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Before Bryce Harper was the top pick in the Major League Baseball draft, before he signed the sport?s biggest contract ever for a first-year pro, he gambled his future on one make-or-break season.
The Las Vegas High School sophomore already had dominated the competition like Mickey Mantle on the playground and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which dubbed him the ?most exciting prodigy since LeBron James.? Seeking greater tests as a hitter, the precocious ...
Before Bryce Harper was the top pick in the Major League Baseball draft, before he signed the sport’s biggest contract ever for a first-year pro, he gambled his future on one make-or-break season.
The Las Vegas High School sophomore already had dominated the competition like Mickey Mantle on the playground and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which dubbed him the “most exciting prodigy since LeBron James.” Seeking greater tests as a hitter, the precocious phenom got his GED and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada, where he could face pro prospects in a challenging wooden-bat league that prohibited the hitter-friendly aluminum bats used throughout college ball. Harper shattered the school’s home run record with 31 (the previous mark was 12) and compiled a startling 1.513 OPS while leading his team to the Junior College World Series. For his heroics, the 17-year-old became the only position player from a junior college to win the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation’s best amateur baseball player.
Las Vegas sportswriter Rob Miech was “embedded” with the Southern Nevada Coyotes team and brings us along for the ride—into the dugout and locker room and on team buses and in motel rooms, from the scorched fields to the snow-capped horizons of the Scenic West Athletic Conference—to deliver a warts-and-all account of a boy among men playing like a man among boys. Amid the media circus that descended upon team and town, we read fascinating personal stories including the dynamics between veteran coach Tim Chambers and Harper’s protective father, the camaraderie with—and jealousies of—other players, the fans and autograph seekers (and girls) who all want a piece of the young star, and how Harper is suspended from the World Series after protesting an umpire’s call, and the role his faith plays in his life.
The Last Natural shows us a season in the life of baseball’s top rising star, culminating in a dramatic conclusion when Harper is drafted #1 by the Washington Nationals and, after tense negotiations that go up until just seconds before the midnight deadline, signs a $9.9 million contract. Even more than this, Miech’s book is the story of a team and its community, the hopes and aspirations of its players and coaches, and the spirit of pure baseball that lies at the heart of the American dream.
“In 2010, baseball phenom Bryce Harper—with his parents’ blessing—earned his G.E.D. and joined the College of Southern Nevada’s baseball team as a sophomore, using it as a springboard to get drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals). It was a risk, but a calculated one. Aside from displaying his otherworldly talents in a competitive conference, the 17-year-old was managed by Tim Chambers, a longtime family friend, and played with his older brother, Bryan, a pitcher who had transferred from California State University, Northridge. Both helped contribute to a familial, supportive environment. Veteran sportswriter Miech traveled with the college team for the entire 2010 season, and he captures Harper’s maturation by fire and growing celebrity. Those moments don’t come often enough. Clearly guarded, Harper isn’t exactly an eloquent subject (“It’s just incredible playing with your brother and being around your brother”), while Miech’s constant flaunting of his insider status—the pointless on-the-road chronicles, the skin-deep, distracting profiles of Harper’s teammates and coaches—becomes overbearing. Years from now, the book may be useful in viewing a legend before he was submerged by the avalanche of fame, but readers will still leave with a better understanding of a dedicated junior college baseball team than its superstar alumnus.”—Publishers Weekly
“Like Bryce Harper, Rob Miech has all the tools, and they are on display in THE LAST NATURAL, a compelling, behind-the-scenes account of the making of a phenom.”—George Dohrmann, Pulitzer Prize-winning Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated
"In THE LAST NATURAL, Rob Miech gets the last unfettered access to baseball's next great star, Bryce Harper, before he turns pro, before he can vote, before the handlers and hangers-on and hero-worship descend. The result is a fascinating eyewitness account, a baseball version of the Beatles in Hamburg circa 1961, just before the klieg lights get switched on."—Steve Rushin, Sports Illustrated
"The Last Natural is a remarkable story of Bryce Harper’s action-packed junior-college adventure, told from the vantage point of a tremendous reporter and writer who was fortunate enough to go along on Harper’s unforgettable ride from Morse Stadium to the top of the baseball draft."—Jayson Stark, ESPN.com senior baseball writer
"Rob Miech rides the bench and the buses to craft a stirring story of a young man, an extraordinary dream and an amazing baseball season. Through an insider’s access and a reporter’s eye, Miech lays back the scouting reports to capture the real Bryce Harper—the son, the brother, the teammate and the phenom. Touching and edgy, The Last Natural captures the essence of a hard game made easy by a rare player."—Tim Brown, MLB writer, Yahoo! Sports
"The Last Natural is a fascinating tale of risk, struggle, ambition and triumph. The LeBron James of baseball is brought to life, and all his talents and warts are expertly exposed by an exceptional storyteller. Miech has done what Harper is known for—hitting a spectacular home run. Terrific stuff."—Ed Graney, Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist
THE LAST PRESEASON PRACTICE of Bryce Harper’s amateur life started on Thursday, January 28, 2010, with a meeting of all the College of Southern Nevada coaches and players in center field at Morse Stadium. The verdant diamond sat in the southeast nook of the vast Las Vegas valley, which was more of a bowl. Envision a large, square table, roughly tilted from Summerlin in the northwest to Morse Stadium, in Henderson, at the southeast. Rainwater generally flowed toward Henderson, toward Morse. That is also where the eyes of the baseball world gushed in 2010.
The square, white steeple and narrow spire atop a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a wide, dull-brown-brick edifice off to the right beyond a swath of desert brush, marked the long I-515 off-ramp Harper descended every morning to College Drive.
