Prodigy Harper handles the pressure

LAS VEGAS -- Hours after the June 8 issue of "Sports Illustrated" -- the one with Bryce Harper featured on the cover -- hit the newsstands, a producer in Los Angeles picked up a phone and called Harper's father, Ron, in Las Vegas.

"We want your son, Bryce, to be on Jimmy Kimmel Live!" the producer gushed.

Kimmel wanted Bryce Harper and Kobe Bryant to appear on the same night. Bryant, on the verge of winning his fourth title with the Los Angeles Lakers, already had agreed to appear on the show. But the guest Kimmel might have wanted more was Harper, who, like Kimmel, is from Las Vegas. And with good reason: Harper is a child prodigy as rare as Mozart or, more to the point, Alex Rodriguez. Only Harper, at 16 years old, is a more promising baseball prospect than A-Rod was at that age.

Ron and Sheri Harper, Bryce's parents, suddenly had a dilemma on their hands. Should Bryce go on Kimmel's show, or should he stick with the original plan, which was to go fishing with some friends? In the ensuing months, the Harpers would face a steady stream of decisions in which they had to balance the demands of Bryce's newfound fame with the need to maintain normalcy. It was no easy task; everyone from small-market radio stations to CNN came calling.

In the case of Kimmel, the funnyman lost to the fish. And at the last minute, Bryce scrapped his fishing trip in favor of -- surprise, surprise -- a baseball tournament.

"Just wanted to play some more baseball," said Harper, a catcher who has blazing bat speed and Herculean power and can throw the ball 96 mph. "I'll go fishing some other time."

But before Harper would cast his next line, he joined a handful of teams for games in Oklahoma, Utah, Arizona, New York, California and North Carolina. He also made the biggest decision of his life. In mid-June, Harper dropped out of Las Vegas High School and enrolled in the College of Southern Nevada, a junior college with an outstanding baseball program. Harper, who hit .626 as a sophomore this past season, said he wasn't being challenged in high school. He doesn't need a high school diploma to enroll at the junior college, but to play on its baseball team in the spring, he must obtain a GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma. He will take the test for his GED after his 17th birthday in October.

The leap from high school to junior college is a means to an end. It will almost certainly make Harper eligible for the 2010 Major League Baseball draft. Had he remained in high school until graduation, he wouldn't have become eligible until 2011. Harper's path to the majors is believed to be unprecedented, according to league officials.

In many ways, Harper is still your average 16-year-old. He's polite, has a good sense of humor and just received a learner's permit to drive. Unless asked a direct question, he generally doesn't talk a whole lot. But at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he looks more like a man-child.

Many scouts believe Harper will be selected with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft. If the draft were held today, the Washington Nationals (40-72) would win the sweepstakes. Harper, who is already being advised by agent Scott Boras, could command a $10 million signing bonus.

"If the Nationals pass on Harper, it will only be for financial reasons," said Keith Law, the director of baseball scouting for Scouts Inc. Law called Harper "one of the best high school position-player prospects, I would say, in probably the last 10 to 15 years."

Before the Sports Illustrated article, only insiders like Law were touting Harper as that rare player who could reach the majors as a teenager. But June 8 was a watershed moment in the life of Bryce Aron Max Harper. After the cover story, he became a nationally known commodity. Sports fans from Maine to Maui were buzzing about the 502-foot home run he hit as a sophomore during a home run derby for top prospects at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field in January, the longest in the ballpark's history. Clips of the blast have been viewed on YouTube more than 350,000 times.

"I didn't hit it with the wood, I hit it with aluminum," said Harper, who bats left-handed. "But when I hit the back of the dome, I was like, wow, did that really just happen? I just, like, looked up, like, holy crap."

Five hundred two feet? Not bad. But Harper has done better. During his freshman season, he crushed a ball that cleared the right-field fence at Las Vegas High School, a sidewalk, five lanes of traffic and another sidewalk, landing in a desert on the edge of town. His coaches measured the home run at an astounding 570 feet. And while they might have been generous by several feet, it was a Ruthian moment for sure.

At tournaments in which Harper has played this summer, he has been approached by scores of autograph-seekers. In Oklahoma City, more than 50 people waited in line after a game to meet Harper, many of them carrying glossy photos of him. Some of the autographs have resurfaced on eBay with an asking price of $24.99.

The legend of Bryce Harper has gotten so big that some fans attend his games expecting to see him launch the ball into orbit during every at-bat. When he fails to produce, they snicker. "Over-rated!" shouted one fan in Oklahoma City. While Harper isn't the first teenage athlete to deal with these kinds of expectations, few have gone from nameless to known as quickly as he has. Coping with the pressure can be stressful.

"It was scary at first," Sheri Harper said of the negative attention Bryce has received. "It was difficult to see him out there. You're vulnerable when you're out there. There's a lot of comments online and that sort of thing. I used to read those comments, and then finally I just had to say I can't read them. I can't see the negativity because I feel bad."

Bryce Harper is aware that countless can't-miss prospects have, in fact, missed badly: Todd Van Poppel and Brien Taylor come to mind. He said he copes with the expectations by tuning them out.

"I'm going to play the game like I know how to play it," he said. "If people don't like it, then they can leave. Don't want to watch me? Then don't buy the ticket."

To reduce the stress, Harper's parents have taken precautions. He will continue to live at home during college, and his older brother, Bryan, a pitcher at Cal State Northridge, is transferring to the College of Southern Nevada to watch over him.

"He just needs to be a kid and go have fun," said Ron Harper, a steelworker who used to toss beans at Bryce to improve hand-eye coordination. "We're still the same family; haven't changed. It's just there's more attention now."

Ron has also been the target of criticism this summer -- in print, on television and in cyberspace -- for allowing Bryce to skip his last two years of high school. One newspaper went so far as to call Ron a stage parent. He winces at the characterization. "They don't know our family," he said. "They've never spoken to us. Not fair."

In the coming months, the pressure on Bryce and his family promises to intensify. He will face better competition in college, and major league scouts and general managers will follow his every move. The Harpers realize they can't change the expectations or the criticism. Fans and columnists will always say what they want. So as summer inches closer to fall, the family is solely focused on the moment, enjoying what little time remains before Bryce's freshman year begins.

During a recent day in Las Vegas, Harper slipped into a brown and yellow Southern Nevada uniform for the first time. He then took batting practice from his father, sending one ball after another toward the sky. Two hours later, it was time to go home. But for nearly the rest of the afternoon, despite 110-degree heat, Harper continued to wear his uniform.

"Just feels right," he said.

David Picker is a producer for E:60.