In the fall of 2009, the Harper family of Las Vegas took a step that within less than a year proved of immense potential importance for the future of Major League Baseball in the nation’s capital.
The Harpers decided that their 16-year-old son, Bryce, a baseball player with astonishing gifts who recently had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “Baseball’s Chosen One” — a prodigy to rank with basketball’s LeBron James — would bypass his last two years of high school, take a General Educational Development (GED) test and, assuming he passed, enroll at the College of Southern Nevada, a junior college with one of the country’s best baseball programs. Bryce’s mother, Sheri, “found a blog on an Internet site that raised questions of great interest to her family,” Rob Miech writes:
(Thomas Dunne Books) - \"The Last Natural: Bryce Harper's Big Gamble in Sin City and the Greatest Amateur Season Ever\" by Rob Miech
“Why don’t American baseball players have the same options as Dominicans, say, or others in the Caribbean and the rest of the world? Those talented youngsters can sign professional contracts at sixteen years of age and begin polishing their skills in major league academies, hastening their paths to the big leagues. Why are U.S. players not afforded that same avenue and are only eligible to be drafted after their senior season in high school or . . . a year after they leave high school?”
Beyond that entirely reasonable question, there was more: The working agreement between big-league owners and players was to expire two years later, and it was rumored — and indeed turned out to be the case — that a new agreement would result in significantly lower signing bonuses and entry-level salaries. So Harper passed his GED, signed up at Southern Nevada, and got ready to play baseball for its Coyotes, under coach Tim Chambers, in the 2010 collegiate season. Baseball fans in Washington may or may not remember that Harper had a spectacularly successful season there — although whether it was the “Greatest Amateur Season Ever” is open to argument. Toward the end, he was chosen by the Washington Nationals as the first player in the amateur draft and signed to “a five-year, $9.9 million deal . . . the richest deal ever for a position player, surpassing the $9.5 million pact Mark Teixeira signed in 2001.”
Assuming that Harper becomes the dominant Major League player he is expected to be — and his first weeks with the Nationals this spring certainly make that seem likely — the season he spent as a Coyote will become a very small part of a very big story, but it deserves to be remembered. Thus, Miech’s account of that season is helpful.
“The Last Natural” is an absolutely preposterous title and Miech, a longtime sports writer, is at best a pedestrian stylist, but the book is useful because Chambers gave him full access to the team throughout the season, including a seat in its dugout:
“Chambers had wanted me to witness history. Chambers knew it would be a special season. He knew Harper would dominate. He knew every day had to be chronicled. He knew the makeup and interactions of the rest of his players would be compelling; they were the ones who would protect Harper, and they would be the ones who would correct, guide and temper him, to prep him for his next level.”