After he turned left on College and zipped through the freeway underpass, to Harper’s left a football field, soccer pitch, and baseball diamond were nudged between the freeway and Foothill High. Basketball and tennis courts were wedged between the street and the far left of three buildings, wide and white, with a red-tiled, low-arching roof. The middle one was low and white, too, with a flat, red-tiled roof. The main building on the right looked like a prison, with a tall wall of red-sandstone blocks topped by a thin layer of gray-sandstone bricks. Between the street and the two right-side structures was the school’s sprawling parking lot. Black Mountain loomed behind the campus to the west.
As Harper turned left onto Heather Drive, just past the high school, to the right stood the main CSN building, its tall, beige corner square topped by a light blue ribbon. That corner was cut off to form a flat, inviting entrance, with a seven-pointed window tilted at the top that bathed those inside with the morning sun.
Heading west on Heather, newcomers could easily miss the short, S-curved, downhill asphalt drive, whose three well-camouflaged speed bumps destroyed innocent shock absorbers. At the bottom, on the other side of the fifteen-foot-tall ashen-sandstone clubhouse with the tilted metal roof to the left and the three batting cages to the right, Morse Stadium and the Lied Baseball Complex—the new home for the local baseball hero whose fame had been increasing by the day—awaited.
Out in center field, Coach Tim Chambers told the Coyotes to be prepared for the four games they would play over the next three days. Chambers confidant Jim Schwanke, a former assistant coach at Oklahoma State and Louisiana State, talked about the importance of bonding and selflessness. But Chambers held court. He shooed the seventeen-year-old Harper away in his white pants and gray practice jersey. CSN catchers coach Cooper Fouts stuck by Harper’s left as they strolled toward the right-field foul line. This is about you being successful, Fouts said as he looked up at Harper, and us being successful. Chambers shifted his tack to the supporting cast when Harper had slipped out of earshot.
“You all know that guy’s the shit. None of you know what he’s going through, what he’s thinking, or what he’s feeling. He’s why we have that new scoreboard. Why we have those new seats. Why we have that new parking lot. Protect him. Watch out for him. If we have no jealousies, we’ll be fine.”
Thirty professional baseball scouts, taking notes and enjoying the sun and wasting their employers’ money, peered out at the practice. Some sat on shiny blue plastic seats on the red-boulder bleachers behind home plate. Some stood behind the protective black netting, surrounding the plate area, in clumps of two or three. The black cord of his stopwatch, in his right pocket, that wrapped around his right wrist gave away a scout from twenty paces. Logos of the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Washington Nationals, especially the Nationals, advertised on Windbreakers, sweaters, and visors.
In the ten previous CSN seasons, maybe a dozen scouts had watched the Coyotes at any particular practice. Twenty-four hours after this practice, Morse would burst at its seams with a record crowd of nearly two thousand. In three weekends, CSN would surpass its gate revenue from the entire 2009 season. They all were eager to see what the Rook, what Chambers called his burgeoning star, would do with a wooden bat in junior college.
The scouts swarmed that Thursday practice to see Harper, who had graced the June 8, 2009, cover of Sports Illustrated wearing his red Las Vegas High jersey and gaudy wrestlerlike eye black, at the tail end of his powerful left-handed swing, squinting as if he were watching the Rawlings he had just poked turn into a pea and plop into the Pacific Ocean, with the setting sun glowing orange against the base of Frenchman Mountain behind him.
“Looks a little lean,” a scout said to Fouts.
“He’s at 208 pounds,” said Fouts, glancing at the six-foot-three Harper. “Don’t worry. He’s eatin’ Mama’s cookin’.”
Harper towered over Chambers, Fouts, and just about everyone else in the stadium that afternoon. Indeed, when infielder Casey Sato first saw Harper enter the CSN clubhouse, he thought the slugger looked more like a twenty-two-year-old man—a pro seasoned by a rapid rise in the minor leagues who carried himself like John Wayne, just as his old man had taught him—than a kid who was halfway through high school. Harper’s hair was jet-black, thanks to dye, and closely cropped and blocked off in back. He wore his sideburns like Montgomery Clift and the bottoms of his jeans turned up, like Marlon Brando. All he needed was a woolen uniform to complete his throwback appearance. His matinee-idol good looks, those almost phosphorescent green eyes and strong chin, and the tiny birthmark just below the outside of his left eye, just might convince Gentlemen’s Quarterly scouts to slap Harper on their own cover.
The Sports Illustrated cover cemented Harper, targeted for baseball stardom at an early age, as a public figure. It brought him an added measure of celebrity in major league clubhouses, too.
Soon after that edition had hit the newsstands and mailboxes, Harper attended a game at Dodger Stadium. His name served as carte blanche at clubhouse doors. He sat in stadium front rows or luxury suites. Harper knew Orlando Hudson well. As they chatted in the Dodgers’ clubhouse before the game, Hudson, in the only season he played second base in Los Angeles, told Harper to go sit on the bench in front of first baseman James Loney’s cubicle. Loney, who had Harper’s Sports Illustrated cover taped on the inside of his locker, screeched to a stop, eyes wide and mouth agape. The cover boy was sitting right there in front of him. “What the hell you doin’ sittin’ there?” Loney said. “That’s the Kid!” responded Hudson, laughing and nearly falling onto the Dodger-blue carpet. Loney found a black Sharpie and had Harper sign the magazine cover. “I love LA,” Harper said, “and I love those guys.”
The Sports Illustrated fame had convinced Aaron Marcus, an investment banker who lives on Long Island, New York, to pay $12,500 for a one-of-a-kind Bowman 2010 SuperFractor Bryce Harper baseball card. After seeing the magazine cover and reading about Harper, Marcus became enthralled with the prodigy and began buying his cards. Marcus was awed by Harper’s physical ability, work ethic, and potential. After splurging for that card, Marcus said, “For all we know, in a few years he could be hitting six-hundred-foot home runs regularly.”
