Thursday, June 3, 2010
Updated: June 7, 3:42 PM ET
Yeah, he's that good
By Jerry Crasnick
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. -- Bryce Harper's batting practice sessions are prolific, for sure. They're also bilingual, with prodigious drives in matching soundtracks.
The regular-season moon shots come with thunderous wood cracks, and the playoff bombs are accompanied by resonant metal pings.
Harper, 17, swung a Marucci maple bat for the College of Southern Nevada this season, then swapped it for a black DeMarini aluminum model once the Coyotes arrived at the Junior College World Series in Colorado. In accordance with his routine, his first BP session began with three bunts, a harmless ground ball or two, a line drive off the pitcher's protective screen and another liner to the outfield. The sequence was more reminiscent of Juan Pierre than Mickey Mantle, Harper's baseball icon.
In hindsight, this was merely the calm before the storm -- or the segment preceding the big guitar crankup in "Stairway to Heaven."
Once Harper's synapses started firing, balls began traveling to the nether regions of the Mesa State College practice field. An opposite-field home run landed amid the tackling dummies and the football equipment. Then Harper launched one to right field, where it became a Tiger Woods-caliber speck in the distance. And just for good measure, he hammered a drive to dead center with a 20 mph wind in his face. The ball split a set of goal posts, maybe 480 feet from home plate, and a Southern Nevada student manager raised his arms in triumph, as if to signal that Harper had just kicked a field goal.
If this were a children's book, they could call it, "Cloudy with a Chance of Baseballs."
It's trendy these days to say that the ball sounds different when it leaves the bat of special players. In Harper's case, it also looks, smells, feels and tastes different. He hits balls with an ozone-threatening, windshield-smashing authority that has to be seen to be believed.
"You sit there and you go, 'No way,' and he just keeps doing it," said Southern Nevada pitcher Donn Roach. "You'll see some other guys occasionally run into one and get it up there. But every other ball he hits is 600 feet. It's ridiculous."
One day, Harper's teammates will have some neat stories to tell their grandchildren. What kind of stories will Harper, his family, Scott Boras and the Washington Nationals be telling?
|Harper, a Scott Boras advisee, is the perhaps the best power-hitting prospect to come along in years.|
The Big Day awaits
Last year's hot Boras commodity, righty pitcher Stephen Strasburg, will be the center of attention when he takes the mound for his big league debut Tuesday against Pittsburgh at Nationals Park. He's baseball's new velocity king and Washington's $15.1 million baby.
Barring a major surprise, the Nationals will have some equally momentous news to share Monday night, when they select Harper, a catcher, with the first pick in the 2010 Major League Baseball draft. The announcement will give Boras clearance to perform some negotiating déjà voodoo and try to land Harper a deal of at least seven figures with Washington.
Harper's status as a No. 1 pick is a tribute to his diverse skill set. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Harper combines incredible power with a strong arm, above-average speed and a palpable sense of joy for the game. He wears gobs of eye black that drip down his cheeks, and plays the game with intensity and emotion. Some days he'll wear batting gloves. When his hands are sweaty, he'll take off the gloves, squat in the dirt and gather up a scoopful to get a better grip.
"You see guys with great tools and guys who are baseball players," said a scout who's watched Harper since he was 14. "But you usually don't see them mixed together, especially at that young an age."
Draft night will also serve as validation for the novel road he's taken. It's been a year since Harper, with the blessing of his family and his adviser, Boras, made clear his intentions to obtain his GED, skip his final two years of high school and play in the wooden-bat Scenic West Athletic Conference. He continued to live at home, sleep in his own bed, eat his mom Sheri's cooking and enjoy the opportunity to play alongside his brother, Bryan, a lefty pitcher who will be selected a few rounds later in the draft on Monday.
Harper hit .443 with 31 home runs, 98 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 66 games, and reigned supreme while facing players two, three or four years older. What can he become? The Boras camp envisions him as a Larry Walker type -- a five-tool corner outfielder with the ability to change a game in multiple ways. His coach, Tim Chambers, believes that he'll start his professional career as a catcher, and will eventually shift to third base or a corner outfield spot to enhance his longevity.
