Eight years ago today, Bryce Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16. I remember taking that issue to the summer job I had right after high school to read over lunch. 18 at the time, I couldn't believe how good Harper was and was infatuated with his potential. On this week's podcast, Paul and I revisited Tom Verducci's feature on Harper in the the June 8, 2009 issue.
Golf has Tiger Woods, basketball has LeBron James, hockey had Wayne Gretzky and military history had Alexander the Great, but baseball, like jazz, is a discipline that does not easily engender prodigies.
Verducci has a way with words. He adds that the last player to hit a homer before turning 19 was Robin Yount (1974 Brewers). The hope was that Bryce might be the type of player to break this streak, but his first long ball in the majors didn't come until May 14, 2012 (19 years, 7 months).
"If Bryce were in the draft this year," says one American League scouting director, "he'd go in the top five picks." "Wrong," says a National League amateur scouting director. "He'd go higher than that." Higher than top five? "Top two," he says. "And that's taking nothing away from the guys in the draft this year. He's honestly that good. He is a once-in-a-generation talent."
On the surface, this seems like a big deal. A 16-year-old with the second pick? Crazy! However, it's important to remember the top 10 of the 2009 draft was terrible. Check out these studs after Strasburg: Dustin Ackley, Donavan Tate, Tony Sanchez, Matt Hobgood, Zack Wheeler, Mike Minor, Mike Leake, Jacob Turner, and Drew Storen. In a redraft where Harper is available, he would still go second. In front of Strasburg, but behind Mike Trout—the 25th pick. Harper's 2010 draft was loaded with guys like Manny Machado, Matt Harvey, Chris Sale, and Noah Syndergaard.
When asked about his goals as a ballplayer, Harper replies, "Be in the Hall of Fame, definitely. Play in Yankee Stadium. Play in the pinstripes. Be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived. I can't wait."
Bryce Harper will be hitting third and playing right field for the Yankees on Opening Day 2019. There, I said it. And he will only be 26.
"I'm going to try to rip your head off. That's just the way I am. Old school. If I could play for a guy like Lou Piniella or Larry Bowa, I'd love it."
This is by far the weirdest quote in the article, especially in regards to Bowa. He managed the Phillies from 2001-2004. On June 8, 2009, Bowa was the third base coach for the Dodgers. It's also interesting that he saw himself as "old school," but most old school fans today hate him.
To further sharpen Bryce's hand-eye coordination, Ron (his dad) pitched him sunflower seeds, bottle tops, dried red beans—just about anything small that didn't move straight.
This is a great idea. Hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition play such an important role in a hitter's success. I will try it with my children and any kids I get to coach.
I'll end with my favorite young Bryce story. I still remember reading it in the break room in Princeton, IL.
Bryce, then 12, was playing in a tournament in Alabama on a field with 250-foot fences. It was a trip Sheri (his mom) could not attend. When Bryce phoned home, Sheri asked him how he'd done. "I did all right," he replied.
Later one of the coaches called Sheri. "Did he say anything to you?" the coach asked.
"No, not really," Sheri said.
"He went 12 for 12. Eleven home runs and a double."
"That,"Sheri says, "is when I knew."