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02/04/10 12:13 AM ET
All eyes on phenom Harper in desert
Catcher, 17, goes 2-for-6 in junior-college action
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
MESA, Ariz. -- Since the drum roll will be building for four months, it has to start as a low rumble, and it will never be more muted than it is on this cool late afternoon. A few dozen bodies litter the seats -- more than half of them holding stopwatches and notebooks -- not nearly enough to drown out the sound of line drives being sprayed out of the batting cage. Fifty young men in yellow and white uniform jerseys cavort on the field, but only one of them appears to move around under a perceived perpetual spotlight. Maybe when Beyonce sang "Standing in the light of your halo ...," she was thinking of Bryce Harper. The precocious baseball talent and the rest of the College of Southern Nevada team is warming up for a non-conference game against GateWay Community College in HoHoKam Park, the Chicago Cubs' Cactus League base. The spring home of baseball's most lovable losers is hosting baseball's most lauded teenager, one who a little more than a year ago -- at age 16 -- hit the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Measured at 502 feet. Believed to be longer had it not struck a wall. And the 17-year-old dubbed by Sports Illustrated as baseball's "LeBron," a nod to the NBA's King James, is taking his cuts within a few hundreds yards of Le Baron Tax & Accounting. It must be karma. Tim Chambers, the 11th-season baseball coach of Southern Nevada, pushes himself away from the batting cage and trots toward the dugout, beaming. And why not? "We've got a terrific team. Really loaded," he says. "Talent-wise, I've never seen anything like it. It's just sick. So much more than one guy." The Coyotes have always been a junior-college power. They were the 2003 junior college national champions. What they have never before been is No. 1 in the national rankings. Even when they won the Junior College World Series in 2003, they went in No. 13. The Coyotes now are No. 1. And a lot of it is due to the high-profile Harper, who in four months will be on the national stage of the First-Year Player Draft, perhaps in front of MLB Network cameras as the No. 1 overall pick. Now, however, he is in front of the faded seats of HoHoKam, stepping into the batter's box in the first inning to face the Geckos' left-hander. He rips the second pitch off the southpaw's belt buckle, the ball ricocheting to shortstop for an infield single. A few minutes later, taking off for a steal of second, he shows good instincts by never slowing down or sliding as the catcher's throw sails over second. Harper rounds the base without breaking stride and heads to third. In the stands, a scout lowers his stopwatch with the annoyance of someone who will be repeating this routine for the next four months. What can possibly be gained from watching the same player over and over and over again? "This is a unique case," says the scout, understating the situation of someone who finished high school two years early with the specific intent of becoming eligible for the 2010 Draft. "There is a lot to evaluate. "The first thing I've got to decide is, 'Am I watching a high-school junior, or a college freshman?' Projections are a big part of what we do, and that just complicates it all." The scout does not want to be identified. None of them do, and one explains the reason: "It's far too early in the process. We've got four months of this to go, so I don't want to jump on the record with anything." Outside, the parking lot has filled up with people off work. Not many car-poolers in Mesa. The crowd is still sparse, though larger than for a typical GateWay midweek afternoon game. There is little doubt who drew them here. "See that No. 34? He's going to be the first player to go in the Draft," one elderly man says to another. "Yeah, it was on MLB.com today. He hit his first home run the other day. Yeah, I'm looking right at him now," a kid with spiked hair says into his cell phone. Most 17-year-olds do not attract Major League general managers. But there is D-backs GM Josh Byrnes, sitting in the third row behind the plate. "Southern Nevada has a lot of good prospects," Byrnes says, somewhat defensively. "A number of those kids will be drafted." A few yards off, Harper has flipped away his catcher's mask and is doubled over in pain, gripping his left forearm with his right hand. "I don't think he's very happy with his brother now," Byrnes says, smiling. Bryan Harper, a towering left-hander, had short-hopped his kid brother's forearm with a wicked breaking pitch. This is the first time the brothers have formed a battery in competition since two years ago in high school. Bryce has reason to regret it some more in the second, when Bryan again treats his right forearm as a croquet stake. There are no signs held aloft in the stands. No shouts when Bryce Harper steps in for his second at-bat, in the third. Well, except for Ma Harper, sitting high in the stands in a packet of family and friends. "Come on!" she yells. "Hit a line drive! Instead, he lifts a lazy opposite-field fly to left field. The ball parachutes as if smacked with a wet newspaper. The scouts are vigilant about stuff like that. Southern Nevada plays in the West Athletic Conference, one of the few to use wooden bats. "Seeing how he does with that after swinging aluminum in high school is something we're very interested in," a scout says. "That, and how he handles adversity. He hasn't had any yet, and you definitely want to see him have to deal with it before he signs a contract." As the sun sets, it's already obvious this will not be a good night for that adversity test. Bryan Harper is in total control, and the Coyotes start to push across some runs. In the fourth, Bryce takes a called first-pitch strike. His shoulders sag and he shakes a disapproving head at the umpire. "Let's go! We're having some fun, right?" coach Jay Guest, bellowing from the first-base coaching box, reminds him. Harper bounces the next pitch sharply into right for his second single. This actually is impressive: In three at-bats, he has gone up the middle, to left and to right. Off the same left-hander. Evidence of his ability to hit the ball where it is pitched. When the Coyotes take the field in the bottom of the fifth, Bryce is replaced behind the plate by Ryan Scott. Bryan Harper does not take the separation well. As Scott chases an errant warmup pitch, Harper and the plate umpire are suddenly face-to-face, and the pitcher is tossed. The argument apparently was sparked by the umpire's hurry-up order, to which Harper objected as not giving his new catcher suitable time to loosen up. Bryan Harper is livid, easily heard amid the thin crowd. "You gotta be kidding me! I didn't touch you!" Bryce Harper, now at third base, is pulled away from the fracas by teammates. Others nudge Bryan Harper off the field, and he heads to the first-base dugout, yelling over his right shoulder, "That's so childish!" Minutes later, Bryan Harper appears in the stands to get a long talking-to in an entrance tunnel by Pa Harper. One Harper out, another still in the show. In the sixth, Bryce pops out to the third baseman. He has two at-bats in the eighth, when the Coyotes bat around to rip open the game. On the first, he sends a two-hopper under the third baseman's mitt properly ruled an error. On the second, he produces his hardest-hit ball by far, pulling a laser liner that never rises more than two feet off the ground, but settles into the first baseman's mitt for an out. For the undefeated Southern Nevada Coyotes, a 12-0 victory called by mercy rules after eight innings. For their marquee player, a quiet 2-for-6. You sense he had better enjoy the quiet, for it will get real loud, real soon.