The back story, obviously, contributes to Harper's mystique. Harper's chances of developing quietly and unobtrusively ended when he appeared on the cover of the June 8, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated, which dubbed him "The Chosen One" and "Baseball's LeBron James." Inevitably, some friends and assorted bloggers began referring to him as "LeBryce."
All those newspaper and Internet profiles of Harper paint a picture of an average teenager with extraordinary gifts. He's Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and an honor student. He first began lugging around a "Bam-Bam" bat at age 3, sleeps with his baseball equipment, loves his dog, is partial to Yoo-hoo, Snickers and Fruity Pebbles, drives a black Toyota truck, and still hangs around with his peer group at Las Vegas High School or Green Valley High when he's not demoralizing juco pitching staffs.
"I'm still thinking about the prom and girls and all that stuff," Harper said last week. "I still hang out with all my buddies and have a good time on the weekend and play Wiffle Ball in the street and go snowboarding and go to the beach. I'm still a kid. I'm a kid living the dream, I guess."
Harper once told a reporter that he plans to buy his father a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and his mother a horse ranch once he arrives in the big leagues. He loves Pete Rose because his dad was a fan of the Big Red Machine, and he came to appreciate Mantle after watching the HBO movie "61*."
He's also a dirt dog of Dustin Pedroia proportions. Chambers, Harper's coach, is an early riser, and they've been known to swap text messages at 5 a.m. while Harper is on his way to his morning workout.
"He's told me a number of times, 'Coach, I just want to be a kid playing baseball with my friends. I don't want to be a superstar. I just want to be a player,"' Chambers said. "And I'm like, 'Well, Bryce, it is what it is. In my opinion, you're a superstar."'
|Metal bat or wood bat, Harper hits the ball with power -- a lot of power.|
Long summer ahead
As draft day approaches, interesting subplots abound. In early May, SI.com made some inside baseball waves when it reported that the Nationals were working to add Chambers to their scouting department. Chambers spent 10 years as a "bird dog" scout for Atlanta when Roy Clark was running the team's scouting operation. Now Clark is an assistant general manager in Washington, so there are some personal ties. But Washington GM Mike Rizzo and Chambers have both denied that any professional relationship is on the horizon.
"I'm not an associate scout of theirs," Chambers said. "I'm not with anyone at all. It was kind of a funny thing to hear. I laughed when I heard it. 'Yeah, I'm going to go with Bryce, and then when he gets to the big leagues, they're going to kick me to the curb."'
Chambers has picked his spots with Harper and the media this spring, limiting access when Harper lost weight and appeared stressed by the cameras that followed him from the dugout to the batting cage. Before the JUCO World Series, Southern Nevada declared Harper off-limits to the media. Then the plans changed and a 30-minute news conference took place with Harper, his father, Ron, and Chambers at the podium. The one precondition: Draft-related questions were off limits.
The trail of dots inevitably led back to Boras, who always seems to find his inner Belichick around this time of year. It's understandable that Boras has tried to limit demands on Harper in recent weeks, given Harper's focus on helping his team win and the natural buzz surrounding the draft.
But Boras has also tried to flex his super-agent muscles and call the shots in areas beyond his domain. During the preparation for this piece, Boras tried to dictate story angles and questions for Harper, and decreed that Harper's teammates would not be available for interviews. When Boras was told that Southern Nevada media relations aren't his department, he responded with an angry tirade.
Do Bryce Harper and his family really know what awaits them? Harper lives to play baseball, but history says he's about to go into the witness protection program while Boras and the Nationals haggle over his "fair market value." It's likely that certain media outlets and even some veteran big league players will call him greedy and self-entitled for trying to push the financial envelope. J.D. Drew and Pedro Alvarez are among Harper's fellow Boras advisees who learned the importance of a thick skin during contract talks.
Boras likes to set records, keep 'em guessing and use deadlines for leverage. And in this case, stagnation is a two-way street: Even if Harper wanted to sign right away and begin his pro career, it's in MLB's best interests for him to become a National at the Aug. 15 deadline so that other draft picks can't piggyback on his good fortune. When it comes to the draft, the folks in the commissioner's office aren't fans of the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory.