Harper’s celebrity was circumnavigating the globe. When Las Vegas businessman Jan Landy, who visited Rio de Janeiro so frequently he bought an apartment in the South American playground, was introduced to someone on Ipanema Beach in January 2010 and the Brazilian learned where Landy called home, he asked Landy, Entao voce conhece Bryce Harper? (So you know Bryce Harper?) Landy, who spoke fluent Portuguese but had never met Harper, was astounded by the young star’s far-reaching popularity.
Harper had created his own end around to the draft. He’d pummeled the preppies with an aluminum bat. Now he’d jumped to a new level of competition, and attention, in the Scenic West Athletic Conference. The only other collegiate leagues in America whose hitters employed wooden bats were the Empire Conference, Arizona Community College Athletic Association, and the Division II Mon-Dak Conference, all in junior college.
Typically viewed as a last-chance refuge for athletes who couldn’t make the grade on the field or in the classroom at four-year institutions, junior college baseball took on a whole new diamond-studded dimension in 2010. Professional-talent evaluators and college recruiters would flock to Morse Stadium. Harper would swing his black Marucci CU26 maple Pro Models, even a few pink ones, with vigor … when umpires weren’t examining his every move with a magnifying glass, or Harper wasn’t imploding over striking out, popping up to an infielder, dueling with his coach, or melting down from his own expectations.
At that last preseason practice session, as the Coyotes stretched along the right-field foul line, they made fun of Cooper Fouts, who had settled on a day and venue with his bride-to-be for their midsummer wedding. Already lost one nut by getting engaged, they roared at Fouts as they lay on their backs with their left legs way out right. They stretched their right legs way out left. “In July,” they said, “you lose the other one.” They talked about girls and clowned on each other. Harper’s teammates mimicked his walk, the way his weight instantly shifted forward to the balls of his feet when he took a step. He always seemed to be leaning forward. Perpetual aggression.
Harper showed that on the diamond by always looking to stretch a single into a double, rounding first base hard, or trying to turn a double into a triple. Walk him and he could easily be on third a minute later, having stolen second, then third. Stealing home plate was always on his mind, too. He lived on forcing the issue. That intensity would be his worst enemy and cost him dearly.
But in January, bliss filled Morse Stadium. Laughter grew louder as each copycat stride of Harper’s gait by a teammate bettered the previous one. Harper looked most comfortable standing with his right size fourteen, at ten o’clock, just in front of his left size fourteen, at two o’clock. An odd stance, to be sure, but it seemed as if he could fall asleep, like Secretariat, while standing up.
Sixty thousand feet above Harper, contrails from F-22 Raptors, F-15C Eagles, and F-16 Fighting Falcon Aggressors, developing tactics out of Nellis Air Force Base to the north of Las Vegas, crisscrossed and ran parallel to each other. The jet vapor widened and broke up the farther each one stretched. Those pilots looked as if they were attempting to arrange a giant game of tic-tac-toe. A light breeze drifted in from Lake Mead over the River Mountains and into Morse from right field. Yellow, four-inch, heavy-duty corrugated plastic tubing topped the outfield walls and four-foot-high chain-link fence just beyond the foul lines and dugouts.
The Longhorn Casino & Hotel, attorney Michael T. Schulman, LaDuca’s Italian Deli, and good luck wishes from Bob and Nancy Joslin were some of the sixteen banners that advertised on those dull-green outfield walls. The biggest, with large, white block letters against a black background, celebrated the Coyotes’ NJCAA World Series championship in 2003. All were bleaching from the harsh desert environment.
Low mountains and sandy hills almost completely ringed the valley, whose rough base of alkaline and caliche—surface deposits of sodium nitrate, calcium, and other carbonates—formed a harsh moonscape that shifted from shades of coffee grounds, to maple bars, to manila folders, and cinnamon. The unforgiving Mojave Desert terrain had a base of volcanic ash and molten lava from massive eruptions 30 million years ago. “Bleak, stark and often beautiful,” wrote Russell Elliott in his book History of Nevada.
At dusk, the view from Morse Stadium, which pointed northeast from home plate to center field, captivated its audience. At different times during the season, CSN players Casey Sato and Gabe Weidenaar stood on the right side of the dugout and stared out to the left, contemplating the sunset melding of yellow and orange and red, blotches of amethyst, puffs of crimson, and streaks of magenta that seemed to drift out of a giant genie’s bottle on the other side of the Spring Mountains. “Like a field of dreams,” Weidenaar said softly.
At night, the Las Vegas Strip glistened twenty miles beyond the left-field foul pole to the northwest. Planes from all over the world, every minute or so, descended into McCarran International Airport at the height of the lights in left-center field and then in the middle of the light stanchion in left. Wide-eyed passengers on the right side of those cabins could see a half-size Eiffel Tower, the come-hither emerald-green glow of the world’s largest hotel, a mini Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, and a concentrated white light beaming to the heavens from the point of a dark pyramid behind a fake Sphinx—this one with a full beak—all beckoning to their purses and wallets.
Those tourists also viewed the 1,149-foot Stratosphere—the tallest freestanding observation tower in the country—piercing the evening sky. Unlike its brethren, such as Canton Tower in China, Tokyo Sky Tree in Japan, and CN Tower in Canada, the Stratosphere reflected the city in which it was rooted by not just giving its visitors a neat view as they sat in its rotating restaurant; it offered adrenaline junkies thrill rides, including the Big Shot—a favorite of Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’s lone progeny—that propelled its victims in a capsule to the top of the needle.
At that Thursday practice, CSN’s big shot prepared for his special season. The lush Bermuda grass had scattered brown pockmarks, but rye overseed would soon wipe out those blemishes. The jet contrails drifted behind a few feathery cirrus clouds against a wild blue canvas on the sixty-degree afternoon at the stadium named for the late William R. Morse. The longtime area legal figure and former Las Vegas High star quarterback flew bomber missions in World War II and had been CSN assistant coach Marc Morse’s grandfather. MORSE STADIUM was highlighted in yellow against the blue-painted wood press box behind home plate. A dozen Mexican fan palm trees, six to a side, stood sentry behind the press box and red-rock stands.
