Before He Went National

How baseball phenom Bryce Harper once struck out seven times in two days, doubted himself for 24 hours and never, ever looked back

Editor’s Note: Adapted from the forthcoming book The Last Natural.

The last preseason practice of Bryce Harper’s amateur life started on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010, with a meeting of all the College of Southern Nevada coaches and players in center field at Morse Stadium on CSN’s Henderson campus. Coach Tim Chambers told the Coyotes to be prepared for the four games they would play over the next three days. Chambers’ confidant, Jim Schwanke, a former assistant coach at Oklahoma State and Louisiana State, spoke about the importance of bonding and selflessness.

Then Chambers shooed the 17-year-old Harper away in his white pants and gray practice jersey. CSN catchers coach Cooper Fouts stuck by Harper’s left as they strolled toward the right-field foul line. This is about you being successful, Fouts said as he looked up at Harper, and us being successful.

Once Harper had slipped out of earshot, Chambers turned back to the supporting cast.

“You all know that guy’s the shit,” he said. “None of you know what he’s going through, what he’s thinking, or what he’s feeling. He’s why we have that new scoreboard. Why we have those new seats. Why we have that new parking lot. Protect him. Watch out for him. If we have no jealousies, we’ll be fine.”

Thirty professional baseball scouts, taking notes and enjoying the sun and wasting their employers’ money, peered out at the practice. Some sat on shiny blue plastic seats on the red-boulder bleachers behind home plate. Some stood behind the protective black netting, surrounding the plate area, in clumps of two or three. The black cord of his stopwatch, in his right pocket, that wrapped around his right wrist gave away a scout from 20 paces. Logos of the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals, especially the Nationals, advertised on windbreakers, sweaters and visors.

In the 10 previous CSN seasons, maybe a dozen scouts had watched the Coyotes at any particular practice. Twenty-four hours after this practice, Morse would burst at its seams with a record crowd of nearly 2,000. In three weekends, CSN would surpass its gate revenue from the entire 2009 season. They all were eager to see what the Rook—Chambers’ nickname for his burgeoning star—would do with a wooden bat in junior college.

The scouts swarmed that Thursday practice to see Harper, who had graced the June 8, 2009, cover of Sports Illustrated wearing his red Las Vegas High jersey and gaudy wrestler-like eye black, at the tail end of his powerful left-handed swing, squinting as if he were watching the Rawlings he had just poked turn into a pea and plop into the Pacific Ocean, with the setting sun glowing orange against the base of Frenchman Mountain behind him.

“Looks a little lean,” a scout said to Fouts.

“He’s at 208 pounds,” said Fouts, glancing at the 6-foot-3 Harper. “Don’t worry. He’s eatin’ Mama’s cookin’.”

• • •

Harper towered over Chambers, Fouts and just about everyone else in the stadium that afternoon. Indeed, when infielder Casey Sato first saw Harper enter the CSN clubhouse, he thought the slugger looked more like a 22-year-old man—a pro seasoned by a rapid rise in the minor leagues who carried himself like John Wayne, just as his old man had taught him—than a kid who was halfway through high school. Harper’s hair was jet-black, thanks to dye, and closely cropped and blocked off in back. He wore his sideburns like Montgomery Clift and the bottoms of his jeans turned up, like Marlon Brando. All he needed was a woolen uniform to complete the throwback appearance.

The Sports Illustrated cover had cemented Harper, targeted for baseball stardom at an early age, as a public figure. It brought him an added measure of celebrity in major league clubhouses, too. Soon after that edition had hit the newsstands and mailboxes, Harper attended a game at Dodger Stadium. His name served as carte blanche at clubhouse doors. He sat in front rows or luxury suites. Harper knew Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson well. As they chatted in the Dodgers’ clubhouse before the game, Hudson told Harper to go sit on the bench in front of first baseman James Loney’s cubicle.

Loney, who had Harper’s Sports Illustrated cover taped on the inside of his locker, screeched to a stop, eyes wide and mouth agape. The cover boy was sitting right there in front of him.

“What the hell you doin’ sittin’ there?” Loney said.

“That’s the Kid!” responded Hudson, laughing and nearly falling onto the Dodger-blue carpet. Loney found a black Sharpie and had Harper sign the magazine cover.

“I love L.A.,” Harper said, “and I love those guys.”

• • •

Harper had created his own end-around to the Major League Baseball draft. At Las Vegas High School, he’d pummeled the preppies with an aluminum bat. After his sophomore year, at age 16, he and his family had made the controversial decision for him to get his GED and jump straight to CSN, to a new level of competition, and attention, in the Scenic West Athletic Conference—one of only four collegiate conferences in the nation to use wooden bats, and thus a compelling showcase for a major-league prospect.

CSN baseball took on a whole new diamond-studded dimension in 2010. Professional talent-evaluators and college recruiters would flock to Morse Stadium. Harper would swing his black Marucci CU26 maple Pro Models, even a few pink ones, with vigor. Umpires examined his every move with a magnifying glass. Sometimes Harper imploded over striking out or popping up to a catcher. Sometimes he dueled with his coach. He was deep in territory no 17-year-old had experienced, and the only way he knew forward was to fight. Harper’s teammates mimicked his walk, the way his weight instantly shifted forward to the balls of his feet when he took a step. He always seemed to be leaning forward. Perpetual aggression.

