White Measures Up Harper

Less than a month from now, when the 2010 draft begins, Bryce Harper will graduate from amateur phenom to the road to the major leagues.

Last week, Matt White graduated from the University of Georgia with a wildlife biology degree. The road to his degree was as different figuratively as it was literally. While earning his degree, he commuted from his home in Atlanta’s northern suburbs to Athens, about an hour and a half each way, with forays into downtown Atlanta for his job, as a volunteer assistant at Georgia Tech. His full-time gig, of course, was being a father of two children, both under the age of three.

Two kids in diapers, five hours in the car on some days, full-time student and college baseball coach. That’s the road this 31-year-old former bonus baby—still the holder for the largest signing bonus ever given to a drafted player, at $10.2 million way back in 1996—has traveled.

On the way, he had many of the experiences Harper already has had and will face. “I can’t imagine the attention he’s getting, with the blogs and the Internet and the way it is today,” White said. “It would have made my experience much different. I’m sure I would have heard a lot more than I did about how my career turned out.”

Many in the baseball industry figured that at age 31, White would be holding down a rotation spot in the majors, part of a long career as a front-of-the-rotation starter. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, White was considered the top prep pitcher in the nation in 1996 and was the High School Player of the Year. He was good enough to have anchored USA Baseball’s junior national team rotation, helping lead the team to a gold medal at the 1995 World Junior Championships in Fenway Park in Boston. In ’96, he was drafted seventh overall by the Giants, then tried to be the lone high school player on the all-college Olympic squad.

He didn’t pitch well enough to make the roster, though, so he played on the junior national team again, which included a trip to Cuba. “When I got back,” he recalls, I found out I was a free agent.”

White’s agent, Scott Boras (no need to say he was adviser now, is there?), had found a loophole in Major League Baseball’s draft rules. Several clubs had failed to offer their draft picks a contract within 15 days of the draft, as stipulated in Rule 4(E), and Boras argued the failure to do so made them free agents. After a summer of study and delay—during which three potential free agents signed with the teams that drafted them anyway—White and three other players were declared free agents.

It was top amateur, American talent on the open market, with two expansion teams, Tampa Bay and Arizona, with no major league payroll and two years before they had to field big league teams. It was almost too perfect. After the Diamondbacks signed San Diego State first baseman Travis Lee for $10 million, the then-Devil Rays ponied up $10.2 million to sew up White.

The peak of his career came in 2000, when White went 10-8, 3.54 in 155 innings, finishing with six solid starts at Triple-A Durham. He then went to Australia as part of the U.S. Olympic baseball team, though the first shoulder injury of his career (he wound up with three shoulder surgeries) kept him off the gold-medal-winning club.

The shoulder surgeries ended his playing career but didn’t douse his passion for the game. White instead has moved into coaching, including more stints with USA Baseball. There, working with the 16- and 18-and-under squads, he helped coach many of the top players available for the 2010 and 2011 drafts.

White has seen impact talent throughout his career, from 1995 junior team peers like Brad Wilkerson to fellow Tampa Bay farmhands like Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton and Jeff Niemann. Jameson Taillon, the 6-foot-7 Texas righthander who ranks as the top pitcher available in the 2010 draft, impressed him throughout last summer with the 18-and-under team.

But no one has stood out for White like Bryce Harper did.

“I saw him the first time in 2008 at the trials for the 16-and-under team,” White recalled. “Watching his first batting practice, I was just astounded. It was one of the most powerful, violent swings I’d ever seen. I’ve just never seen anything like that.”

White, like most everyone else who sees Harper play, can’t help but be impressed by his tools—Harper’s premium arm strength and top-of-the-charts raw power, and his athletic ability and strength. He also provides insight into Harper’s makeup, having seen him all summer, having seen him have to be a teammate on a team trying to win a championship in difficult circumstances as a group of teenagers in Venezuela.

He’s been through many of the experiences Harper has faced, and he’s come away impressed by Harper’s makeup as well as his tools.

“He goes about playing the right way,” White said. “At times he gets caught up a little in the attention. In my career, I went through some of the same thing, though I didn’t face close to the attention he has gone through. It really puts him in the spotlight, and at times he tries to show off his talents, to meet peoples’ expectations.

“But when he slows down and just plays, it just comes very easy to him. When he just plays, he’s lights out. He doesn’t have to reach back for anything extra. His regular speed is pretty extraordinary.”

Harper told BA’s Nathan Rode that he was good with leaving high school after his sophomore year in part because he didn’t have many friends at Las Vegas High, because he was so focused on baseball. White said being a teammate and a friend was part of the summer experience for Harper, something he had to learn but something he was able to do.

“USA Baseball never just takes a guy just because of talent; you have to be able to represent your country,” White said. “Traveling to Venezuela and playing in those conditions is not something too many kids can handle. My biggest goal in Venezuela was to help him with a lot of that.

“I wanted to help him fit in and be one of the kids. At one point I did talk to him, kind of talk to him about playing the game at the right speed and not feel like he had to show off all the time. Hopefully, some of the things set in. I wanted him to think of himself as one of the guys, and he did that with that club and helped win a championship.”

Whether or not Harper wins championships in pro ball is anyone’s guess. But White sees a long career ahead of Harper, even though he knows more than anyone some of the obstacles in his path.

“I think his talent should come to the top,” White said. “How many teenagers get under that kind of microscope? It’s hard to deal with, I’m sure, but his makeup for me is high quality. He’ll grow and learn from this experience of going through the draft.”

For White, he’s trying to help Georgia Tech win a championship in 2010 as a coach, and trying to learn from Yellow Jackets coach Danny Hall about how to run a program. He had to watch from afar as his old organization, the rechristened Rays, won an American League championship in 2008, but is glad to see familiar faces and former teammates like Dan Wheeler and his roommate in his final rehab season, Jeff Niemann, be a part of success in Tampa Bay.

“I’m very proud of the organization turning things around,” he said. “It was so frustrating as a player at the time I was there, because guys put in a lot of time and effort to where we thought we could have a contending club, but it just was not happening. Now to see where they are, it’s impressive the way they’ve put that team together.”