Harper fits bill as the Nationals' latest treasure

VIERA, Fla. – The rescue operation lasted two minutes. The target leapt onto the back of a golf cart. The driver jerked it forward. The target almost fell off. He composed himself as the cart peeled around a corner and toward a white van. He hopped into the back of the van. It went around a fence, over a bump, through a parking lot, up Stadium Parkway a quarter-mile and into a handicapped parking spot. The van didn't have a handicapped sticker.

The rules are different, you see, for Bryce Harper(notes). They have to be. He is 18 years old and the biggest star in Washington Nationals camp – bigger than one of the game's best third basemen, Ryan Zimmerman(notes), and the $126 million man, Jayson Werth(notes), and even the last phenom to create such a frenzy, Stephen Strasburg(notes). It was why, a day after fans had pinned Harper to a fence as they frothed for his signature, the Nationals crafted his escape plan before the zombies descended again.

They are fiercely protective of Harper, just as they were of Strasburg a year ago. The two couldn't be more different in how they handle instant celebrity. Harper is an extrovert, Strasburg an introvert. Harper relishes the limelight, Strasburg shies from it. Harper was bred for this, Strasburg thrust into it. As he recovers from Tommy John surgery, Strasburg is no longer the focus of every eyeball in camp, and he doesn't miss it.

Harper loves it. He is Baseball Bieber. He is a teenage prodigy. He excites people en masse. He set a trend with his eye black war paint last year – and is killing it this year after a number of his new teammates gave him the same advice: "Don't wear the eye black." What, you think it's a coincidence Justin Bieber cut his hair the same day Harper ditched his signature look?

If he were a normal kid – if he lacked the freakish ability to hit baseballs 500 feet, the gumption to attend the College of Southern Nevada at 17 and the talent to thrive there and go No. 1 in the 2010 draft to the Nationals – Bryce Harper would be a senior in high school. It is imperative, as we figure out who and what Harper is, as we dissect his ascent and diarize his career, to remember that. Because all that could sideline Harper at this point, it seems, is the vacuum of fame into which he has entered.

Harper wore his cap backward Tuesday, and the image was striking. There was another left-handed-hitting, outfield-roaming, sweet-swinging top overall pick who fancied a turned-around cap. When he was 18, he tried to kill himself.

The Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) tableau often excludes the January 1988 day when he swallowed nearly 300 aspirin after a fight with his father. The expectations were too high, the pressure too much. The machine ate up and spit out football's foremost prodigy, Todd Marinovich, and the fashion in which Harper was whisked away from fans looked so much like a scene in which Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears could have starred. Harper was asked about his baseball heroes. He named three: Mickey Mantle, George Brett and Pete Rose. Mantle drank himself to death. Rose gambled himself out of the game.

By all accounts, Bryce Harper is a fine kid. Cocky, of course, and abundantly aware of his talents. And still naïve to the world. High school senior. High school senior. Repeat it once more: High school senior. Even if, at 18, he looks the part, acts the part and plays the part, he can't possibly know the part, not yet. All the baseball talent in the world does not necessarily direct players down the right path.

And that is precisely why the Nationals feel the need to shield Harper as much as they can. They need to fill his blank canvas with good, to keep him from every demon and vice. They need to support and nurture him without enabling him. They need to promote his sense of accomplishment without supercharging his ego. The Nationals have a treasure. They must ensure it's not overrun with tarnish.

On Field 1 at the Nationals' practice facility, veteran Jerry Hairston Jr.(notes) sidled up to Harper after a round of batting practice. "Hey, Harp," he said. "Can you leave that way?"

Hairston pointed to left field. Harper nodded. He had just hammered two home runs to the opposite field. He wasn't afraid to show his exploits. Harper finished first in group sprints three of four times. He did calisthenics faster than his teammates. He liked showing off. After hitting three straight bouncers in the batting cages, Harper was dissatisfied. "One more," he requested. He hit a screaming liner.

Harper said he feels at home. He always played up a few age groups at a time, a baseball savant from an early age pushed by a demanding father, and it etched into his head an expectation of success. The Nationals brought Harper to camp to get a taste of major league life. He doesn't want to leave.

"Why can't it be realistic?" he said. "Why can't I come in here and think I can make this team? I've exceeded expectations my whole life. Everybody said I couldn't do it last year at CSN. This is a whole different level, totally different people, and I respect that. But I'm going to make their decision hard."

Harper is not making this team. Period. He can hit 1.000 with a 4.000 slugging percentage this spring, and he'll still start his season in the low minors, probably at Class A Hagerstown. He'll thrill fans there with his batting-practice exploits and in-game power. He'll get used to the grind of a season. And though he'll travel the Eastern seaboard by bus, like he did on all those rides at CSN, he'll pine for another sort of transportation.

"I hope we can drive on some trains," he said. "I like trains."

Damn if Harper didn't sound, for a moment, like what he is: a kid. He looks like more. He acts like more. He sounds like more. He's got the superstar pedigree. It's moments like those, though, in which his vulnerability seeps outs and he snaps us to.

Harper may avoid all the pitfalls to come. He may be of such strong mind, of such great character, of such tunneled vision that none of this fazes him. Just in case, the rules are different for Bryce Harper. And with very good reason.