything out there. You've just got to clear the mechanism, think straight ahead and can't really get into all that.

"I've been hearing it since college and high school. It doesn't get old because I love it. I like when people say that kind of stuff about me. I like all the bad stuff."

Harper seems able to turn a negative into a positive.

"It's definitely fun," Harper said. "This has never been work to me. I've always had fun doing it. Of course it's a job, but if you're not having fun doing it, then why are you playing, you know?"

Stairs said Harper's attitude is going to serve him well.

"He has an idea how to play the game," Stairs said. "He has some things to work on but he's committed to his approach at hitting, and his approach at defense where he's been working out at a new position. He's done well. He just has to keep working at it and he's going to be a hell of a player."

And, Zimmerman says, indications are Harper will play at an elite level once he reaches the majors.

"At 18 years old, he's pretty far ahead of where a lot of people have ever been," Zimmerman said.

Follow Dave throughout spring training on Twitter — @AnswerDave — and check out the Stew on Facebook for more coverage.

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