Harper showed that on the diamond by always looking to stretch a single into a double, rounding first base hard, or trying to turn a double into a triple. Walk him, and he could easily be on third a minute later, having stolen second, then third. Stealing home plate was always on his mind, too. He lived on forcing the issue.

• • •

Harper had played inside linebacker and fullback as a freshman at Las Vegas High, and he beamed when talking about making a big hit on the football field or having his number called when a few yards were needed on a critical fourth-down play. As a kid, he had dreamed of playing football and baseball at Alabama, Clemson or Louisiana State; the uniforms, helmet colors, stadiums and rabid fans of those teams looked so enticing and vivid on television. One of his role models was Tim Tebow.

“There’s nothing better than Tebow,” Harper said. “He has an incredible drive, and he’s a great leader. He’s so good … and godly. He played every play like a bulldog. He’ll run it down your throat, and he does everything through God and Christ. He’s an inspiration to a lot of kids in the country with what he’s done. What’s not to like about him? They say, ‘He’s like God.’ But you can’t say anything bad about him.”

Harper, a devout Mormon, had Luke 1:37 inscribed on his bats where his name belonged: For with God, nothing shall be impossible. “If you do everything through Christ,” Harper said, “it will be done. It’s so profound. You’ve got to have someone by your side to get through hard times.”

• • •

Harper—the kid who tried so hard and yet made it look easy—had gotten his glimpse of the baseball abyss, and hadn’t liked it one bit. In two October 2009 intrasquad games at Henderson’s Foothill High, he struck out seven times. A golden sombrero and a hat trick.

That night, Harper’s father, Ron, called Chambers and said this might be too much, that he was thinking about pulling Bryce out of CSN and sending him back to Las Vegas High. He worried that his son could be on his way from Sports Illustrated cover boy to a poster boy for ill-fated moves, buried by an avalanche of expectations. Chambers said Harper had to stay. The commitment had been made on both ends; the struggles might be the perfect learning experience.

“[Chambers] knew he could do it,” Ron Harper said months later. “I knew he could do it. Of course, you have second thoughts. You think about it. He was 16, turning 17. You want to see him happy. That’s all I can say. It’s not that I’ve ever shied away from anything in life or he’s shied away from anything. You want to make sure he’s always working hard. Nothing is going to come easy in this life. We knew you have to go take it if you want it.”

The day after that seventh strikeout, Chambers brought Harper into his office, where a big white beanbag-like baseball chair and a short couch covered in blue canvas competed for space. For the first time in his baseball life, Harper was doubting himself. “Maybe I’m not good enough,” he told Chambers.

They spoke for 40 minutes. Chambers chose his words carefully: “Here’s the deal. You are good enough. You’re the most talented player I will ever coach. The bonus is you have great players around you. You don’t have to carry us. We don’t need you to carry us. When you go 0-for-4, guess what? You’ll be in the lineup the next day. You don’t have to hit .600. You should thank the Lord you’re having a slump right now, because we can figure out how to deal with failure, accept it, find a way out of it and move on. This is the first slump of a hundred. You’re going to see pitchers three or four times a week that you maybe saw once all last season. The more you see them, the better you’ll get.”

Chambers further eased Harper’s transition by shutting off almost all media contact to him. Oprah, 60 Minutes and This Week in Baseball were some of the many requests, begging to feature Harper, that Chambers would rebuff throughout the season. Only scant inquiries were approved. “Blame it on me,” Chambers told Ron and Sheri Harper if anyone in the media had an issue with the access shutdown. “Bryce was relieved,” Chambers said. “So was his daddy.”

In the next scrimmage, Bryce Harper homered in his first at-bat. Pounded the ball clear into the middle of the Foothill High soccer pitch. He also doubled twice and tripled, driving in seven runs. On Nov. 8, 2009, with Washington Nationals executives in Morse Stadium, Harper tripled in two with a shot off the center-field wall, cleared the loaded bases with a liner off the wall in left, cracked an opposite- field homer over the oak trees in left and laid down a bunt for a hit to complete the cycle. He had driven in seven more runs.

A bit later, CSN scrimmaged against Fullerton College at Cashman Field. Before the Coyotes ran to the outfield to shag flies in a pregame routine that reinforced hitting the correct cutoff man, they had huddled along the first-base line. They glared out at the imposing blue 20-foot-tall left-field wall, which was marked 364 feet to the power alley. The huge wall and distance shocked many of them. One of them wondered aloud if a ball could be thrown over the wall from where they stood. No way, had been the consensus.

“I can,” Harper said flatly. He grabbed a baseball, reversed a few steps, roared back, skipped forward and gave it a chuck. The ball cleared the fence, over the 364 sign.

Four hundred fans showed for the exhibition, triple the high of any previous CSN fall scrimmage. Harper belted a solo homer that just cleared the fence in right.

“Shoulda walked me!” he yelled at the Fullerton dugout as he rounded third base. Players jawed at each other, but no fight broke out. Later, Harper sliced a liner over the shortstop’s head and stretched it into a double. He drove in three runs in the Coyotes’ 9–0 victory.

But he did something else in that game that Coyotes pitching coach Glen Evans did not miss. Harper etched a line in the dirt with his bat on the far side of home plate after the umpire caught him looking at strike three. Harper thought the pitch had been wide, and he traced its path for the ump. The umpire did not eject Harper, and Chambers did not discipline his young player for one of the game’s most egregious acts of insubordination.

The emotional fallout from that golden sombrero seemed to have occurred in the distant past. Cockiness was again coursing through the prodigy’s veins.