One year ago this week, Las Vegas High baseball phenom Bryce Harper was playing for Westmoore’s Red Dirt team, which plays in a state-wide wood-bat league.
On Monday, the 17-year-old Harper became the No. 1 pick in this year’s amateur draft. Harper skipped his last two years of high school, got his general equivalency degree (GED) and enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada rather than having to wait to become draft-eligible in 2011 as a high-school senior.
Harper became the first-ever junior college player to be drafted first and is expected to demand a contract with the Washington Nationals similar to the $15.1 million deal signed by pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who made his major-league debut with the Nationals on Tuesday night against Pittsburgh.
Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week before coming to Oklahoma last spring. The magazine proclaimed him the LeBron James of baseball.
While Harper was in Oklahoma, he was lauded by teammates.
“He’s just a normal 16-year-old,” Westmoore first baseman Taylor Tipps said at the time. “He’s fun to be around.”
Tipps was Harper’s teammate three years ago on the Oklahoma Elite travel team. Harper resided at the Tipps’ house while in town last June.
“If you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought that kid has been with these guys their entire lives,” Westmoore coach Sean Brooks said of Harper. “He fits right in with our guys. He’s up on the rail with them, talking to the guys, picking them up. His skill level is above these guys, but it’s the same mentality, the same approach to the game. He fits right in with what we do.”
Tipps had warned teammates how good Harper was.
“People like to hear how good he is, but you don’t believe it until you see it,” Tipps said.
Westmoore third baseman/pitcher Mike Brewster was asked if there is an aspect of Harper’s game that needs work. Brewster smiled, shook his head and mumbled, “I don’t think so.”
Westmoore players hung out with Harper, ate lunch and watched movies. During one lunch, Harper signed autographs for kids at the local Chili’s.
“He’s pretty cool,” Brewster said.
Others recently have viewed Harper differently, however.
In April, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus said of the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Harper: “It’s impossible to find any talent evaluator who isn’t blown away by Harper’s ability on the field, but it’s equally difficult to find one who doesn’t genuinely dislike the kid. One scout called him among the worst amateur players he’s ever seen from a makeup standpoint, with top-of-the-scale arrogance, a disturbingly large sense of entitlement, and on-field behavior that includes taunting opponents. ‘He’s just a bad, bad guy,’ said one front-office official. ‘He’s basically the anti-Joe Mauer.’ ”
Harper’s amateur career ended prematurely at this week’s Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colo. According to USA Today, Harper “nearly set off a bench-clearing brawl by spiking the opposing first baseman running to first, glared at the home-plate umpire on a called strike and
showed up the umpire by drawing a line in the dirt with his bat that prompted the ejection and an automatic two-game tournament suspension. He never played again, leaving his coach seething, fans angry and his teammates in tears.”
Still, Harper was too talented for the Nationals to ignore. “We all did things we weren’t proud of at 17,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said.
To expedite his rise to the majors, the Nationals have said the left-handed hitting Harper will move from catcher to right field. When, or if, Harper will sign is unknown. His longtime adviser is uber-agent Scott Boras, who has had many of the most notable contract holdouts in history.
The Nationals have until Aug. 16 to sign Harper. If negotiations falter, one option is for Harper to return to school at Southern Nevada and be re-drafted next June. Harper batted .443 with a school-record 31 home runs and 98 RBI in 66 games this season.