Harper keeping future in perspective
Star prospect has eye on championship while Draft looms
HENDERSON, Nev. -- Bryce Harper would very much like to be just one of the guys, just one cog in a championship-caliber junior college team. But he understands that such a wish might not be realistic.
It is, after all, a situation that has been self-created. Harper knew what he was getting into when he left high school prior to his junior season, got his GED and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada at the age of 17.
Pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and touted as baseball's LeBron James, he was already on radar screens everywhere as the next best prospect anyone had ever seen. The decision to jump ahead and into the Draft class of 2010 only intensified that spotlight.
Harper likes to look at it differently. Others, including all 30 Major League organizations, may see him as "the guy," but to Harper, he's not feeling that pressure now that he's playing for the nationally ranked College of Southern Nevada.
"I don't have to be the 'Cinderella Man' anymore, if that makes sense," Harper said during an extensive interview with MLB.com. "I don't have to go out there and make sure I go 4-for-4 every day. I can go 0-for and we still win the ballgame. That's all that matters to me, as long as we have that 'W' and by the end of the year, we have that ring on our finger, that's all that matters. One through nine, everyone can swing it. I don't have to be that guy anymore. I want to be, but I don't have to be."
Truth be told, he has been. Harper has hit .420 with eight homers, 27 RBIs, an .864 slugging percentage and a .514 on-base percentage in 27 games. He leads or is tied for the team lead in nine offensive categories. He is doing, as one scout put it, exactly what was expected of him. Living up to that kind of hype might sound extraordinary, but to Harper, off the field has been a bigger challenge than on.
"It is harder classes. You have to work," Harper said about the academic jump. "[In high school], I went into class every day, it was so easy for me, I didn't really have any trouble with school or anything. The transition from high school classes to junior college classes has been pretty big.
"Everything's been pretty easy on the baseball field with everybody around. They've made it so much easier for me."
For those thinking this unusual jump is too much for any teenager to deal with, there are variables that need to be considered. The first, and most important, is the comfort level Harper clearly has at CSN. Coach Tim Chambers has known the Harper family for years. Harper himself has worked out, taken batting practice, virtually grown up, at the school's facilities.
As a player who generally played at higher levels against older competition, Harper also knew most of his new teammates quite well. And he still lives at home, so despite the accelerated timetable, he gets to hold onto a little bit of his remaining teen years.
"The best thing about living at home is my mom's cooking," Harper said. "There's nothing better than having your mom, coming home to a fresh-cooked meal. Being able to go home, see my mom, my dad, my family, it's great, to pat my dog on the head and say, 'What up, boy?' Being able to see my family every day, having that comfort at home, being able to sleep in my own bed, things like that. There's a full thing of laundry downstairs right now. Sorry, Dad."
Then there's the level of competition to consider. High school baseball in Nevada, most agree, is down compared to previous years. Harper, as the best player by far on his team and in the area, wasn't likely to be challenged by many opposing pitchers. And that's if they even bothered pitching to him at all.
Making the switch may have been one of the reasons Harper struggled a little bit out of the gate. Initially facing his own team's staff during intrasquad games, then getting into the grueling JUCO schedule that typically has CSN playing back-to-back doubleheaders, Harper didn't seem quite like himself when things got going.
|"I'm not the only guy out here playing. There are scouts out here to look at the other guys, see how they're doing, and not just me. If I can help everybody else, then great."|
|-- Bryce Harper|
"I don't think I struggled, it was just getting into that mix of seeing all those guys, seeing 88-91 [mph] every day," said Harper, who definitely does not suffer from a lack of self-confidence. "It wasn't me struggling, it was just that transition. I struggled the beginning of high school, also. It's those first 20 at-bats, you don't see live pitching. Everyone's going to struggle. It wasn't that big of a deal to me. And after those 20 at-bats, I got going and everything started happening."
As if Harper needed more to bring attention to himself. Scouts have known about him for years and weren't likely to miss an at-bat or inning all season, whether he was hitting .220 or .420. While some might shrink from that or come down with a serious case of "draft-itis," perhaps because it's become a regular part of his baseball life, Harper doesn't seem to be fazed by the scrutiny. While it's apparent that he enjoys the attention, he also sees an altruistic byproduct of scouts coming in droves.
"There's always been scouts around, there's always been people around watching. I like that because you're in the middle of it," Harper said. "They've been around since I was 10 or 11 years old so they're just other people in the stands. You can't notice them. I don't notice them. I see them and I'm just like, 'Whatever.' I have to play my game, go out there and be me.
"There's like 20 other guys on the club that could play pro baseball. I'm not the only guy out here playing. There are scouts out here to look at the other guys, see how they're doing, and not just me. If I can help everybody else, then great."
It's not just scouts who have been keying in on Harper, who's caught and played third and the outfield for CSN so far this spring. It's become a common occurrence for opponents to try to get under the phenom's skin. Some have mocked him by applying eye-black in the same fashion Harper does. There's been plenty of trash talking and threats of brushback pitches.
For the most part, Harper has dealt with it relatively maturely. But a scan of YouTube -- where a fan can find just about every at-bat he's had -- will turn up an instance when he reacted. After homering against Western Nevada, Harper can be seen saluting toward the visiting dugout as he rounds third. That eventually led to an ejection in the next inning for what was termed "unsportsmanlike conduct." There are likely to be two sides to every story and there's probably some truth to both. Western Nevada clearly was saying something to get Harper, and his teammates, to respond. And it's also likely that Harper overreacted to the taunting.
Chambers has told Harper and his teammates that they must ignore those distractions. If a national championship is truly the objective, no one at CSN will be well-served if there are future ejections. Harper probably learned his lesson when he had to sit out the first game of the next series, according to conference rules, and rather than shoulder the burden entirely on his own, he sincerely believes it's not just him with a bull's-eye on his jersey.
"There's a huge target on our whole team," Harper said. "We're the No. 1 team in the country. Everybody wants to knock us off. Everybody wants to take it to us. There's going to be trash talking from everybody. Our team is just going to have to deal with it, just do it with our bats, our gloves and our arms. There's a huge target on our whole team. It's not just me. I've been able to cope with everybody."
There will be even more to cope with come June, when -- even if Harper claims it's not the be-all, end-all -- he will hear his name called at some point in the very early going of the First-Year Player Draft. Then it will be up to that team and Harper's advisor, agent Scott Boras, to hammer out a deal.
For his part, Harper is claiming not to be overly concerned with all of the Draft hoopla. His motivation to go to CSN was more about the challenges, both educationally and athletically, that came with moving so quickly to this new level. He says that his priorities are winning a championship and then representing his country with USA Baseball. The Draft? If it happens, it happens.
"It wasn't primarily about the Draft," Harper said. "I could care less about the Draft. If I could come back next year and play here, I'd come back next year and play here.
"The rest of the spring, hopefully we're out there in Grand Junction [site of the Junior College World Series] dog-piling. If that happens, that will make everything so much better, getting Coach Chambers another ring.
"Team USA is huge for me. I love representing my country and playing against all those guys from Cuba, Venezuela and Korea. If the Draft happens, God willing, I'll go in the Draft and play pro baseball one day."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.