A free man

No longer the hyped prospect in small towns, Bryce Harper blends into the big league scene. Rob Tringali for ESPN The Magazine

AS THE PRODIGY stood at his locker before his first game as a Washington National, preparing for the moment for which he'd been cultivated like a champion orchid, he felt a sense of serenity wash over him. He was 19 years, 195 days old, and as he looked at his name slapped above a big league locker, his mind surely included one thought among many:

It's about damned time.

People want to inflict their worldview onto his. What about the pressure that comes with being a teenager in a man's game? What about the expectations that inevitably trail the hype? These are complicated matters with a simple answer: Bryce Harper is programmed differently. He is more comfortable in a big league clubhouse than anywhere else and more productive in a big league uniform than a minor league one. For him, it gets easier now.

"It's finally going to be an even playing field for him up here," Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond says. "He's not going to be looked at as 'Bryce Harper' anymore. Now that he's up, it's different. On the field, everything's level."

Pressure for Harper was biding his time, waiting for the call he felt was rightfully his. Pressure was staying challenged and patient in a world of crummy hotel rooms, cramped minor league clubhouses and wild-thing pitchers with a point to prove. Pressure was facing a summer of humping around second- and third-level towns as a teenage sideshow: Bryce Harper Bobblehead Night in Harrisburg, Pa.; Bryce Harper Garden Gnome Night in Hagerstown, Md.

"In the minor leagues, it's crazy," says Stephen Strasburg, whose 2010 arrival was Harper-esque. "Teams put on PR stuff when you come to town. It's hard to imagine if you haven't experienced it. You're dealing with so much."