Keeping Score

Bryce Harper: Baseball’s LeBron James — or Its Ryan Leaf?

A phenom from Las Vegas, only 18, is a budding baseball legend. Why Bryce Harper could be the next big thing -- or flameout

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Harper, No. 34, center, of the Hagerstown Suns, on April 15, 2011

Our sports prodigies — those phenoms touted to be the next Michael Jordan, Willie Mays, Joe Montana or whoever — often fail, spectacularly. In the 1980s, Todd Marinovich’s father engineered his son to be the second coming of Montana. After a brief NFL career, Marinovich struggled with drug problems. Jennifer Capriati turned pro when she was just 14. Yes, she won three Grand Slam titles, but she fought depression and addiction and fell victim to burnout. The New York Yankees, at the time a pitching-starved franchise in the doldrums, took Brien Taylor with the first pick of the 1991 draft. He cost the Yankees $1.55 million, and what did they get in return? Taylor, who hurt his shoulder in a brawl, never threw a pitch in the big leagues.

So when our athletes actually do live up to the ridiculous hype surrounding them, we tend to get hooked. We’re grateful that all those articles we read about their inevitable greatness were worth the time. All that anticipation we felt as they made their way through the ranks was warranted. Tiger Woods struck golf balls as a 2-year-old on the Mike Douglas Show; by now he’s won 14 major championships. ESPN turned LeBron James’ high school games into nationally televised circuses; he has won two NBA MVP awards, captivated America’s attention (and earned its collective wrath) with his TV spectacle announcing his intention to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, become known as the Decision, and is the most psychoanalyzed superstar around.

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We may not love James or Woods. Just witness all the schadenfreude surrounding Woods’ sex scandal and struggles and James’ fourth-quarter vanishing acts in this year’s NBA finals. But we care enough to yap about them and tune in religiously to their exploits. As a result, their sports reap enormous benefits.

Bryce Harper, the right fielder for the Maryland-based Hagerstown Suns, a single-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, could do the same for baseball. Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated (which shares the same parent company as TIME) two years ago, when he was 16. According to lore, as a schoolboy Harper once hit a 570-ft. (174 m) home run. During a home-run derby while in high school, Harper smacked a 502-ft. (153 m) shot at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. It was the longest home run in the history of the ballpark.

At this point, it is not an exaggeration to say he is the LeBron James of baseball, a gifted freak meeting all expectations, if not exceeding them. Harper left his Las Vegas high school after his sophomore year, opting to pursue a GED so that he could enroll in junior college to play against better competition and accelerate his draft eligibility. At the College of Southern Nevada, he batted .443, with 31 home runs, 98 RBI and 20 stolen bases. The previous school record for home runs was 12. The Nationals took him as the top pick of the 2010 draft.

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With baseball owners’ worst nightmare, superagent Scott Boras, representing him, Harper signed a five-year, $9.9 million contract with the Nationals, a record for a drafted position player. And he’s tearing up the minors. Going into the South Atlantic League All-Star break, Harper was hitting .330 with 14 home runs and 45 RBI. The Nats, who are hovering around .500 — already a major accomplishment for a perennially losing franchise — might be inclined to take things slowly. Washington pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the top pick of the 2009 draft and another phenom showered with lofty hopes, caused a sensation upon making his debut last season, but then he blew out his elbow. He is out until 2012. (Because of their delicate arms, pitchers present more of an injury risk than position players.) So this time, the Nats are going to be careful. The team has indicated that Harper won’t be moving up to D.C. this season.

But once Harper arrives in the capital, he’s sure to shake things up. He is no humble rookie just trying to get along. Far from it. His outspoken personality and cocky behavior have already alienated many baseball elders — and at the same time could attract the attention of more-casual baseball fans. “Bryce Harper Does Another Jerkass Bryce Harper Thing,” read a recent headline on deadspin.com, the irreverent sports website, after Harper blew a kiss to an opposing pitcher during a home-run trot — it was payback for the day before, when another pitcher from the Greensboro Grasshoppers hit Harper. Count Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt among Harper’s critics. “At some point the game itself, the competition on the field, is going to have to figure out a way to police this young man,” Schmidt told ESPN after the kissing incident. “If indeed his manager won’t, the game will end up taking care of it.”

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Before last year’s draft, a few scouts told Baseball Prospectus that Harper had major attitude problems. One said Harper felt entitled. Said a front-office executive: “He’s just a bad, bad guy.” Though it’s unfair to take the words of snippy, anonymous scouts as gospel, they raise some red flags. Harper does, after all, count Ty Cobb and Pete Rose among his idols. These were two guys who played the game ferociously but weren’t exactly admired away from the diamond. Harper told reporters this week, “I don’t really care what people say about me. Everyone can write what they want and think what they want to think.”

In his final junior-college game, Harper was ejected for showing up the umpire: after the ump called him out on a third strike, Harper drew a line in the dirt with his bat as if to say, This is the strike zone, you idiot. Harper was suspended for a playoff game, which Southern Nevada lost, ending its season.

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At this point, there’s a consensus that Harper is cocky and can come across as arrogant. To which I say, Terrific! Baseball is missing a fresh face, especially a slugging position player who’s worth getting riled up about. Just look at the home-run leaderboard. In the American League, José Bautista is on top with 22 home runs. Bautista is a nice guy who plays up in Toronto. There’s no buzz there. Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, and Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees, who each have 21 home runs, trail Bautista. There’s no Reggie Jackson, who famously noted that he’s a “straw that stirs the drink,” in that bunch. Prince Fielder (Milwaukee Brewers) and Matt Kemp (Los Angeles Dodgers) lead the National League. No one is giving these guys a sliver of the attention we heap upon James.

Two fresh characters in today’s game — Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson of the world champion San Francisco Giants — are pitchers, and it’s hard to get attached to guys who step into the game every fifth day or so (or in the case of a closer like Wilson, pitches an inning here and there). Pitching, in fact, is really the dominant theme in baseball this season, with hitters reverting to their pre-steroid-era performances. The Philadelphia Phillies, with their sterling starting rotation that features Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, have the best record in the game. None of these players are huge personalities.

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So here’s hoping Harper makes his big-league debut soon and starts smacking 500-ft. (152 m) home runs while blowing an occasional kiss. When Harper comes to the plate, maybe you’ll be forced to skip the bathroom break, because you don’t want to miss him at bat. Washington is the ideal market for Harper. Our nation’s capital has been starving for a winner for 87 years. And if any place feeds off ego, arrogance and hubris, it’s Washington.

And if any sport needs a stir right now, it’s our national pastime.

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