Harper bounced around like, well, a junior in high school. He tapped the left shoulder of teammates and slipped away right. He tapped the right shoulder of others and feigned landing haymakers. He tossed a softball-size, green plastic ball at unwitting bystanders, unleashing a giddy cackle when it landed on his target’s chest fifty feet away.
“Just having fun out here,” said sophomore Scott Dysinger, a lean, five-foot-eleven second baseman and leadoff hitter whose high cheekbones and genuine black hair came from his Taiwan-born father. His eyes looked like butterscotch Life Savers. Every teammate called him Dice. He had been born in London to a Scottish mother, Elly, who was an accomplished dancer. She had relocated to Southern California after a divorce from Scott’s father, Bob, when Scott was a junior at Bishop Gorman High School.
Silverado High School product Trevor Kirk, an outfielder, came from a splintered family, too, and lived with his maternal grandfather. During the season, Kirk dyed his short brown hair black, giving him the uncanny countenance of Portuguese and Real Madrid soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Kirk was the team jester. He always looked to smack the groin of an unaware teammate, or wandering writer, with the back of his right hand. Some of his more serious teammates tried avoiding him. Some chided him when they became the object of his tomfoolery.
Kirk had also been gifted with a knack, almost as fine as Harper’s, for connecting his bat with the ball. The Milwaukee Brewers had spotted that talent and picked Kirk in the forty-seventh round of the draft after his freshman season at CSN, but he opted to continue his education and polish his skills. Dysinger and Kirk would often hit first and second, respectively, in the batting order; that also represented their positions in the team hierarchy.
Trevor Kirk had a connection with Bryce Harper, too, since Kirk’s father, Rich, had played on the same Rancho High baseball team as Ron Harper when the Rams had faced Tim Chambers’s squad in that Easter tournament almost thirty years earlier.
Rich Kirk had vivid memories of pitcher Greg Maddux, the surefire Hall of Famer who was all arms and legs when he threw for Valley High School. Maddux, whose father, Dave, served in the air force, was born in Texas and grew up in Madrid, Spain, before moving to Las Vegas at a young age with his family. It had not surprised Rich Kirk and many in the valley when Maddux, at the age of twenty, made his major league debut in September 1986 for the Chicago Cubs.
Sam Thomas, who had coached Bryce Harper in his two seasons at Las Vegas High, caught Maddux’s games in 1983. Thomas was a senior and Maddux, who won eight of nine decisions, was a junior. Valley won the state championship that season, not a shock considering its sterling roster that included Michael Greer, Steve Chitren, and Dan Opperman, who were all drafted by major league teams.
Mike Morgan, however, had first attracted major league scouts to Las Vegas. Within one week in 1978, Morgan had graduated from Valley High, been selected with the fourth overall pick in the June draft by Oakland, and started for the Athletics in a game against Baltimore. Morgan went the distance, but Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor beat him by shutting out the A’s. Morgan had a 141-186 record in twenty-two major league seasons, and he expressed caution about how it had all started.
Jumping from high school to a big league mound in a week had brought him much recognition, but he spent most of his first four seasons in the minors. He told Sports Illustrated that the rush to see what he could do at the game’s top level had crushed his development.
Maddux’s development had been paced; he threw two complete seasons in the minors before being called up at the end of his second year, and after four Triple-A starts in 1987 he was called up to the Cubs for good. Maddux won 355 major league games, became the first pitcher to win Cy Young Awards in four consecutive seasons, and earned eighteen Gold Glove trophies in a sterling career that ended after the 2008 season. Go ahead, Maddux told me when I visited him in his luxurious home behind two gates in the exclusive Spanish Trail development in Las Vegas after he had won his thirteenth Gold Glove in 2002, try one on. Huh? “They’re actual gloves,” he said. I removed one from its stand and was surprised at how comfortably it fit on my left hand.
The start of what Bryce Harper hoped to be a Hall of Fame career would depend upon what he did at Morse Stadium. But Scott Dysinger and Trevor Kirk were the Coyotes who spent most of their waking hours at the diamond, raking its dirt and trimming its fringes, praying that their careers wouldn’t end there.
Nearly cut from the squad during fall workouts in 2008, they rallied to become pillars of the CSN program. They were the first players Coach Chambers consulted when he first learned that Bryce Harper was seriously considering CSN. Dysinger didn’t hesitate. Great idea, he said. Bryce is a superplayer and he’ll be good for the team. Dysinger believed every Coyote would benefit from all the recruiters and scouts who would come to watch Harper. Dysinger had first seen Bryce play when he was eight; Harper had hit a home run over the two-hundred-foot fence that day. At that time, Harper would sleep with his favorite bats and dress up in his Little League uniform days before games, to get properly psyched.
Having gone the Southern California route out of high school, an arm injury and high out-of-state tuition at Saddleback College pulled Dysinger back home before he played a game for the Gauchos. He marveled at how expectations of Harper had soared, how so many believed he would hit one out every time he stepped to the plate. Harper never satisfied everyone … especially himself, every Coyote quickly learned. “He just needs to relax, calm down, do his thing, and he’ll be fine,” Dysinger said. “There are a lot of people who will see us play, a lot to see him. That’s a lot for someone that age.”
The only son of Bob Dysinger, the head of props for the Cirque du Soleil musical The Lion King at Mandalay Bay on the south end of the Strip, Scott knew the line between the real world and make-believe, how the glitter and glitz of a million white-hot watts of klieg lights made some larger-than-life and withered others. Scott had seen his dad’s show four times. The elder Dysinger had acted a bit, too; most prominently as a “punk at car” in the 1985 Charles Bronson movie Death Wish 3, which had been filmed in London.
