By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; D01
HENDERSON, NEV. -- You're a scout, and all you know is what you see: Face caked in eye-black and hands bare, the batter strides to home plate and carefully lays his bat down in the dirt, perpendicular to the pitcher. He scoops up some dirt and lets it fall through his fingers. He spits into his hands. He picks up the bat, scoops some dirt over the handle, twists his fingers around it. The pitcher waits.
"He does that in pro ball," one scout behind home plate mutters, "the first pitch'll be in his ear."
This is Thursday, Bryce Harper's first collegiate playoff game. He steps into the batter's box. Soft-tossing lefty on the mound. He whiffs at a curveball, takes another one -- called strike two. He turns and gives an exasperated look at the umpire. On the third pitch, another curve, he lifts a harmless fly ball to left.
He bows his head, drops his bat, jogs two-thirds of the way to first base, then peels off as the ball is caught. Walking back to the dugout, he shoots another look at the umpire. He gets to the dugout, rips off his helmet, slams it to the ground.
"Mmmm, mmmm," another scout intones, shaking his head.
Okay, stop. You're no longer a scout. Now, consider this question: Are you prepared to draw a definitive conclusion about Harper's character -- about what kind of kid he is, what kind of man he will become, what sort of career he will have if, as expected, the Washington Nationals make him the first overall pick of the June 7 draft -- from this one at-bat?
Are you ready to say he's a bad guy?
What if you were told he was only 17 and is the most highly touted hitter of that age since Alex Rodriguez? What if you knew that, before he even got to the stadium, he had already practiced hitting bottle caps, tossed by his father, for an hour in his backyard?
What if, within seconds of the helmet-slam, you glimpsed a hard-looking, middle-aged, goateed man -- Harper's father, Ron -- make his way from the stands to the side of the College of Southern Nevada's dugout, get in his son's face and bawl him out in front of his teammates?
"If people come out and watch for a while -- not just one game or one weekend -- they'll see," Ron Harper had said before the game. "He's a good kid. He works hard. And he's passionate for the game. That's the biggest misconception about Bryce. They take his competitive nature and say he's cocky or he's this or he's that. But you can't walk out there and say, 'I want to be mediocre today.' "
The character question, though, is critical. One year after nabbing ace-in-training Stephen Strasburg -- the perfect pitching prospect -- the Nationals are picking first again, and in their sights is the perfect position player. Or nearly perfect.
He stands 6 feet 3, weighs 205 pounds. He's a natural catcher with the ability to play multiple positions (scouts are divided as to which position he will ultimately play), has a bat that must be seen to be believed, and owns an arm that can deliver 96-mph fastballs just for kicks, with a work ethic no one has ever questioned.
But there is one nagging question, and it isn't going away. It may not be fair. It may be immaterial to the Nationals' choice. But it's there: Is Bryce Harper a bad guy?An unusual path to the draft
From a distance, Harper is classically handsome, in a ballplayer sort of way. He has the kind of face -- at least before he smothers it in copious amounts of eye-black -- that could just as easily be staring out of a black-and-white photo from the 1950s. Up close, the face is more rugged. A scab sits just below the left eye. As he speaks, he picks at the calluses on his hands, formed from the friction of a thousand, maybe a million swings.
"I love to catch," he says, when asked about his preferred position. "I've caught my whole life. I've looked up to all the great catchers -- Johnny Bench, Pudge Rodríguez, Joe Mauer. But I'll play anywhere they put me. I'll play outfield. I'll play third. I'll DH. I'll do whatever anybody needs."
By now, the Legend of Harper is well-known: The Sports Illustrated cover at age 16, titled "The Chosen One." The 502-foot homer that remains the longest ever measured at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field. The scouting reports comparing him to Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. The .626 batting average as a sophomore at Las Vegas High. The unprecedented strategy of leaving high school after his sophomore year, getting his GED and enrolling in college -- making him draft-eligible this year at 17.
At the College of Southern Nevada, if anything, the legend has grown. Facing players as much as three years older than him -- nothing new, since he has "played up" his entire life -- and with the stands packed every game with scouts, media and fans, almost all of them there to see him, Harper has obliterated the Scenic West Athletic Conference, one of the few college leagues that use wood bats.
Entering this week's Region 18 tournament -- with Harper's Coyotes gunning for a National Junior College Athletic Association championship in the coming weeks -- he led the conference in homers, with 23 (the next-highest player had 11); runs batted in, with 68 (next highest: 54); slugging percentage, at .917 (next highest: .707); and runs, with 71 (next highest: 52).
"We had heard all the hype, read all the stories, knew the whole history," said Boomer Walker, head coach of College of Southern Idaho, one of Southern Nevada's conference rivals. "And you know what? He was better than all of it."
Oh, and he also pulled a 4.0 GPA in the fall.
