Draft Q&A: Bryce Harper
Thousands of words have been written about Bryce Harper since he burst onto the baseball scene a few years ago, so we thought we'd go straight to Harper for the lowdown as the draft approaches. Baseball America assistant editor Nathan Rode spoke to Harper by telephone for almost an hour early in May.
BASEBALL AMERICA: Take us to the beginning. How did your love for baseball start?
Growing up with my brother. He started off playing tee ball and I was the bat boy for him. I was about 3 years old. My dad would slide me in there to get an at-bat or play the outfield. He'd ask the other coach, 'Hey, do you mind?' I was so young it didn't matter. I was always around the baseball field. My dad played softball. I was around the field no matter what. Before I could even walk I had a ball and bat in my hand. I had a Bam-Bam bat I used to carry around. I played with that thing all the time.
Q: You always seemed to play a level higher than your age. When did you realize you had such special talent?
I didn't really think I had much that higher of talent than anybody else. Manny Machado is very, very good. There's Jameson Taillon. There are other guys at other positions that are really good. I've spent my time on a baseball field every single day trying to get better and better. I wake up in the morning, go to school and go straight to the field. It was all about baseball. That's how I was. Off the field, I'd want to play Wiffle ball with some of my buddies. It was always about sports . . . Working in the gym and on the field every day, I try to be the best and I want to be the best. That's how I've always been.
Q: For someone your age, you've done things that haven't been seen too often on a baseball field. For you, w What is the most impressive feat you've accomplished as a player?
Playing with Team USA and making that club with all those kids and being on that caliber of a team. Playing with Manny Machado, Nick Castellanos and Jameson Taillon and Kevin Gausman, all those big-name guys. Just to be able to be around those guys and play that level of competition. I think that's my biggest honor to say that. I played for Team USA. I played for my country. I don't really look at my individual things that I've done. It just comes with God-given talent and I'm going to use it. I'm going to give 110 percent every day, no matter what. If I'm playing some rinky-dink team from Wyoming or something, I'm still going to go out there and play as hard as I can. Some opposing teams don't like that, saying "Hey, calm down, it's not the World Series." But every game to me is the World Series.
Q: What is your best baseball memory so far?
Team USA. Going and playing for my country and having USA on the front of your chest. I'm getting chills right now just thinking about it. Standing on the line, hearing the national anthem and just playing Cuba, Venezuela, all those big-name teams and all those players that are so good. Playing with all those guys from the U.S. and bonding with them. Nobody understands the experience we had in those three weeks together. There's no other experience like it and if I get the privilege to do it again this year, I'd love to. They're going to Canada this year for the World Junior Championship. We've won two rings in a row and hopefully we win it again this year.
Q: You got that opportunity to play and it obviously means a lot to you. How much sweeter is it that you won the gold medal?
There's no feeling like it. You can win a tournament or say, "I won a national championship." I mess around with (righthander) Donnie Roach. He went to Bishop Gorman (High, in Las Vegas) and says "Yeah, I have one national title and four state championships." Then I tell him I have two world championships and he's like "Ah, whatever." We go back and forth, nothing serious. It's pretty funny.
Q: How difficult was your decision to leave high school early and go to Southern Nevada. How tough of a decision was that?
It was a very tough decision. People don't realize it took us a while to figure out if I really wanted to do it. My dad asked me every single day, 'Are you sure you want to do this? Are you positive?' There were a lot of aspects of what was good and bad. All in all, everything has been so good. Everybody around me has been great. All the kids on my club, they've been there for me every single day. There were some times when I'd break down and be like 'Wow, is this for me? I could be in high school hitting .750.' But that wasn't what I needed to do. I needed to get out of high school and face some better competition and get better and work on things I needed to work on.
Q: What have you missed about being in high school?
I have not missed one thing at all. I really haven't. I didn't really have any friends in high school because I was about baseball. That's all I was about. Everyone else, they were about partying and all that kind of stuff. I stayed away from all that. I was pretty much a homebody. Go to school, go to baseball, go to the gym and come home. And eat a great home-cooked meal by my mom. That was my day. Then Sundays I'd go to church.
Q: After you went to Southern Nevada, did you ever second-guess your decision?
There were a couple times where I would be oh-for against my guys in intrasquad, 0-for-4 with three Ks or 0-for-5 with five Ks and I'd just be like, "What did I get myself into?" But I'd try to look at my staff and the guys I was facing, and my coach sat me down and said these guys are going to be first-five-round picks. I had to realize that baseball is a game of failure and it's going to humble you. There's going to be times where you're not going to get hits, but you can do other things on the field that are going to help your team win. All you can do is help your team win. I've matured in that aspect of my game, mentally. Being out there with older guys and having that and them teaching you can't be perfect every time. That's baseball. Just having them, my coach and my dad helping me out, it's been great.
Q: Who has helped you out in giving you advice on handling the attention this year?
My dad. He's been there every step of the way. Anytime I needed something, he's been there for me. He knows how I am about everything. He tried to slow everything down. Him and Chambers shut everything down and said 'Let him focus and play.' My dad was there every day. He made sure nothing was bothering me. All I needed to focus was baseball. Him and Chambers, they were a big part of everything. My team, being around and making everything easy, everyone laughing, making everything fun.
Q: How much has it helped being able to live at home and have your brother on the team?
Being able to live at home is awesome because you get your mom's food. That's the best part. You get to come home to a clean house, your own bed. You get to see your dog. It's just the little things that make everything better. Having my brother around is a big thing also. We have that brotherly love and hate. You know, we argue and fight at times, but everything has been great. Having him around has been amazing
Q: After he graduated high school did you think you'd ever get the chance to be teammates again?