Not exactly Shakespearen stuff, the fifty-two-year-old Bob Dysinger admitted. He had preferred participating in musical plays, such as West Side Story and Starlight Express, in which he could show off his dancing steps. Those moves had helped him excel on the fencing team at San Diego State, where as a male cheerleader he was once nearly goaded into a fight with Ted Giannoulas, or the Famous San Diego Chicken mascot, during an Aztecs football game. In London, when a show had kept Elly Moir Dysinger busy and a babysitter couldn’t be found for Scott, then an infant, Bob took his baby boy to a theater aboard a red double-decker bus. As Bob worked in Starlight Express, a few people in the wardrobe department kept Scott laughing.
“Stuff happens,” Bob Dysinger said. “You improvise.”
Other Coyotes, including Harper, had Las Vegas ties that stretched for generations, to when the gaming and entertainment mecca had been an outpost with only a railroad depot, a resting spot between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, where tumbleweeds and trains passed in the night.
Now the fantasy playground—the city where so many visitors hoped to make fortunes with a roll of the dice, where Rakeman plumbers proclaimed A FLUSH BEATS A FULL HOUSE on their van panels, where video-poker machines enticed customers upon checkout at the front of every grocery store—served as an appropriate backdrop for Bryce Harper’s big gamble. It was also where an Elvis impersonator twirled a yellow, cardboard, cutout guitar advertising COLONICS to attract business on suburban street corners and where seventy-foot-tall artificial palm trees badly camouflaged cell-phone towers—cell palms, they had been dubbed.
Harper’s grandfather and father were ironworkers who had laid most of the very foundation of the Strip, turning the former horizontal cow town, whose casinos housed a few craps tables and slot machines, into an actual city with a bona fide skyline.
Bryce Harper had yearned to establish Las Vegas as a place that could sprout its own sports stars, too. No Las Vegas native had ever been the top draft pick of a major sports league. In addition, since the Major League Baseball draft had been altered to its current form in 1961, no junior college player had been picked with the first overall selection.
Among those number one draft picks since 1965, only Tim Foli (seventeen years, six months, in 1968) and Ken Griffey Jr. (seventeen years, seven months, in 1987) were younger when they were drafted than Harper would be, at seventeen years and eight months, come June 2010. It took both Foli and Griffey two years to reach the major leagues. Foli, known as Crazy Horse, played sixteen seasons, from 1970 to 1985, for six big league teams. Foli has worked for the Washington Nationals since 2005 and had been elevated to general manager Mike Rizzo’s special assistant. In a career that lasted twenty-two years and ended with his retirement during the 2010 season and would no doubt land him in Cooperstown, Griffey played for three teams and hit 630 home runs.
That fifty-seven-year-old superagent Scott Boras, with cool and calm lieutenant Kurt Stillwell at the constant beck and call of Ron and Sheri Harper, served as the Harper family’s adviser should not have surprised anybody. Coach Chambers believed Boras first became aware of Bryce in 2003, when the ten-year-old competed in a tournament with one of Boras’s three sons.
Widely regarded as the most powerful man in baseball, Boras started out as a player. He is still in the top ten of several offensive categories at the University of the Pacific, and he played four seasons of Single-A ball in the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs organizations. Knee injuries shortened his career, and Boras earned a law degree just as baseball’s reserve clause, which forced players into a kind of indentured servitude, was eliminated. He hooked on with a Chicago law firm, but former teammates pestered him for legal advice in dealing with owners. When he got reliever Bill Caudill a deal worth $7 million, just eight minutes before a salary-arbitration deadline in February 1985, a star agent with savvy resolve was born.
Boras had wrangled Alex Rodriguez’s ten-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers, and the record $15.1 million pact that Stephen Strasburg, the top pick by the Washington Nationals in the 2009 draft, had inked just seventy-seven seconds before the signing deadline. Boras told Nationals owner Ted Lerner that Strasburg was a fifty-year pitcher—a prospect so rare, he came along once every fifty years—and Harper was a fifty-year player.
Industry experts believed Harper’s first professional pact would break the record $9.5 million signing package Mark Teixeira, another Boras client, had received from Texas as a position player in 2001. That year, the Philadelphia Phillies picked right-handed pitcher Gavin Floyd at the fourth slot and signed him for $4.2 million. Josh Karp, another right-handed pitcher, went to the Montreal Expos with the sixth selection and signed for $2.65 million. Teixeira, a third baseman from Georgia Tech tabbed fifth, had somehow defied logic and mathematics with his package. The New Yorker headlined a 2007 feature on Boras THE EXTORTIONIST.
“Boras was famous for extracting more money than other agents for amateur players,” Michael Lewis wrote in his bestselling book Moneyball. “If the team didn’t pay whatever Boras asked, Boras would encourage his client to take a year off baseball and reenter the draft the following year, when he might be selected by a team with real money. The effects of Boras’s tactics on rich teams were astonishing … by finding the highest bidders for his players before the draft and scaring everyone else away from them, Boras was transforming the draft into a pure auction.”
In 1991, the Yankees picked high school pitcher Brien Taylor with the first overall draft selection. His mother balked at an initial $300,000 offer and again when the Bronx Bombers went to $650,000. A year earlier, Boras got $1.2 million for pitcher Todd Van Poppel, the fourteenth pick in that draft. Mama Taylor, who had Boras’s counsel, wanted Van Poppel money. She was shrewd and knew about business, much like Ron and Sheri Harper. Bettie Taylor could reduce her son’s value to a simple evaluation, about buying and selling. She told Sports Illustrated, “Look at it that way, and Brien’s a commodity. It’s not a very pretty picture.”
