Last Friday night, an estimated 1,400 people—roughly 500 more than had ever seen a game at that particular ballpark before—showed up in Henderson, Nev., to watch a 17-year-old play his first game for the College of Southern Nevada.
"I thought it was closer to 17 or 18 hundred, but we don't know how much our ballpark holds," Southern Nevada coach and athletic director Tim Chambers said. "I just know we were pressing fire code, I'm sure."
However many people actually showed up, what's not in doubt is that just about all of them—particularly the 100 scouts in attendance—were there to see one man. Bryce Harper is still a kid, really, but he graduated from high school two years early in order to make himself eligible for this June's major league draft, in which he is widely expected to be the first player taken. Harper was such a legendary high school player in Nevada that last spring he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated and inspired talk that he could be one of the best prospects ever.
His debut may not have been spectacular—he finished 1 for 3, drawing a walk in his first plate appearance and then singling in his second before stealing second base—but it did include a moment that had everyone buzzing. On his last trip to the plate, while the other team was actually trying to intentionally walk him, Harper reached out and shot a 3-0 pitch that got too much of the plate into center field for a sacrifice fly and an RBI.
"I'm not going to tell him not to do that—he's a kid," Chambers said. "I learned right there, and I tell people all the time, don't take your eyes off him because you might see something you've never seen before."
That has been sound advice for years. As a sophomore, Harper hit a 502-foot home run that has been viewed more than 600,000 times on YouTube. Cameras were ready for him again as he prepared for his debut on Friday, but one day later, he struggled through an 0-for-8 performance in a doubleheader against Yavapai College, prompting some advice from Chambers.
"He had a couple mechanical things going on," Chambers said. "He's got the leg turn and he was sitting on his backside and doing the leg turn on the front side, so he was forced to come up out of his squat, which makes it look like he's big-time jumping at the ball, which is what everybody saw this summer.
"When your head moves two feet, I told him, 'You're like a phenom to just make contact with your head moving that much.' Most people, if they do what he was doing, they wouldn't be able to touch it."
Chambers watched video with Harper the next day and told him to either stay tall or stay in his crouch when he swings, to keep his head level. Harper took the advice and rebounded by going 2 for 4 on Sunday with a double and his first home run.
Scouts were generally impressed with the youngster's early showing.
"He's a 17-year-old kid playing against older kids that are out to get him, and he struggled at times, but he also had the home run that was absolutely launched, and he showed all the tools," an American League area scout said. "He showed why he is the poster boy right now.
"Tool-wise, he's as complete as you can get, minus the run tool which really isn't going to be a big deal I don't think. Everything else has a chance to be plus. More so than anything he just needs experience and working on the approach. For me, the most specific thing would be just toning down — he likes to jump at the ball and he gets off hard on his front side and he's overly-aggressive sometimes with a football mentality at the plate. But I think when he adjusts and settles in a little bit, he's going to be just fine."
Though he'll normally split time between catcher and right field, Harper started Friday night's game at third base, caught and played center field in the two games on Saturday and caught again on Sunday. He may even take the mound this season (he pitched for Team USA in the 2008 Pan American Games).
"He played a lot of shortstop in the fall," Chambers said. "He may play some more infield. We're shorthanded a little bit, so he might see some more time there. He might even pitch a few innings. He keeps begging me, so we threw a bullpen last week, so I might give him six to 10 innings on the year."
Some scouts believe Harper will eventually become too big to catch, while others feel it will be in his drafting team's best interest to move him off the position and allow his bat to get to the big leagues more quickly.
"I'm in the camp that thinks he can catch and thinks he can be a very good catcher," the American League scout said. "I don't think he dropped a ball all weekend. The release had some issues. Throwing to second base, it's a little long, but the arm strength makes up for that for now. It's something he's probably going to have to shorten up. But, receiving-wise and blocking-wise, I think that's going to be fine catching. I think that's his best position. I know there are some nay-sayers with that, but I think he projects to be a good catcher. He stabs a little bit and he'll get flinchy every now and then on a swing, but he's a 17-year-old kid and that's pretty normal for a player his age."
Harper still has 52 more games to go this season, and Chambers is doing his best to shelter his prize pupil from the relentless barrage of requests he faced this summer. For the time being, Harper isn't allowed to talk with scouts, members of the media or even fans.
Though Chambers said he didn't expect to keep the kid gloves on all year, he explained the reason for the current embargo.
"It was him coming back at 185 pounds from [Team] USA and he had a little—call it a slump if you want, he wasn't hitting," Chambers said. "But I felt like it was too much for someone his age to have cameras, mics, interviews, articles in his face everyday for three months, and it affected him, so I said 'That's it, it's over.' He's back to 210 [pounds] and it's been the best decision."
Scouts don't necessarily see it that way, though that's not to say it took them by surprise.
"I think that's a normal tactic for the company that he's represented by," the scout said — referring to the Boras Corp. "It's kind of what we expected to have. In a general perspective, I think it's very unfair that a team is going to have to make a decision on whether they want to shell out a whole bunch of money and put their jobs on the line without really being able to get a feel for what the kid is all about. When it gets to crunch time and there's some teams that are more involved, hopefully they'll have that opportunity."
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