I never realized I would. I was thinking if both of us make it into the big leagues maybe we'd end up on the same team or something like that. There was no point where I thought about it like we're never going play again together. It's a great feeling and I'm happy it did happen.
Q: Being 17 on a team of 19- and 20-year-olds, are you the victim of any kind of pranks?
No, not at all. They mess with me and call me "S.I." and "Lebron." They give me a hard time, but nothing like pranks or anything like that. Donnie Roach is the funniest guy I've ever met in my life.
Q: I've heard the story about you being due up to hit, but instead of you on-deck, Donnie Roach was there doing his Bryce Harper impression.
He does that a lot. He pitches the second game of the weekend (on Fridays), so on Saturdays he'll mess around. He goes in the locker room, puts on the eye black. Gets my helmet, puts it on. Tapes his wrists and writes Luke 1:37 on it. Puts dirt on his hands. He does my whole ritual. It's really funny. It's a great time.
Q: With the Sports Illustrated story last year, being on ESPN, do you get recognized when you out in public at all? Going to the mall or out to dinner with your family?
Yeah, there's a lot of people that recognize me. I try to not let them recognize me. I'll go out and wear jeans and a flannel shirts or whatever. But when I wear my baseball stuff, they'll recognize me.
Q: Going from high school to junior college with wood bats is obviously a big step. What have you learned about yourself as a player this year?
Baseball is a humbling game. First weekend we played Chipola (Fla.) JC. They had some guys on the bump that were very good. Switching to that wood bat, you can't get the hits you're going to get with aluminum. You know, you can get jammed and hit a ball down the line for a double. When you get jammed with a wood bat, it's unforgiving. You've got to go back and say, 'Hey, you got me that time,' tip your cap. You can't get upset anymore. That transfer from high school to junior college, it's not easy. Swinging that wood bat, like you said, it's unforgiving and humbling. It's kind of hard. You face everybody's No. 1, especially being the No. 1 team in the country. When you're good, you're going to face the best and that's what you want. If they shut you down, they shut you down. If you get some hits, you get some hits. Baseball is a crazy game.
Q: How have you improved as a player this year? What are you still working on?
I think mentally I improved a lot. Just being able to cope with failure, being able to know you're not going to hit .600. You're going to hit .400, .385 even. It's kind of weird looking at that number and saying that's a good number. I want perfection out of myself. My catching aspect of the game, I think, has improved a lot. Working with Cooper Fouts. He's an awesome catching guy. He's been a lot of help. Coach Jay Guest has been a lot of help in the outfield. All around I've improved a lot of things.
Q: Was there one moment when you felt you belonged in the league?
I went, what, 1-for-16 in my first couple games? I thought, 'This is going to be a little different from high school.' You've got to grow up a little bit and start playing the game. I started looking at a lot of film, looking at my swing, seeing what I could change to get to the ball better, see the ball better. There's a lot of things I changed in my swing that people probably can't see, but I tried to change a lot. After getting a couple of swings under my belt, I felt a lot better. Facing that pitching every single day helped a lot. You're going to get better, especially facing our staff. After a couple weeks I felt like I did belong here.
Q: Do you think Team USA and the intense junior college schedule has prepared you for what a minor league schedule could be like?
Yeah, definitely. We're on the bus. We don't fly anywhere. We're on the bus 14-15 hours a weekend sometimes. It's pretty intense. But we have a lot of fun on the buses.
Q: What players in the big leagues to you look up to?
I like Robinson Cano a lot. He's a great hitter. That's why I like him. I love his swing. He has one of the prettiest swings in baseball. I like Josh Hamilton. I love Joe Mauer. Back in the day, I love Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, George Brett. Growing up, my dad was a huge Reds fan. I look up to all the older players, how they played the game.
Q: You seem to wear 34 whenever possible. Any significance to that number for you?
Three plus four equals seven and Mickey Mantle is my favorite player.
Q: Before the Western Nevada series, had you ever been ejected before?
I never have. Never in my life.
Q: Did your emotions get the best of you?
If you were at that game, 20 of those players should've been gone out of that game. I don't know what happened. I was playing right field and tried to back-door a guy at first base. He said some choice words to me that he shouldn't have said. I looked over at their dugout and they all cheered for me and I bowed and it happened. Should I have done it? No. Did my emotions get the best of me? You could say that. It'll never happen again. It was just that time. It was that fire, that competition in that Western Nevada game. There's some bad blood between our teams. We got the win that day. That was an even better feeling. We were 3-1 against them, then played them again and got swept. It's baseball.
Q: Would you rather get to the big leagues in two years as an outfielder or in three years as a catcher?
Whoever drafts me, whatever they want to do with me, I'll do. I love to catch. I've loved to catch my whole life. But playing in the outfield and being able to hit and play in every single game, that's a big difference. Anywhere I can help a club, I'll help them. Anywhere they need me or want to use me, I'll do whatever they want. I love to catch and love to play the outfield.
Q: You are a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, correct? Do you plan on doing a mission?
Yes, I am. As of right now, no, I don't (have plans for a mission). I think I can do what I can on the field to get people to look at me and say, "He's LDS." I can do a lot more things on the field. I probably could go out and say "This is the right church," but I can do that on the field and being a walking book of Mormon. Is it in my repertoire to go do a mission? Yes, but after my career and everything like that. When I'm older I'll go on a mission, but as of right now, no, not at this age.
Q: Do you keep up with any of the articles written about you?
I don't read anything. I didn't even read the Sports Illustrated article. I don't read anything at all. I just focus on my game. Whatever I think I need to work on, I look at myself or ask my pops. I don't really need to read anything. My coach will pull me into the room and say, 'Did you see this, did you see what they're saying?' I say, 'Coach, I don't care.' I don't care what people say about me. As long as I'm playing the game and doing OK, that's all that matters.