Hours before Brien Taylor planned to attend his first class at Louisburg College, a junior college near Raleigh, North Carolina, and become off-limits until the next draft, the Yankees bumped their offer to $1.55 million. Taylor couldn’t get home quick enough to sign the contract. He injured his left shoulder in a trailer-park fight and never reached the majors, which might have tagged Taylor as the game’s biggest draft flop. But the Taylor case showed that Boras knew how to use a junior college to his and his clients’ advantage, as leverage if not a springboard, long before he discovered a pudgy, blond-haired, left-handed-slugging kid out in, of all places, Las Vegas.
Players under Boras’s management were the first to sign contracts worth more than $50 million (Greg Maddux’s $57.5 million deal for five years with the Atlanta Braves in 1997), $100 million (Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown, $105 million for seven years in 1998), and $200 million (Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million deal with Texas in 2000). Rodriguez’s current deal with the New York Yankees could be the first to bust $300 million if he hits certain incentives.
B-listers weren’t on Boras’s agenda, but his clairvoyance wasn’t absolute. In 2000, catcher Landon Powell, a highly rated high school prospect from Apex, North Carolina, followed Boras’s advice and obtained his GED after his junior year. That had made him eligible for the draft, but nobody knew, so he didn’t get selected; Boras and everyone around the player did not announce his status. Boras succeeded in having Powell declared a free agent. However, it was a sordid situation and no major league teams wanted to deal with Boras for Powell.
The ploy forced Major League Baseball to change the interpretation of its rules regarding high school juniors. Powell went back to high school, and he pitched for four years at the University of South Carolina. He was drafted, having signed with the SFX agency, in the first round in 2004. In 2009 and 2010, he hit .222 and belted nine home runs in eighty-seven games for the Athletics.
“It’s kinda like being a goalie,” wrote Kevin Goldstein of baseballprosepctus.com. “You’re staying in the same place, and Boras shoots from eight million angles. You never know where he’s gonna shoot from next.”
The Washington Nationals were tight with Boras, especially when compared to his relationships with other franchises, such as the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, and Philadelphia Phillies. Washington had several of his clients, including Strasburg and catcher Pudge Rodriguez. Boras often spoke highly of owner Ted Lerner, with whom Boras could deal directly rather than through channels. Boras and Nats manager Jim Riggleman once were minor league roommates; Riggleman lent his car to Boras so he could attend church.
Although his cocoon of servants thwarted my many requests to interview Boras, he was on occasion effusive about his star Las Vegas–based client. He told the Washington Post that, over ten years, fewer than ten players will come along and play at a high level for fifteen to twenty years. If you’re in a position to get one, he summed up, “You have something that you normally don’t have a chance to get.” Bryce was one of those, Boras insisted. In another chat with the Post, Boras said Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez “were not close” to Harper, in terms of hitting power, when they were seventeen.
Boras hadn’t seen Mickey Mantle hit at such a young age, but Boras—sounding like George Clooney’s character Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven—knew a guy who knew a guy. “I found a scout who once talked to a scout who saw Mantle at seventeen,” Boras told the Post, “and he said Harper has more opposite-field power than Mickey.”
New York Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer estimated that Bryce Harper became a household name within major league scouting departments when he was fourteen, so Boras had been four years ahead of the curve. Boras never came around the CSN grounds, whose Henderson campus was one of three in the CSN system, which served about forty thousand students. The association between Boras and the Harpers was informal and unofficial, however; signing a legal agreement with an agent, for representation, would strip Bryce Harper of his amateur status. Thus, in Major League Baseball’s vernacular, Boras and deputy Kurt Stillwell were mere advisers to the Harpers.
Reviewing the Coyotes baseball program was left to Stillwell, who popped into Morse Stadium in the summer of 2009 to inspect its amenities. Sorry, Stillwell told Coach Chambers after getting a tour of the place, “I don’t want to come in and step on anyone’s toes. Just wanted to see what’s going on. You guys get it. You’ll never hear from me the rest of the way.” When the two talked during the season, it was always when Chambers visited with Stillwell in the stands, and those were just a few small-talk exchanges. “Kurt trusted me,” Chambers said.
Before seeing his first pitch in a junior college game, Harper had received stacks of autograph requests in the mail at CSN. Chambers piled it all up in a corner of his cramped office. Could he please sign this magazine cover? These baseballs? These cards? Coach, if it’s not too much trouble … “It’s ridiculous,” said Scott Dysinger. That attention only swelled, putting Harper, Chambers, and the rest of the Coyotes in uncomfortable situations all year. Dysinger discounted the possibility that he and his teammates would hold Harper’s immense popularity against him.
“I don’t think anyone on this team is jealous,” said Dysinger, who sort of smiled when he talked. “Honestly, who would want all that pressure? I know I wouldn’t. I feel for the kid sometimes, with all the pressure that’s on him. Some people, I guess, want him to fail. I don’t know why. But he’s a good kid. He doesn’t need all that added pressure.”
In an August 2009 installment of ESPN’s E:60 show, Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole said he believed Harper was setting himself up for something other than a fat contract and rich endorsement deals. Poole probably echoed the sentiments of many when he questioned Harper’s leaving high school, and its invaluable lessons and maturation process, at such a young age.
Harper often said he didn’t mind the attention, criticism, and taunts that came with his notoriety, that he thrived in this kiln that he’d created with his bold gambit to dodge his final two years of high school and get to the draft a year early. However, as much as CSN coaches, and the many teammates he grew up competing with and against, tried shielding Harper from the mania, they couldn’t protect him all the time. Most of all, they couldn’t protect him from himself.
Once he reached the big time, maybe Harper would hit more major league homers as a teenager than the sixteen Ken Griffey Jr. smacked, or Mickey Mantle’s thirteen, or Robin Yount’s eleven? Maybe he’ll come close to the record twenty-four that Tony Conigliaro belted before he turned twenty?