Part of Harper's success, undoubtedly, stems from the extraordinary support system he has around him. He lives at home with his parents -- Ron and Sheri -- eating home-cooked meals every night and going to church every Sunday. His older brother Bryan, a left-handed pitcher, transferred from Cal State-Northridge to play alongside him. Kurt Stillwell, a lieutenant for agent Scott Boras, who is serving as Harper's adviser, has been at almost every game this season.
And then there is Tim Chambers, who in addition to being Southern Nevada's head coach and athletic director, and a family friend of the Harpers' since Bryce was 6 years old, serves as Harper's friend, mentor and publicist.
It was Chambers who, earlier this year -- when the media crush got to be too much, and both Harper's weight (he was down to about 180 pounds) and his batting average began to plummet -- made the decision to impose a media blackout on his star player. Among those turned away: "60 Minutes," Oprah Winfrey, Jimmy Kimmel, CNN.
"I said, 'It's over,' " Chambers said. "I called his parents, made him take 10 days off -- well, it turned into eight. But he was mad about that. It was like pulling teeth. I made him sit there with me on the bench. He'd start to jump up and put on his shin guards, 'I need to be out there with my team.' I'd grab him and sit him back down: 'No.' "
It is probably not a word Harper has heard very often of late.Differences of opinion
The taunts were coming from the opposing dugout, where the Western Nevada College Wildcats were, according to Chambers, "just wearing him out."
"You [stink], Harper!" "Overrated!" "Just throw him a curveball -- he can't hit it." According to Chambers, as Harper stepped into the batter's box, the catcher looked up and said, "You're not that [expletive] good."
Chambers picks up the story: "So he hits a home run. Jogs out of the box, takes a little time going around the bases. It's like, 'Oh, I can't hit that?' -- and it went over the lights, by the way. Anyway, so the next day he comes to the plate. The catcher says, 'If you pimp another homer like you did last night we're going to light you up.' Bryce looks down and says: 'Really? Maybe if you could hit one that far, you could pimp it.' "
Long story short, Harper homers again, makes a sarcastic salute to the Wildcats' bench as he rounds third. Next half-inning, with Harper in right field, he throws behind a runner who had just singled, trying to catch him rounding first base too far. When the Wildcats start hooting, Harper makes an exaggerated bow.
The umpire ejects him.
Not long after, on April 22, a story appears on the Web site BaseballProspectus.com, quoting one unnamed scout saying Harper is "just a bad, bad guy," and another calling him "among the worst amateur players . . . from a makeup standpoint."
Harper just shrugs and says: "People can talk, do whatever they want. I don't really care."
But others quickly rushed to Harper's defense, including the Nationals. "I think he's got great makeup," scouting director Kris Kline said. "I think he's a class act."
Is it possible a handful of scouts -- maybe even some from teams that pick directly behind the Nationals in the draft, and thus have reason to hope he falls to them -- would mistake some demonstrations of on-field immaturity for bad character? Absolutely.
"The kid is a special kid," says D.G. Nelson, coach of Salt Lake Community College, another conference rival. "He wants it more than anybody around him. Character? That's B.S. The kid plays hard, he stays out of trouble and he lives the game. He just needs to be taught the other stuff. And that comes with time. He's 17. Yeah, he does some dumb things. But everything he does that's dumb is out of full-on energy to play the game hard.
"There's no character flaw. There's nothing there. He deserves every accolade he gets, and he's going to mature into a big-time guy."
Asked about the "character" question and the Internet rip-job, Ron Harper makes the exact same shrug as his son. The kid's just gonna have to learn to deal with it.
"Someone once asked me, 'Describe your kid in one word,' and I said, 'Can I use two?' " Ron Harper says. "They said, 'Yeah,' and I said, 'John Wayne.' They laughed and said, 'Why?' I said: 'Because he's got that swagger. That's John Wayne.' He looks like a cowboy out there. I always tell my boys, be John Wayne out there. Be a gunslinger."
There are 22 days until the draft, 22 days until the world swoops in, takes a piece of his youngest boy and carries it away forever. Ron and Sheri Harper, both Vegas-born and raised, have been together since seventh grade, and their family, save for Bryan's year at Northridge, has always been intact. An ironworker, Ron helped build The Strip itself, laying rebar in 120-degree heat, for 27 years. If he has instilled one tenet in his sons, it's the value of hard work.
"Of course it's going to be tough," Ron Harper says of Bryce's leaving the nest. "I'm not going to lie. The kids -- they're probably better at handling it than we are."
Chambers thinks Harper might sign early and start playing somewhere in the minor leagues immediately -- "Because it's Bryce, and he'll go freaking bananas if he's not playing," he says -- but Boras clients almost always wait until just before the mid-August deadline to sign.
That leaves more than two months to fill without baseball. For once, the Harpers won't be packing up for a summer of travel squads and all-star games from New York to Oklahoma. What in the world are they going to do?
"We're thinking of maybe taking a family vacation -- away somewhere," Ron Harper says. "Trying to have some family time together." He pauses, his eyes hidden behind shades. "Yeah," he says, "I think that's probably what we'll do."