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Baseball's LeBron
TOM VERDUCCI
June 08, 2009
His name is Bryce Harper. You don't know him, But every big league scouting director does. He hits the ball a desert mile, clocks 96 on the gun, and he's only 16, more advanced than A-Rod and Junior were at the same age. and his ambition is as great as his talent
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June 08, 2009

Baseball's Lebron

His name is Bryce Harper. You don't know him, But every big league scouting director does. He hits the ball a desert mile, clocks 96 on the gun, and he's only 16, more advanced than A-Rod and Junior were at the same age. and his ambition is as great as his talent

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"No, not really," Sheri said.

"He went 12 for 12. Eleven home runs and a double."

"That," Sheri says, "is when I knew."

Nearly every chance they could, the Harpers had Bryce play against kids two or three years older than he was. "I love playing against the older guys," Bryce says, "because I love showing up the older guys."

Bryce Harper is the product of a travel baseball industry that mushroomed, just as he himself was growing up, into big business. There seems no end to the tournaments, all-star games, showcases, wood-bat leagues, USA Baseball youth teams, "scout teams" sponsored by major league clubs. Premier players such as Harper can end up playing more baseball than minor leaguers, which can quicken baseball's traditionally long development process. This summer, for instance, Harper will play two weeks for a travel team in Oklahoma, participate in an 18-and-under all-star tournament in North Carolina, go up against college players in a wood-bat league in California, compete in Yankee Stadium for a scout team sponsored by the Yankees, play in Fenway Park at an all-star benefit game, attend the USA Baseball 18U team trials and, assuming he makes that club, play in the Pan Am Championships in Venezuela in late September.

Last year, as part of USA Baseball's 16U team in the Pan Am Championships in Mexico, Harper signed autographs for 45 minutes, until the wee hours of the morning, after pitching the 11th inning of a 3--1 win over Cuba. He batted .571 in the tournament, with four home runs in eight games, a 1.214 slugging average, a .676 on-base percentage and six stolen bases in six tries—all team highs among regular players—and was named MVP.

It was during an international home run hitting showcase in January that Harper, with a metal bat, walloped his 502-foot shot at the Trop, part of a run of six consecutive homers that averaged 469 feet. (The night before the competition Babe Ruth's granddaughter displayed a commemorative bat to be awarded to the player who hit the longest home run. In his own version of a called shot, Harper told the Babe's kin, "I'm going to win that bat." He did.)

"In some cases it may be helpful," Mets scout Ian Levin says of the explosion in high-profile amateur playing opportunities, "and in some cases it may be hurting. Kids don't get into a regimen, a schedule. It is not a very structured system, and especially for pitchers, if it means they're not getting rest, that can hurt them. With all of that play, they still need a break too. So some guys it may help. It definitely suits some guys well in terms of speeding up their development. But it's not for everyone. And the other thing to remember is that these showcases cost money, and it often winds up being about the families with money."

Bryce Harper plays baseball with a viciousness, a seeming contempt for whoever and whatever dares get between him and victory. "I'm going to play against you the way Pete Rose did," he says. "I'm going to try to rip your head off. That's just the way I am. Old school. If I could play for a guy like Lou Piniella or Larry Bowa, I'd love it."

Before he hits, Harper lays his bat down in the batter's box, takes two steps toward the pitcher, bends over, scoops up dirt in his bare hands (batting gloves? Hah!), rubs it between his palms and then returns to grab his bat and take his place in the box. "He's got this thing for dirt," Sheri says. It looks like an act of defiance, a marking of territory—in this case, home plate—as his alone.

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