Atlanta Braves slugger Jason Heyward had been twenty years and eight months old when he hit his first major league homer, a three-run shot, in his first big league game on opening day of the 2010 season. He had spent three years in the minors. In 2009, Heyward hit ten homers for a high Single-A team and seven in Double-A. He went four for eleven, all singles, in three Triple-A games, but the big club saw enough in Heyward in the spring of 2010 to promote him.
Harper and criticism were twins. That’s what came with being a Sports Illustrated cover boy at sixteen, when you laid the bat down by the plate, took two steps, bent over, rubbed dirt between your hands, smeared the eye black all over your cheeks, and touched the other side of the plate, in the dirt, with the business end of your bat before tapping the tip of your right shoe, as Harper did in high school. When you said you played to take an opponent’s head off, that and the rest of your routine could make more than a few want you to fail.
“I love the way people talk crap,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I hear it all the time. Overrated. You suck. I’ll just do something to shut them up. Like, I’ll show you. It’s like in regular pregame work. I like to show off my arm. Just so it’s like, ‘There you go. Don’t even think about trying to run.’” Asked about his goals, he told the magazine, “Be in the Hall of Fame, definitely. Play in Yankee Stadium. Play in the pinstripes. Be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived. I can’t wait.”
Chambers had looked out for the kid since Harper started showing up in the CSN batting cages when he was seven. Yup, Chambers said, Harper carried himself a certain way. He’s got the confidence, the arrogance that all the good ones possessed.
“But the question about his goals, to be in the Hall of Fame, and to be the greatest player to ever play the game … if you didn’t want the answer, why ask the question? He doesn’t walk around and tell you that. I’ve never heard him say that. But if you ask him, he won’t say, ‘I hope to be an Average Joe and make the big leagues.’”
Chambers lit up like the Strip on New Year’s Eve when critics aimed their malice at Harper. Chambers would become the front line of defense in protecting Bryce. Chambers believed nobody had the right to criticize Bryce’s parents’ and his decision to test himself in junior college.
“My thought is, leave him alone. He’s a junior in high school doing something that’s never been done, right here in Southern Nevada. He likes criticism. He feeds off it. He likes to prove people wrong. But me? I’m a little different. As a coach, I care about my guys. Someone says something about him, it pisses me off.”
Baseball America writer Dave Perkin, a former major league scout, had penned a not-so-glowing review of Harper going oh for five, with three whiffs, in an Alcoa All-Star game in San Diego during the summer of 2009. Off his game, Perkin wrote. Couldn’t catch up to a decent fastball. Badly fooled by every curve. His swing has gone backward. Far too long in the back end. Lunging. Diving. “He has a major hole, outside corner at the knees. Unless he proves he can hit that stuff, he’s going to be a bust.”
Chambers called Perkin with some of his own opinions. You realize he’s sixteen? You realize everyone he’s playing with is eighteen? Well, Perkin said, it can’t all be positive. Chambers’s faced burned as if he had just chomped on a handful of habaneros. “I’m fine with that. But don’t say he’s regressed. How about the competition is stiffer? He didn’t have the success he’s used to having? Nobody has ever left high school early to do this. He did, and he did it with confidence.”
In the middle of January, when a national cross-checker for the Boston Red Sox dropped by Morse Stadium to see Harper in another practice game, that golden sombrero episode had long faded from memory. After Harper fired a bullet, from his knees, to second base, the Red Sox scout whose job it was to confirm colleagues’ information ran to Chambers to show off his stopwatch—1.84 seconds from glove to glove, or nearly two-tenths of a second better than the major league average.
“What do you think of that?” the scout said.
“Are you serious, Danny?” Chambers said. “That’s pretty good!”
“Yeah, for a second I thought my watch was fast. But it isn’t.”
“If you’re doing that in less than two seconds at our level, you’re blowing runners up. You won’t run on us.”
He’s only seventeen, Chambers told that Red Sox employee. Chambers would constantly repeat those three words throughout the season. Harper’s girlfriend at the time attended Green Valley High School, and Chambers told him to continue doing high school stuff. In the second inning of a Friday fall scrimmage, Harper sheepishly approached Chambers in the dugout.
“Coach,” Harper said.
“What’s up?” Chambers said.
“I gotta leave early.”
“I got homecoming tonight.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s stupid. I don’t want to leave.”
“Bryce, I told you already. You have to go do those things. At two fifteen or two thirty, just roll outta here. Don’t say good-bye to anyone. Go do your thing.”
Chambers flashed back more than ten years, when he coached at Bishop Gorman. He had never dealt with such raw adolescence here, in junior college. All of this will be new, Chambers thought. Harper was embarrassed about leaving the practice game. He had wanted to play. It’s so easy for outsiders, Chambers thought, who did not know Bryce and had no idea what he or his parents were about, to pop off.
“I told his dad, ‘Ronnie, all that matters is Ron, Sheri, and the three B’s—Bryce, Bryan, and [daughter] Brittany,’” Chambers said of his advice to Ron Harper about all those outside opinions.
The awful economy had affected Ron Harper and played a role in Bryan Harper’s coming home from Cal State Northridge, since the downturn that had punched Las Vegas in its nose with an unemployment rate that would hit 15 percent caused Ron to lose workdays. Four unfinished buildings, visible from Interstate 15 through the core of the city, showed that something had been slipping. The eyesores hadn’t been touched in many months, more than two years in a few cases, by the end of 2010 and started giving Vegas the grubby, half-assed feel of Tijuana.
The bleakest example stood northwest of Flamingo and I-15, sticking out amid a vast expanse of single-story residential and commercial buildings. An eight-story, curved concrete carcass with metal wall wrappings, and bundles of exposed vertical steel rebar looking like stacks of dried spaghetti noodles, resembled a giant air conditioner that had been discarded in the desert. Cranes at both sides of the Wyndham Desert Blue project cantilevered out, away from the building, like a drawbridge, from nothing to nowhere. It was designed to soar nineteen stories and had been scheduled to open in early 2010.