Oddly enough, Harper's teammates -- the ones that Boras so zealously wants to shield from the media -- help debunk the most damaging perception making the rounds. In late April, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus talked to an unnamed baseball official who called Harper "a bad, bad guy" and "the anti-Joe Mauer." The picture emerged of a young athlete with the wrong kind of makeup and what Goldstein called a "disturbingly large sense of entitlement."
Five of Harper's teammates -- Trevor Kirk, Andy Weissberg, Wes Hunt, Scott Dysinger and Donn Roach -- shared their fondness and admiration for him during the juco tournament in Grand Junction. They know that his high profile helped lure more scouts to Southern Nevada games and help boost everyone's pro aspirations.
"He's an awesome teammate," Kirk said of Harper. "He'll get down the line and do some things that you'd think a superstar wouldn't do. Every day he works harder and harder to get better. He's not one of those guys who thinks, 'Oh, I'm good, so I'm going to take a break here and there.'"
Said Roach: "He's a great kid and I love him to death. We'll mess with him a little bit and say things like, 'You're the best ever.' But he takes it good. He doesn't walk around with his head held high or his nose in the air or anything."
People are on him -- harsh stuff, and guys making fun of him. It's all jealousy. They're not going to make fun of someone who sucks. They're always going to talk crap about someone when they're better. That's just how it is.
-- Teammate Scott Dysinger on Harper
Center of attention
Harper has had his share of on-field flare-ups this season, and they suggest he has some growing up to do. In March, he engaged in a running dialogue with the Western Nevada team bench. First, the Western players rode him hard, and Harper responded by taking his sweet time on a home run trot. The next day, Harper tried to gun down a baserunner rounding first base from his post in right field. When the Western Nevada players continued to bark at him, he bowed in acknowledgement and was ejected from the game.
A National League scout in attendance said that Harper's ejection was a "joke" and never should have occurred. Harper's teammates agreed, and said he's handled himself well amid frequently trying circumstances.
"It happens everywhere he goes," Scott Dysinger said. "People are on him; harsh stuff, and guys making fun of him. It's all jealousy. They're not going to make fun of someone who sucks. They're always going to talk crap about someone when they're better. That's just how it is."
The occasional potshot notwithstanding, Chambers said he's never had a moment of doubt about Harper's character.
"People forget that he's 17 years old and he should be a junior in high school," Chambers said. "So they're going to try to get under his skin, and they tried hard, and about the middle of this season our team decided that we were going to be deaf the rest of the way. That was probably the best move we made. If we didn't answer back, the bench jockeying across the field seemed to stop faster."
Harper didn't help his reputation any when he was ejected from Southern Nevada's 10-8 JUCO World Series loss to San Jacinto on Wednesday for contesting a called third strike by drawing a line in the dirt with his bat. He received a two-game suspension, and was back at the team hotel when the Coyotes were eliminated by Iowa Western on Thursday.
Now all roads lead to the draft, and the inevitable challenges of pro ball. Harper has always been the best player on the field, doesn't know what it means to struggle with a bat in his hands, and is sure to be tested by raucous fans in small minor league towns.
But he's certainly familiar with expectations. In a 13-5 win over Pitt Community College in Grand Junction, Harper singled twice, drew a walk, scored three runs, blocked about 10 pitches in the dirt, made an aggressive tag play at home, stole a base and threw out a runner attempting to steal. Yet still, a reporter asked Chambers to comment on how Harper's teammates "picked him up" when he failed to contribute much to the Southern Nevada cause.
A strong support group certainly helps, and Harper has lots of guidance at his disposal. Chambers has earned high marks for the way he's handled his star prodigy this season. No matter what you think of Boras, he always demands focus and accountability from his players. And Harper's parents, Ron and Sheri, made sure to pass along their blue-collar sensibilities to Bryce and his two siblings.
"I don't put him on a pedestal," Ron Harper said. "That's everybody else. I still have him doing his stuff around the house and keeping it simple. I try to treat him just like any other 17-year-old."
Millions of dollars and thousands more headlines await, but first things first: Bryce Harper, the best power-hitting prospect in recent memory, has some trash to take out and a lawn that needs to be mowed.
|Harper has all the tools to be a premium catcher, but a position switch may be in his future.|
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.