GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – Bryce Harper stands 6-foot-3, hits with any amateur on the planet, directs the game from catcher and plays every inch of nine innings as though he were born to them. He is but 17, got here by way of a GED and a million hours in the batting cage, and he almost certainly will be the first pick in next week's major league baseball draft.
"What we don't know about Bryce Harper," his baseball coach at College of Southern Nevada, Tim Chambers, said Monday, "is what it's like to be Bryce Harper. Nobody could know. Not his parents, not his coaches, not his brother, not his teammates, not the fans. How could we?"
His face streaked in eye black, his uniform caked with dirt, his ballclub a winner again, Harper grinned and said, "It feels good."
Behind him, nearly 10,000 people shuffled through the charmingly preserved ballpark at the corner of 12th Street and North Avenue, dozens holding pens and programs and headed for the gate through which Harper would leave.
A look at catchers drafted No. 1 overall since the MLB draft started in 1965.
2001: Joe Mauer
School: St. Paul (Minn.)
Cretin-Derham Hall High
Drafted by: Minnesota Twins
Skinny: Mauer is recognized as the best all-around catcher in baseball, batting .327 in six-plus seasons and winning the AL MVP Award in 2009. Mauer signed an eight-year, $184 million contract extension with the Twins before the 2010 season.
1985: B.J. Surhoff
School: University of North Carolina
Drafted by: Milwaukee Brewers
Skinny: Surhoff played 19 years in the majors, but only his first six as a catcher. He was converted to a third baseman in 1993, then became a left fielder in 1997, playing for the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves in addition to the Brewers.
1975: Danny Goodwin
School: Southern University
Drafted by: California Angels
Skinny: Goodwin is the only player ever drafted No. 1 twice. He signed for a record $125,000 but battled injuries and never caught a game in the majors. Unable to throw, he batted .236 in 636 career at-bats for three teams as a DH and first baseman.
1971: Danny Goodwin
School: Peoria (Ill.) Central High
Drafted by: Chicago White Sox
Skinny: Goodwin didn't sign, opting to go to college instead. The White Sox were hardly the only team to waste their top pick in this draft. The top 10 picks were all busts and the only future stars picked in the first round were Frank Tanana (No. 13), Jim Rice (No. 15) and Rick Rhoden (No. 20).
1970: Mike Ivie
School: Decatur (Ga.) Walker High
Drafted by: San Diego Padres
Skinny: Ivie spent parts of 11 seasons in the major leagues but never achieved stardom, batting .269 with 81 home runs. He caught in only nine of the 602 games he appeared in, playing primarily first base and left field.
1966: Steve Chilcott
School: Lancaster (Calif.)
Antelope Valley High
Drafted by: New York Mets
Skinny: Chilcott suffered a shoulder injury in 1967 and never made the major leagues. He retired at age 23 after batting .248 in 331 minor league games. The Mets took Chilcott instead of Reggie Jackson, whom the Oakland Athletics made the second pick in the draft.
They'd come to see Harper play baseball. They'd groaned when he didn't get a suitable pitch to swing at, whooped when he lined a hit to right field and gasped when he'd leaked from third base, timed up a lefty's pickoff throw to first and stolen home on it. That was the first inning.
Sam Suplizio Field rests between Lincoln Park Golf Course and Mesa State College's football stadium. They've played the Junior College World Series here for more than 50 years, and the old-timers remember Kurt Bevacqua, Dave Collins and Kirby Puckett in this park, but never has anyone quite like Bryce Harper come through.
In a tournament for college students, Harper's classmates are finishing their junior year at Las Vegas High School. In a game for near adults, Harper is a year and a half behind his next-youngest teammate. And at a time when there are no more secrets, Harper is even bigger than that, signing autographs for 20 minutes post-game before being led to an alternative gate, because the folks who want to have touched him "back when" outflank even his earnest desire to grant it to them.
"People ask who I would compare him to," Chambers said. "I can't compare him to anybody. He's Bryce Harper.
"He had all the pressure, all the expectations and the fame. Then to perform this year? It's unbelievable."
When he stands in front of his dugout watching Faulkner State College take infield, Harper stands a little crooked, like he owns the joint, or soon will. His hands are on his hips. By the width of his shoulders and the way he fills the uniform – yellow jersey over gray pants for the Coyotes – and the way he sets his jaw, he could be older. His cheeks carry a short stubble. And when he arrives at his position for the first time, he greets the plate umpire with a looping handshake, like he's known ol' Cedric Coleman forever.
He turns and squats and the eyes he meets are his brother's. Bryan Harper is a stringy, classically schooled left-hander, a sinker-slider pitcher and three years older than Bryce. When Bryan entered his teens and began throwing too hard for his father, Ron, to catch him, his brother stepped in. They were teammates – Bryan was a senior, Bryce a freshman – in high school. Had they lost Monday – Southern Nevada won 18-1 in six innings (Bryan allowed one hit, a wind-blown home run) – the game might have meant Bryce had caught his last competitive pitch from Bryan.
Their parents, grandparents and sisters are in the grandstands, on the shady side of the ballpark. When the game is done, Bryan hands the game ball through the fence to his sister, who turns and gives it to their mother, Sheri.
"Give me a kiss!" Sheri shouts through the netting.
Bryan obliges with a laugh.
He said he hadn't considered the brotherly battery breaking up after Monday, no matter the result. They're having too good a time to think about that.
"I try to enjoy the moment as it is," he said. "Working with my brother is always great. A lot of people don't get to do that. It's really great."
They'd leave the emotion to the saps.
"I know I'm going to see him down the road and we'll play together in pro ball down the line," Bryce said. "It would be so special to do this in the big leagues, maybe to make our big league debuts together. That would be great."
Harper left high school in search of a game, no different than the inner-city kid dribbling a basketball past playgrounds, looking for not just any run, but a real run. In 63 games at Southern Nevada, he batted .442, reached base more than half the time, hit 29 home runs and drove in 89 runs. When the JUCO World Series is done this week, he'll go looking for more game. Even now, playing years ahead, he's as likely to be pitched around as pitched to.
They'd actually come after him in conference – the Coyotes play in the Scenic West Athletic Conference, a wood-bat league – and he hit there, especially.
"I'm here for that," he said. "Our conference was great. Everybody wanted to strike me out and blow it by me or put me down."
His eyes widened.
"That," he said, "is baseball. I needed it."
What it's like to be Bryce Harper is to seek the longer challenge, to wish for the game to go through – rather than around – him. He's so sure he can do this that he won't allow it to go any other way. Maybe he's the best prospect ever, or the second best, or barely on the list, whatever. It doesn't matter. We know there haven't been many like him, not at 17. We know that guys like this – boys who become men, early – more often go off to play football or basketball. We know that sometimes baseball picks the boy, not the other way around. They are the special ones.
That's how Harper throws a baseball like he does and blocks a slider on a long hop and watches a pitcher throw to first base once and know – just know – he can dash the 90 feet from third to home out of it. He's not alone, obviously. There are a lot more like him where he's going.
The longing to get there right now? That's probably what it's like to be Bryce Harper.
- Bryce Harper
- Bryan Harper
- College of Southern Nevada