Las Vegas Sands chose to cover its bare-steel St. Regis condo eyesore, in between its high-end Palazzo and Venetian properties, with huge cloth strips that resembled a finished building. David Baird, the director of UNLV’s School of Architecture, dubbed that tactic “urban camouflage.” About $3 billion in construction activity had been lost in 2008 and 2009. The Las Vegas Review-Journal speculated about those unfinished buildings remaining untouched, preserved as is in the arid environment, for twenty years.
Ron Harper and father-in-law Jim Brooks, the other steelworker in the family, endured those economic doldrums. Plus, out-of-state tuition had only been increasing. Those fiscal realities combined with Bryan Harper’s disenchantment at Cal State Northridge led him to CSN, which enhanced Bryce’s decision to become a Coyote.
When Bryan pitched, Sheri Harper knew not to bring a camera, and Ron Harper crept down the right-field line, took a seat on a little metal bench, and didn’t say a peep to anyone. When Bryce hit, Ron sat behind home plate, but Sheri took a walk. Long ago, the superstitious baseball family figured out the game within the game when the boys were on a diamond.
Chambers was figuring something else out in attempting to coach a precocious talent in uncharted waters, to help guide him through a maze of hope and hype that even Chambers couldn’t fathom. But he was certain that Bryce Harper couldn’t return to high school. Those pitchers would be scared to throw to him. If they did, he would gain nothing by hitting with aluminum for another season. And those hurlers would become targets. Someone might get hurt.
“He could hit .700 in high school and regress,” Chambers said. “He’d get bored with the game being so easy. He needed a challenge. This was his only option.”
Bryan, as a senior, had stood on first base the day Bryce, as a Las Vegas High freshman, slammed the 570-foot home run that Sports Illustrated had documented. For ESPN’s E:60, in which sportswriter Monte Poole criticized Harper, Bryce Harper wore his black Southern Nevada uniform when he guided reporter Rachel Nichols out past a street and into the desert to show her where his mammoth homer had landed.
“A grand slam,” Bryan told me in recalling that prodigious blast. “I turned and looked, and it just kept going. Wow. That’s when I knew.” That was the moment Bryan knew his younger brother was bound for stardom. “That one was pretty crazy. That same game he hit an opposite-field bomb [oppo boppo, in Bryce Harper vernacular] off the scoreboard. That was a fun game for him.”
Marvin Campbell, the former prep teammate of the Harper boys, had hit cleanup behind Bryce, who batted third, at Las Vegas High. So Campbell was in the on-deck circle the day Bryce belted that homer into the desert.
“As soon as he hit it, there was no doubt,” Campbell said. “I started walking toward home plate [to greet Harper]. Everyone was going, ‘Ooooooh.’ I look up and it’s bouncing on the other side of the street. It’s great hitting behind him because they’ll probably pitch the same way to me. You pick your poison.”
Pitch to Bryce Harper or intentionally walk him to throw to Campbell, another left-handed-hitting slugger? When Bryce was a freshman at Las Vegas High, that had been the dilemma, which Campbell relished, for opposing coaches and pitchers. Campbell cherished a photograph from that 2008 season. He’s looking off into the distance, as is Bryce, whose dome Campbell had just given a Mohawk cut. Bryan sits on a watercooler. The three close friends, together again. The Reunion, Campbell called it.
Reunion II took place in 2010, when Morse Stadium transformed into a Bermuda-covered petri dish, under baseball’s unforgiving microscope, out in the Mojave Desert. A high school junior planned to test himself on a junior college team stacked with veterans, with the added benefit of being able to sleep in his own bed and eat breakfast and dinner each day with his family.
Bryce Harper started almost every day, before sunrise, by glancing at the vintage Mickey Mantle poster on his bedroom wall before trudging downstairs. It’s a photo of the Mick surrounded by all of his baseball cards with his signature. Harper’s grandfather Jim Brooks had paid a buddy eight hundred bucks for it and given it to Bryce.
His first few years in the game, Harper wore number seven, as a tribute to Mantle. When he was ten, someone else on his Desert Storm club team had that number and wouldn’t yield it. Harper settled on number thirty-four. Add the two figures and it still honored Mantle. “Pinstripes are in his blood,” Brooks said. No wonder Harper had such affinity for the Sooner State and so enjoyed playing with the Oklahoma Elite Baseball club and the Westmoore High summer teams in Oklahoma City; where Harper would be roughly a ninety-minute drive from Spavinaw, where Mantle was born, and less than three hours from Commerce, in whose high school Mantle starred in three sports and was good enough in football to get a scholarship offer from the Oklahoma Sooners.
A die-cast model of a yellow 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, what Harper saw as he left his room, sat on a shelf. Brooks had owned a candy-apple 1957 two-door Bel Air hardtop back in the day. Bryce had seen it in photographs and adored it. Brooks once asked him what he wanted. Bryce said a Bel Air. Soon enough, Bryce unwrapped a small box that contained the yellow model. “The little car,” said Bryce Harper, smiling. “That’s grandpa.”
Harper always gave Harley, his eight-year-old, yellow Lab, a few brisk pats before trekking the 9.7 miles from the modest two-story home at the end of quiet Cantelope Court at the foot of Frenchman Mountain to the College of Southern Nevada campus in his ten-year-old, black Toyota Tacoma pickup truck that had logged more than 120,000 miles.
“What was I doing when I was a junior in high school, besides weighing 132 pounds and being a moron?” Chambers said during that last preseason practice. “I hear critics say he’s making a mistake. I don’t agree. Who can judge what’s better for him than him and his family? Let him enjoy it. He’s a special kid and this is a special circumstance. And everything you hear is going to happen. I guarantee it.”
Copyright © 2012 by Rob Miech
Posted March 16, 2014
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