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:
“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.”
Those predictions, at least, turned out to be sound. At age 17, playing with and against players several years his senior, Harper did everything that had been expected of him and more: “Harper . . . hit .443, with thirty-one home runs, knocked in ninety-eight runs, and scored ninety-eight times in sixty-six games for the College of Southern Nevada. With 225 total bases in his 228 trips to the plate, Harper . . . slugged an incredible .987. All but his batting average were school records.” The Coyotes were “one of the best teams in the country,” coming within a whisker of winning the junior-college national championship, and Harper was central to their success. Doubtless the Coyotes would have been among the country’s elite teams without Harper on their roster, but with him they did indeed, as Chambers had predicted, become something special.
Harper seems to have had a lot of fun as the season unfolded, although he was under considerable stress from beginning to end. Some of that was self-imposed — “if Harper did not do something thrilling almost every time he stepped to the plate, in his mind something was terribly wrong,” with the result that he was susceptible to unseemly tantrums — but most of it came from outside. Ryan Scott, like most others on the team, “couldn’t comprehend how Harper could handle all of the attention, demands and expectations that had been heaped upon him at such a young age.” Scott said: “But he comes out every day and does his deal, and it doesn’t really faze him. People here haven’t experienced that. But he’s been on that level before. He knows what he’s doing. He’s pretty experienced in that field, handling it. He’s pretty humble for a kid in his situation.”
In truth, “humble” is an adjective that not many would be inclined to apply to Harper, who tends to be described as “cocky” and “brash” and even “arrogant,” yet there is considerable evidence to the contrary. He has been the center of attention almost all his life, and many of his teammates seem to think he has handled it with aplomb.
Elsewhere, Scott said, “he’s confident, there’s no arrogance. He’s not a guy where it rubs you the wrong way. Every day, you like him more,” a sentiment echoed by fellow Southern Nevada players Donnie Roach, who said, “He’s a great kid and I love him to death,” and Casey Sato, who said: “The things he goes through on a day-to-day basis are completely unreal, but he responds in such a classy way. People need to get off his back and understand he’s only seventeen. It’s amazing. He’s just a good person, a good kid, and he should be completely respected for what he does for other people.”
Further burnishing his reputation is his religious faith — he is a devout but not especially self-publicizing Mormon — and the kindness he repeatedly shows toward children, the elderly and those with disadvantages. Growing up in nearly lily-white Nevada, he had little exposure to African Americans as a boy, but his best friend on the Coyotes was its only black player, and he seems comfortable with black and Latino players with whom he has played and competed at various levels. He employs the vernacular of the locker room with gusto and occasional ingenuity, but he doesn’t drink or smoke and on the whole is about as squeaky-clean as they come.
So the inclination here is to give him the benefit of the doubt unless and until he forces us to judge otherwise. These are words written by an ardent Nationals fan who hopes for great things for the team in the second decade of this century, but Miech comes up with a good deal of supporting evidence. He doesn’t scant Harper’s shortcomings, among which his tantrums probably enjoy pride of place, but the young man seems to have matured significantly during his year at Southern Nevada and to have continued to do so during his upward progress with the Nationals.
Now, considerably sooner than had been anticipated, fans in Washington have the opportunity to watch Harper’s development, as they used to say in sports TV, up close and personal. Since his call-up last month by a Nationals team that was suddenly riddled with serious injuries to front-line players, we’ve been able to see many aspects of his game and his personality. His hustle: turning singles into doubles, making even routine infield grounders into close plays at first. His all-around ability: playing all three outfield positions with verve, although he did manage to lose a fly ball in the Cincinnati fog a week ago. His maturity: showing great patience at the bat, refusing to go after sucker pitches despite a steady diet of off-speed stuff, and hitting to all fields. And, yes, his cockiness: responding to being hit by the Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels by working his way around to third and then, in a great burst of bravado, stealing home. I leaped right off the sofa with that one.
So read “The Last Natural” for the insight it provides, but caveat lector. The book is riddled with awkward, at times implausible transitions; with non-sequiturs, some of which border on the hilarious (“ ‘You lose sight of the fact that he’s seventeen,’ ” Inglehart said while wearing dark sunglasses”); and with herky-jerky prose that only rarely settles into something approximating rhythm. An editor is thanked in his acknowledgments, but there is little evidence that any editing was done. A disappointing but informative book about an interesting subject.
THE LAST NATURAL
Bryce Harper’s Big Gamble in Sin City and the Greatest Amateur Season Ever
By Rob Miech
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.
356 pp. $26.99