"My job," Tarasco says, "is to take this rare metal—something in its raw form that already has great value—and forge it and shape it and polish it into a sword. It takes time."
That is why there is a place like Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium, one of the last remnants of a time when minor league baseball was a pastime more than commerce. It is a quaint ballpark (capacity: 4,600; this season, for the first time, some seats behind home plate have actual chair backs) and the third-oldest minor league stadium in the country. (It was built in 1930, in six weeks.) Ridges of Stonehenge limestone run beneath Hagerstown, and the stone was quarried to construct some of Hagerstown's oldest buildings.
One of the limestone ridges also runs smack through leftfield of Municipal Stadium. It made the task of leveling the land in 1930 so difficult that the builders of the ballpark threw up their hands and left it as is. And so the Nationals sent their $9.9 million investment to a ball field as Salvador Dalí might have imagined one. The outfield slopes noticeably in two directions: It rises from shortstop to the leftfield wall while falling from leftfield to centerfield.
The Suns and the Grasshoppers, both battling for the first-half division championship, had an intense game on June 6. The Suns were peeved that the Greensboro pitcher, Zachary Neal, a 22-year-old righthander, was staring down their dugout after every strikeout. There was trash talking on both sides. Hagerstown hitting coach Marlon Anderson, a former big leaguer, shouted to his players, "Someone's got to do something about this!"
Harper decided he would be the one. He would try to hit a retaliatory home run. "I had to do something for my team," he says. "I hit it out. I think that is probably the first ball where I attempted anything like that.
"There were guys on my team that got shown up that night, and I wanted to back them up. It's all part of baseball."
Neal's gaze remained fixed on Harper as he rounded the bases. After Harper passed third base, sensing the pitcher's eyes on him, he turned his head to Neal and gave him an air kiss in stride. That was it, a gesture so subtle that Harris, who was in the stands that night, didn't see it and didn't know what the fuss was about until manager Brian Daubach called him later that night. But when word spread about the kiss, Bowden and Schmidt were emboldened to lash into Harper, and the prospect was branded as a "monster" (New York Daily News)—and worse in the blogosphere.
"It was heat of the moment," Harper says. "I didn't want to run around the bases and cuss him out and have little kids see that, have my family see that. I'd rather them see me blowing a kiss than mother-effing him."
Says Harris, "I think people vilified him and it was unfair. It was very unfair. I'll tell you honestly, the pitcher's lucky it wasn't worse than that. There are other guys who would not have blown a kiss and would have gone out and kicked his ass. That's the reality of the game."
Oddly, at least in a world where sports and jurisprudence mix regularly, the worst criticisms of Harper have come not from anything he's done off the field, but from inside the white lines. (His transgressions from junior college included a game during the Junior College World Series when he spiked an opponent and got ejected for drawing a line with his bat in protest of a call.) He left high school after his sophomore year, getting his GED, to chase better competition. (How did that work out? He hit .443 in junior college, .343 in the Arizona Fall League, .389 in major league spring training and .318 in Hagerstown before a slow start in Harrisburg, where he batted .208 in his first 15 games.) He is enthralled by the game, its competition and its history.