EVEN A DECADE AGO BRYCE HARPER WAS FULLY FORMED
TEN YEARS AGO I was hearing through various baseball sources about a high school sophomore in Las Vegas who was hitting home runs measured at 502 feet (off the back wall of Tropicana Field) and as far as 570 feet (at his high school field). I packed a healthy amount of skepticism and worry (we just don't write about many 16-year-olds in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, so this could be too much for someone so young), and headed to Las Vegas to see Bryce Harper.
I watched him play a high school game. Harper swung so violently against high school pitching that he must have hit three or four towering foul home runs that seemed to disappear out of sight. The bat speed was scary—as a high school freshman Harper had top 10% major league bat speed.
O.K., but it's high school baseball, I thought. It was only when we went to dinner that night—me, Bryce and his mom and dad, Sheri and Ron—that I knew this kid was more than just another high school phenom with an early growth spurt. It was clear he was raised in a loving family. Bryce was polite and supremely confident.
I was blown away by his love for baseball—he talked about the Mickey Mantle poster above his bed and peppered me with questions about Derek Jeter and the Yankees. I also was blown away by how comfortable he was in his own skin at age 16.
That was the night I stopped worrying about whether an SI feature might put too much pressure on a 16-year-old. I had no idea it would be a cover story, but even then I knew Bryce could handle it. The kid had been playing 125 travel ball games a year for seven years. Every game he had ever played—every at bat he took—was a referendum on whether he was as good as the hype.
I wrote that Bryce could be the LeBron James of baseball; of course in a world in which we've lost nuance and context, many people took that the wrong way. I wasn't saying Harper would be as great in his sport as James was in his. The point was that Harper, like James, was incredibly advanced as a high school athlete. Baseball, which is so skill specific that it demands thousands of repetitions, just does not lend itself to such prodigies. The greatest players must start in the minors, and many of them struggle.
But in Harper, who was so well formed as a player and person, I saw a new world emerging in baseball. If this kid is playing 125 games a year, including many of them against elite national competition, not just local rec ball, and he's doing it in the spotlight, then why can't he shorten baseball's long learning curve? And like James, Harper possessed a physical maturity as a high school athlete where he looked like a big leaguer.
Harper made it to the majors at 19 and excelled immediately. He and Mike Trout opened the gates to this new era in baseball, one that blew up the notion that a player needed 500 games of minor league seasoning.
You read the quotes from Bryce Harper in 2009 and you might have written him off as a cocky kid. But I saw the conviction and aspiration in his bearing and I thought, This kid loves the game, he wants to be great, and he absolutely owns it. It's still true today.