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When asked about his goals as a ballplayer, he replies, "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."
What's more jolting than his words is the manner in which Harper delivers them. The kid speaks with a measured, unemotional certainty, as if he were playing not the Natural but the Preternatural.
Last year Harper played in the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., a showcase otherwise reserved for the best juniors and seniors in high school baseball. During batting practice, swinging a wood bat, he bombed balls over light towers and scoreboards in Blair Field. Damon Oppenheimer, the amateur scouting director for the Yankees, took note of his attitude as much as his power.
"One of his first at bats, he hit a ball into the gap, and there was no doubt in his mind from the moment he hit it that it was going to be a double," Oppenheimer says. "And it was close. He went into second sliding hard and got dirty and got his double. He played the game with a real ferocious type of attitude. He was out there to win. It was an old school way.
"He's the real deal. You know why? It's like he doesn't take the game and the gift that he has for granted. He's maximizing everything. You're not worried about him going out there and living on talent alone. He's working hard. He's playing hard. He has a maturity about him, a toughness that says he's going to work his butt off. It's really refreshing to see these kinds of skills and talent, and the work ethic and dedication to go with it."
• Bryce Harper was playing T-ball at age three against six-year-olds, partly to be with his older brother, Bryan, who was drafted by the Nationals in the 31st round last year but elected to attend Cal State--Northridge. By the time Bryce was nine, travel teams from California to Colorado to Oklahoma were calling the Harpers and offering to put their son on a plane, lodge him in a hotel and provide his meals so he could play for them in tournaments. A travel player for hire. He went, of course. Most times either Ron or Sheri went with him, but sometimes, for work or monetary reasons, they could not go, so Bryce went alone. He has played between 80 and 130 baseball games a year each year for the past seven years, in more states than he can remember.
"People say, 'Weren't you deprived of your childhood?'" Bryce says. "No way. I would not take anything back at all. Everything about it was great. I got to go places, meet people, play baseball against older kids and better competition. I had a great time."
According to Sheri, "A reporter once talked to us for a story about the travel baseball experience, but they didn't quote us because we had nothing but good things to say about it. Bryce is a normal kid. He snowboards. He played football up until last year. We don't limit him in any way. He loves to play baseball. He would come home after being away playing baseball all weekend, get off the plane and not an hour later be bored and say, 'Dad, let's go to the cage and hit.' I mean, he still sleeps with his bat. He'll get a new bat and go, 'Dad, isn't she a bee-yooty?'"
It was after one of those player-for-hire trips that Sheri began to understand that her son was really special. Bryce, then 12, was playing in a tournament in Alabama on a field with 250-foot fences. It was a trip Sheri could not attend. When Bryce phoned home, Sheri asked him how he'd done. "I did all right," he replied.
Later one of the coaches called Sheri. "Did he say anything to you?" the coach asked.