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Bryce Harper Embarks on Old College Try

Feb 1, 2010 – 8:30 PM
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Jeff Fletcher

Jeff Fletcher %BloggerTitle%

Bryce Harper
HENDERSON, Nev. -- As an athletic director/baseball coach at a junior college, Tim Chambers had his hands full even before "the kid" showed up on his doorstep.

Now that Chambers' job includes handling Bryce Harper, the coach at the College of Southern Nevada has gotten even more frazzled, dealing with scouts and the media, wondering about every strange face he sees around the ballpark.

"It's already been mayhem, but it's going to get worse," Chambers told FanHouse. "Everybody in America wants to see him."

Harper is the teenager who exploded onto the national scene last summer when Sports Illustrated splashed his picture on the cover and proclaimed him "Baseball's Lebron." Harper was a 16-year-old kid with big power (hence his YouTube fame), a big arm and lots of speed.

That was nearly eight months ago. Now that Harper has spent a summer as a one-man show playing for various All-Star teams around the world -- yes, the world -- he's back at home. Over the weekend he played his first regular season games at CSN, beginning the season that is supposed to end with him being the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Harper left Las Vegas High School after his sophomore year, took the GED in the fall, and enrolled at CSN, a two-year school located about 20 minutes from the Strip. He's coached by Chambers, a family friend who first got an idea that Harper was special when the kid started hitting at CSN's batting cages as a six-year-old.

You can understand why Chambers is "maybe a little overprotective," he admits. Chambers -- along with Harper's parents and advisor Scott Boras -- are all on board with a plan to keep Bryce quarantined, in a sense, at least until May. They aren't even allowing major league teams to talk to Harper. No eye test. No psychology tests. No private workouts.

Bryce Harper on Sports Illustrated cover"It was really the best thing for us to say 'no more interviews, no more radio, no more TV," Chambers said. "Just be a baseball player and go to school."

Boras, whose agency discovered Harper when he was 13, said "We advise families that, until you are drafted, it's not a good idea to say anything [to the media]. When you are an amateur just coming into the system, you just don't know a lot of things."

The handlers are happy to have anyone watch, though. And when Harper played his first regular season college game on Friday night, people came.

Lots of them.

For the fourth year in a row, CSN opened its season with the Coyote Border Battle, a showcase of two-year colleges from Nevada, Arizona and Utah. This one was nothing like the previous three, though.

Morse Stadium would normally be filled by a few hundred fans and a few dozen scouts, but for Friday night's game against Arizona Western, the place was packed to capacity, with anywhere from 1,300 to 2,000 people, depending on whose estimate you believed.

"I've never seen so many people here," marveled a woman in a CSN sweatshirt.

It was all because, as one wide-eyed little boy said as his jaw dropped, "That's Bryce Harper!"

After the SI story, Harper attracted full houses to a tournament in Oklahoma -- "The (team) paid for its whole season with the gate that week," Chambers said -- and he had a camera crew following him while he worked out with the Team USA 18-and-under club in North Carolina, where he gave a rare extended interview. He was preparing there for an international tournament in Venezuela.

"He's probably gotten more attention than any other high school player I've ever seen," Boras said.

When Harper got back to Nevada, a CSN fall exhibition game attracted a crowd of 400, including four high-ranking members of the Nationals' front office.

The Nationals, who have the No. 1 pick in the June draft, actually had five people at Friday night's game, including assistant general manager Roy Clark, special assistant Bob Boone and scouting director Kris Kline.

There were around 100 scouts and major league executives at Harper-palooza, including about 30 who had been to practice the day before. There were at least 10 scouting directors and at least one other assistant general manager at Friday's game. There would have been a decent showing even without Harper, because this was the first weekend of junior college baseball and Division I games don't start for another few weeks, but Harper's presence turned this into the epicenter of the baseball industry for one weekend.

Everyone wanted to get a look.

They saw a 6-foot-3, 205-pound left-handed hitter with the build and mannerisms that make him look major league right now. (Watch video of Harper working out and recording his first college hit below.)

"He's a very talented kid," said one scout who has followed him for a couple years. "It was really really easy to get super excited about him when he was 13 or 14 years old. He's going to get a lot more critical eyes put on him now."

