Indeed, Harper nearly fell off the couch one day last month when he heard a sports announcer call San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the presumptive No. Strasburg turns 21 next month and went undrafted out of high school, a late bloomer who is nothing at all like James. Just about everyone in the baseball industry has known about Harper for at least two years.
To a man they describe him as an impact player with the skills, body and attitude—he says he models his game after those of Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose—perfectly suited for the sport.
He's honestly that good. He is a once-in-a-generation talent. So good is Harper, and so bleak the prospect of his spending two more years with high school pitchers who can't and won't throw their sloppy mph fastballs over the plate to him, that his parents—Ron, a steelworker, and Sheri, a paralegal—are looking for ways to make their son eligible for the draft next year rather than in One of their advisers is agent Scott Boras, who has a well-earned reputation for maximizing dollars and exploiting loopholes.
What the Harpers are considering, however, is having Bryce earn a GED credential this summer and enroll in a junior college this fall, which would expose him to more challenging baseball competition as well as make him eligible for next June's draft, in which he would likely be the first pick in the country.
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Under that scenario, assuming the Nationals keep losing games at something close to their current rate they have the worst record in baseball, and it isn't even close , Washington could wind up with Strasburg and Harper in the next 12 months—the baseball equivalent of the Cavaliers getting James and Dwight Howard in consecutive NBA drafts.
Of course, in both cases the Nationals would have to negotiate with Boras, who represents Strasburg too. His son hit one line drive so hard that the second baseman jumped out of its way, as if dodging gunfire. The ball smacked against the rightfield fence for a triple.
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He wants to play baseball. Always has. The Number 1 thing guiding us is to do what's right for Bryce and his future. Says the NL scouting director, "He's not going to make any more money [by] playing two years of high school ball. Bryce leaves no doubt about what he wants. At 16, an age at which he still leaves piles of empty bowls of Fruity Pebbles in his bedroom, he has a clear vision of who he is, where he wants to go and how his enormous capacity for work is even more valuable than his great talent. Asked when he expects to play in the majors, Harper says, "Hopefully as soon as 18 or The fast track.
When asked about his goals as a ballplayer, he replies, "Be in the Hall of Fame, definitely. Play in Yankee Stadium.
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What's more jolting than his words is the manner in which Harper delivers them. The kid speaks with a measured, unemotional certainty, as if he were playing not the Natural but the Preternatural. During batting practice, swinging a wood bat, he bombed balls over light towers and scoreboards in Blair Field.
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Damon Oppenheimer, the amateur scouting director for the Yankees, took note of his attitude as much as his power. He went into second sliding hard and got dirty and got his double. He played the game with a real ferocious type of attitude. He was out there to win. It was an old school way. You know why? It's like he doesn't take the game and the gift that he has for granted.
He's maximizing everything.
You're not worried about him going out there and living on talent alone. He's working hard. He's playing hard. He has a maturity about him, a toughness that says he's going to work his butt off. It's really refreshing to see these kinds of skills and talent, and the work ethic and dedication to go with it. Bryce Harper was playing T-ball at age three against six-year-olds, partly to be with his older brother, Bryan, who was drafted by the Nationals in the 31st round last year but elected to attend Cal State-Northridge.
By the time Bryce was nine, travel teams from California to Colorado to Oklahoma were calling the Harpers and offering to put their son on a plane, lodge him in a hotel and provide his meals so he could play for them in tournaments. A travel player for hire. He went, of course.
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Most times either Ron or Sheri went with him, but sometimes, for work or monetary reasons, they could not go, so Bryce went alone. He has played between 80 and baseball games a year each year for the past seven years, in more states than he can remember. I would not take anything back at all. Everything about it was great. I got to go places, meet people, play baseball against older kids and better competition.
I had a great time. According to Sheri, "A reporter once talked to us for a story about the travel baseball experience, but they didn't quote us because we had nothing but good things to say about it. Bryce is a normal kid. He snowboards. He played football up until last year. We don't limit him in any way. He loves to play baseball. He would come home after being away playing baseball all weekend, get off the plane and not an hour later be bored and say, 'Dad, let's go to the cage and hit.
He'll get a new bat and go, 'Dad, isn't she a bee-yooty? It was after one of those player-for-hire trips that Sheri began to understand that her son was really special. Bryce, then 12, was playing in a tournament in Alabama on a field with foot fences. It was a trip Sheri could not attend.
When Bryce phoned home, Sheri asked him how he'd done. Nearly every chance they could, the Harpers had Bryce play against kids two or three years older than he was. Bryce Harper is the product of a travel baseball industry that mushroomed, just as he himself was growing up, into big business. There seems no end to the tournaments, all-star games, showcases, wood-bat leagues, USA Baseball youth teams, "scout teams" sponsored by major league clubs. Premier players such as Harper can end up playing more baseball than minor leaguers, which can quicken baseball's traditionally long development process.
This summer, for instance, Harper will play two weeks for a travel team in Oklahoma, participate in an and-under all-star tournament in North Carolina, go up against college players in a wood-bat league in California, compete in Yankee Stadium for a scout team sponsored by the Yankees, play in Fenway Park at an all-star benefit game, attend the USA Baseball 18U team trials and, assuming he makes that club, play in the Pan Am Championships in Venezuela in late September. Last year, as part of USA Baseball's 16U team in the Pan Am Championships in Mexico, Harper signed autographs for 45 minutes, until the wee hours of the morning, after pitching the 11th inning of a win over Cuba.
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