Harper, Nats visit 200 youth players

Harper, Nats visit 200 youth players

WASHINGTON -- Twelve-year-old Ethan Barry has always dreamed of running into a Major League player around his town -- especially one of his idols, such as Bryce Harper.

On Saturday, Barry's and about 200 other youth baseball players' fantasies became a reality when Harper visited Friendship Recreation Center to answer kids' questions, pose for photos and provide advice. Harper was one of nine Nationals players to visit Washington and Virginia youth baseball sites Saturday morning before the team's game against the Padres at 4:05 p.m. ET.

"It was just so cool to see him in person," Barry said. "We were literally like 10 feet away from him. It's amazing."

The youth players, wearing Nationals caps and sporting team merchandise, began gathering around the field about an hour before Harper arrived around 9:55 a.m. Harper's walk-up song, "Flower," by Moby, blared from speakers as Harper entered. The kids jumped to their feet in cheers before chanting Harper's name.

Harper began by asking Nationals trivia questions before fielding questions, which ranged from his pregame routine to his favorite ice cream flavor. He explained how he looked up to his dad growing up, advised kids to play multiple sports and told them they shouldn't play for participation trophies.

In about an hour-long visit, the Las Vegas native also discussed how he developed into a star at a young age. Harper's dad threw red beans and bottle caps near him when he was younger, and he was tasked with hitting them with a broom stick. The pair then set up a fan that moved the beans and caps in mid-air, creating an even bigger challenge.

"He's one of my main idols that I look up to for advice," 11-year-old Zachary Isaacs said. "To see how he works and how he plays so I can try to become like him, it was very cool."

Like the kids he spoke to, Harper also dreamed of spotlighting the front of a Wheaties box when he was younger. Now, the 24-year-old is one of the biggest stars in baseball, with a National League Most Valuable Player Award and four All-Star appearances. In his sixth MLB season, Harper's hitting a career-best .340 and is tied for the most home runs in the Majors (15).

Harper smashes a two-run jack

But Harper has also helped the Nationals give back to the community. The team began the Nationals Youth Baseball Uniform Program in 2015, giving a Nationals T-shirt or jersey and cap to every child playing baseball or softball in a D.C.-sanctioned Little League or the District of Columbia Parks and Recreation Rookie League.

"You grow up dreaming about that," Harper said of children wearing his jersey. "You grow up trying to emulate all your favorites and all your heroes. It's something that takes you back a little bit and makes you a little bit humble every single day."

As Harper exited the recreation center to head to Nationals Park, children chased him and screamed his name, savoring every last moment with the Nationals star. Harper is used to those kind of cheers almost every night on the diamond, but he touched more kids Saturday than almost anyone else can in an hour.

"He's just really likable for any fan of baseball," Isaacs said. "He just loves baseball. If you're a fan of baseball, the game ... you would really like him because he works really hard to strive for greatness."

Kyle Melnick is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.