Four months from the draft, it's no sure thing that Harper will be the No. 1 pick. He's not Stephen Strasburg yet.

"I don't think it's a lock that he's the best talent in the draft," the scout said. "He's definitely one of the best. I think the unfortunate thing for the kid is there's no way he can live up to the hype."

Harper stands out from the other players at this level, but it's not as dramatic as it would have been had he returned for another year of high school baseball. He's not going to hit .600 out here, not against more mature pitchers and not while swinging a wood bat. (The Scenic West Athletic Conference is one of the only college conferences in the nation that uses wood bats.)

In Harper's debut, he went 1-for-3 with a strikeout, a walk and a sacrifice fly (on a pitch that was supposed to be an intentional ball, by the way). Harper went hitless in eight trips in a doubleheader on Saturday.

Defensively, he started at third and made a throwing error that cost his team a couple runs. The next day he was behind the plate, and showed some mechanical flaws that might be tough to overcome. So far in Harper's young career he's best-known as a catcher, but it's still possible that he winds up as a third baseman or an outfielder.

One scout who saw him for the first time this weekend said Harper is good, but still has to answer a lot of questions over the next four months.

"I don't think he's the No. 1 player in the country," the scout said. "He's one of the best players in the country. I think the season will tell us who the best player in the country is. He's one of the best."

"I don't think it's a lock that he's the best talent in the draft. ... I think the unfortunate thing for the kid is there's no way he can live up to the hype.
-- Scout on Bryce Harper
The scout also said he saw Harper showing some bad habits.

"There were a couple times he dogged it," he said. "He's got to realize that there are a lot of people that are expecting a lot of him, but he's still a 17-year-old boy. He's a young man. He's just got to play the game and have fun, and if he starts to put all this pressure on himself and starts to doubt his ability at all, he's going to hit a wall. Everybody knows him and everybody is shooting for him. He's going to see everybody's best."

Chambers admitted as much before the weekend, saying that Harper still has some work to do with his swing. Harper has a little kick and bend to his front leg as he loads up. Chambers said that had become more exaggerated over 2009. He could get away with it against the pitching he faced in high school, but during summer tournaments and in the fall at CSN, he had actually started to fail. He struck out four times in an intrasquad game, and showed up in Chambers' office wondering if he had made the right decision to skip his final two years of high school.

"Here's the deal, you're in a slump," Chambers told him. "Yeah, I said it. First one in your life. Think if you didn't have one right now and you went pro in the summertime and then had one. We're going to teach you how to get out of slumps here because you're going to have them. You'll figure them out."

Chambers said that once he showed Harper that he was also dipping his head as he loaded up with his leg, Harper corrected it, and got back to banging balls over the fence.

Another issue Harper will need to address this year is gaining some maturity. Chambers said Harper has some "bad body language" and occasionally does and says things on the field that he shouldn't. Last fall he started to go to first on a pitch he thought was ball four, but it was called a strike. Next pitch, he hit a home run. After reaching the dugout, he said to one of the coaches, loud enough for the opponents to hear: "They should have walked me."

Next time up, Harper got plunked.

"Those little things, he's still learning," Chambers said. "He didn't mean to show them up. He was just giggling to our coach."

Harper is a hit among his teammates. Most of them are from the Las Vegas area and they've grown up playing with or against him, even though he was two or three years younger. They understand that, for this season, he is the Show. They appreciate that he doesn't act like it.

"He's actually pretty humble, for a kid with all the recognition he has," sophomore outfielder Trevor Kirk said.

While the recognition is still relatively new to Harper, the exploits are not. Chambers said Harper was hitting balls out of the park during batting practice at CSN as a 12-year-old. In high school, he hit some towering homers, including one that measured 570 feet. Last year at a showcase at Tropicana Field he hit a ball 520 feet.

It remains to be seen if Harper will be able to continue such legendary performances at a higher level, but his teammates -- like everyone else -- are ready to enjoy the show.

"When he gets a hold of one," Kirk said, "it's not like anyone else hitting a home run."
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Tagged: bryce harper