One rainy February day in Las Vegas, home to a fake pyramid, a phony volcano, a faux Eiffel Tower, an ersatz New York skyline, a pirated copy of a pirate ship and the clever sleights-of-hand of magicians and plastic surgeons, Sam Thomas watched two men stretching a tape measure across South Hollywood Boulevard, reaffirming that there was at least one real deal in town. Thomas is the baseball coach at Las Vegas High, and the two men were his assistant coaches. The pair had come out in the rain to revisit the spot where, in a game the previous spring, a baseball had made landfall, a dimple in the desert, a tiny crater left in the sand by a home run off the bat of Las Vegas High catcher Bryce Harper, then a 15-year-old freshman.
The lefthanded Harper had hit the ball over the rightfield fence, two trees, another fence, a sidewalk, five lanes of traffic on elevated South Hollywood Boulevard and yet another sidewalk, until it finally landed in the brown, undeveloped desert. It might as well have been a flying saucer, judging by the grin on Thomas's face as he recalls the distance the ball traveled.
"Five-seventeen," it sounds as if Thomas is saying.
Five hundred seventeen feet?!
"No," Thomas says. Of course not. That would be preposterous. No 15-year-old kid could hit a baseball 517 feet.
"Five-seventy," Thomas clarifies.
• Golf has Tiger Woods, basketball has LeBron James, hockey had Wayne Gretzky and military history had Alexander the Great, but baseball, like jazz, is a discipline that does not easily engender prodigies. Since 1967, only one player has hit a home run in the major leagues before his 19th birthday: Robin Yount of the '74 Milwaukee Brewers. The sport is so skill-specific that even the best, most physically mature young players typically must endure several levels of minor league apprenticeship to learn the game.
So good and so young is Bryce Harper, however, that he explodes baseball convention. He has hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, and he did so in January, at age 16, with a blast that would have flown farther than the measured 502 feet had it not smashed off the back wall of the dome. Still only 16, Harper stands 6'3", weighs 205 pounds, has faster bat speed than Mark McGwire in his prime and runs so fast that he scored on wild pitches six times this season from second base. As a catcher he picks off runners from his knees, and when he pitches, he throws a fastball that has been clocked at 96 mph. He also does volunteer work, holds down a 3.5 grade point average and attends religious education classes nearly every morning before school.
When James was 16, he was a high school sophomore with an NBA game and a body to match. Harper has been compared to Justin Upton, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., each a freakishly advanced high school player and each the top overall pick of his draft. But Harper, say the baseball men who are paid to make such assessments, has the ability as a sophomore that the aforementioned trio had as seniors. That is why Harper—to his own approval—is best compared to James. Indeed, Harper nearly fell off the couch one day last month when he heard a sports announcer call San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the presumptive No. 1 pick in next week's draft, "the LeBron James of baseball."
"What?" Harper exclaimed with playful exasperation. "Hey, they stole that from me!"