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Bryce Harper getting cash registers ringing in Hagerstown

HAGERSTOWN — The fan was desperate to get Bryce Harper’s autograph.

But he didn’t have a pen.

So he went to Municipal Stadium’s merchandise store on Opening Day for the Hagerstown Suns, but they were sold out of Sharpies. Desperate, he eyed the bucket of pens and pencils sitting behind the counter. He offered to buy the lone Sharpie from employee Paige Tanner.

“I’ll give it to you for a dollar,” Tanner said. The fan happily forked over his dollar bill.

In so-called “Harperstown,” even used pens are coveted just for a chance at the new baseball star’s signature.

Fans filled the small space in Hagerstown throughout the ball game, a rarity that didn’t give store employees Tanner and Hannah Walla any rest.

Watch video from opening day in Hagerstown

“It was chaotic,” Tanner said. “The line was just stringing around the hat area over there. We’re trying to get to everyone as fast as we can.”

Before the Suns’ home opener April 15 was halfway over, the store had made close to $2,000 in merchandise sales, Tanner said. Jerseys, programs, Sharpies and sweatshirts all sold out quickly.

The town of Hagerstown, which sits near I-81 and I-70 close to the Pennsylvania border, is more than 70 miles from Baltimore and far from where most Washington Nationals fans call home. But that hasn’t stopped the crowds and die-hard fans from coming out to see the big commotion who will be joining the Nationals’ ranks. Companies are already sponsoring an athlete who hasn’t gotten television coverage yet. And for now, the “Harperstown” T-shirts and other merchandise have been flying off the racks.

The crack of the bat brought a sellout crowd to its feet on an April Friday night. More than 6,000 fans dressed in orange, black and white bought out merchandise shops and hot dogs and cheered out their favorite player’s name at every at-bat. Parking anywhere close to the ballpark was scarce. The scene isn’t usual for Hagerstown’s home openers: last year’s first game drew 4,103, while 2009’s home opener brought 2,556 fans.

No. 1 draft pick

Harper, 18, was the No. 1 pick of the 2010 Major League Baseball draft. He signed a five-year, $9.9 million contract with the Washington Nationals literally minutes before a deadline that would have seen the Nationals lose their rights to him.

During spring training, the Nationals sent Harper to their Class-A Hagerstown farm team so that he could get more at-bats and improve his outfield skills. Harper could be called up to a higher-level farm team or even the Nationals at any point, so fans have been flocking to Hagerstown to catch him at the start of his career. Even on the road, the Suns have seen large crowds. The first game of the season, April 7, against the Rome (Ga.) Braves drew 4,133 fans.

“It hasn’t been this busy in a while,” said Mike Noland, a Hagerstown native who came to the Suns game, surrounded by swarming fans in a gift shop. While Noland said he sometimes will come to the ballpark for beer specials on Thursday nights and sees a slightly bigger crowd, the sort of attention the Suns’ home opener against the Lakewood (N.J.) Blue Claws got this year is beyond normal.

Most baseball prospects don’t get the same publicity as top-rated NFL draftees or NBA prospects, but Harper — and Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg before him — are attracting fan drool and fan dollars alike.

Patrick Fox and Donovan Ramsey, both 16, drove an hour and a half from Gaithersburg to catch the home opening weekend’s games. Fox and Ramsey said they’d both read about Harper in the news, and don’t normally come to Municipal Stadium for games.

“Everybody talks about him like he’s going to be good,” Fox said. “I thought it’d be good to see him.”

Nancy Golden and Kelly Geer came from Takoma Park and Reston, Va., respectively, to watch Harper, just as they went around to watch Strasburg play in minor league games. To see the young stars in smaller venues for a lower price and before they become big starts is rewarding, they said.

“We’re Nationals fans,” Geer said. “We do suffer. We deserve our prospects.”

Golden said that if Harper sticks around Hagerstown a little bit longer, she thinks it’ll be worth it to come back for another game or two.

Corporations cashing in

And it’s not only fans and ballpark operators who are looking to cash in on the Harper name. Companies are eager to use Harper’s fledgling fame to get recognized and build up their brands.

Call-center company Miss Utility, based in Hanover, has paid about $3,000 to sponsor each of Harper’s at-bats while he’s with the Hagerstown Suns. So fans hear, “Now batting Bryce Harper, brought to you by Miss Utility, reminding you to call 811 before you dig,” over the Suns’ PA system.

Miss Utility does promotions and sponsorships with several minor league teams around the state. But when it paired up with Owings Mills advertising firm MGH, the idea was born to sponsor an at-bat, something that hadn’t been done before, said Miss Utility’s director of marketing, Matt Ruddo.

“We didn’t realize we were going to get so much exposure,” Ruddo said. “It not only benefitted us regionally, but nationally, too. So, a lot of Miss Utility-type centers all over the country got exposure as well.”

The company received phone calls and coverage from media outlets and sports organizations all over the country about its sponsoring of an at-bat. So, asking the Hagerstown Suns for the company to sponsor a national star while operating on a shoestring budget was more than worth it, Ruddo said. The sponsorship won’t move up with Harper when he is called up to the Nationals, but the Suns will keep the sponsorship for other players and for Harper’s replacement, he said.

“Followers of the parent team are going to be following the progress of a potential superstar making his way through the ranks,” said Lee Berke, president of LHB Sports Entertainment and Media Inc. “A sponsor’s looking for eyeballs, for attention for their products and services, so why not add yourself to an athlete like Harper.”

Scott Boras, Harper’s agent and head of baseball agency Boras Corp. in Newport Beach, Calif., could not be reached for comment. Boras’ clients have included Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Strasburg and the Orioles’ Matt Wieters.

But Harper’s fame at minor league level gives companies a good reason to cash in with sponsorships that would otherwise be more expensive in the major leagues, said Matt Saler, a sports account manager for IMRE in Sparks.

“Obviously it’s more cost-efficient at the minor league level,” Saler said. “Very few athletes have that big of a reach when they’re at minor league level.”

And very few athletes are able to cash in on sponsorships at the minor league level.

A deal with Under Armour

Harper’s big deal is with Baltimore-based Under Armour, which signed him to a multi-year deal. Harper wears Under Armour cleats and apparel during games and will be featured in in-store and advertising promotional campaigns, for an undisclosed sum.

“Bryce distinguished himself as an amazing athlete with raw talent,” said Matt Mirchin, senior vice president of sports marketing for Under Armour in an emailed response to questions. “Combine that with his hunger to succeed at the next level and commitment to training, he’s the perfect next generation athlete to represent the Under Armour brand.”

Said Saler: “The partnership makes sense. It’s more of an investment on Under Armour’s part. All the young kids look to him, and will want to wear what Bryce is wearing. All signs point to Bryce being a big star in the future.”

But it may not be until Harper’s entrance on the Nationals that he’ll get larger television exposure. Mid-Atlantic Sports Network executive vice president of programming Jim Cuddihy said in an emailed response to questions that while plans could change as the season progresses, the network has no plans to televise minor league baseball.