Catching on Quickly

Former Sports Illustrated cover boy preparing to be top pick in MLB draft at age 17

Striking out four times in four trips to the plate this past October during his first junior college intrasquad scrimmage was an eye-opening experience for baseball prodigy Bryce Harper.

Four months after gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 as “Baseball’s Chosen One,” the College of Southern Nevada freshman was a victim of the inglorious “golden sombrero.”

A glassy-eyed Harper questioned his skills for the first time in a sobering talk afterward with CSN coach Tim Chambers.

“Thank God you’re having a slump right now!” Chambers told Harper. “What if this didn’t happen until your first pro season? Accept it, find your way out of it and move on. You belong here.”

In the next scrimmage Harper homered in the first inning, then doubled and tripled, driving in seven runs.

The Great Experiment has turned CSN’s Henderson campus into the epicenter of amateur baseball in America.

Harper is the first person to skip his final two prep seasons, pass his General Educational Development test and zip to the nearest junior college to be eligible for the pro draft a year before his high school graduating class.

The 6-foot-3-inch, 208-pound catcher, who is also playing third base at CSN, is a good bet to be the first overall pick in the June draft. Executives of the Washington Nationals, who own the top selection, have been keeping close tabs on him.

Harper hit the farthest home run, a 502-foot bomb using a metal bat, at Tropicana Field in Tampa, Fla., during a contest in January 2009, and he has been called the “LeBron James of baseball” because of his incredible ability at such a young age.

Chambers has barred media access to Harper to protect him. Campus security officers guard the Coyotes’ dugout during games. A record crowd of 1,300, including 100 scouts, packed Morse Stadium for the season opener on Jan. 29.

“It’s crazy,” sophomore second baseman Scott Dysinger says. “Who would want all that pressure? I know I wouldn’t. I feel for the kid sometimes.”

Harper hit .626 at Las Vegas High last season before deciding to leave high school for CSN to test himself against better competition in the Scenic West Athletic Conference.

Older brother Bryan, a 6-foot-5 lefty reliever, inspired the move by transferring to CSN after an unsatisfying stint at Cal State Northridge.

“You can’t ignore the fact that Bryce is here,” Bryan says. “We’ll get a lot of attention just by him being here.”

Bryce went 1-for-11 in his first three games, but he slugged his first junior college homer in his 17th trip to the plate.

“He got it out of the way,” Dysinger says. “He can relax now.”

Through 12 games, Harper is hitting .378 with a team-leading three homers, six doubles and 15 RBIs. He also has three stolen bases in four attempts for the Coyotes (10-2).

Chambers reminds himself daily that Harper is only 17. Nothing inflames the coach more than hearing criticism about his star player’s trailblazing move.

“Nobody has the right to comment about this,” Chambers says. “Leave him alone. He’s a high school junior doing something that has never been done. He’s a special kid and this is a special circumstance, and everything you hear is going to happen. I guarantee it.”

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